Equity Includes Working Conditions

Miriam Novick, Steward, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Sciences and Innovative Learning


Roughly six months into the pandemic, a moment regularly called “unprecedented” has begun to stretch and settle into predictable shapes. The transition to emergency remote learning has brought change to the surface texture of daily life, but has also further entrenched long-standing dynamics around workload, decision-making, intellectual property and academic freedom, and equal pay for equal work. A case in point: all work across the college done by partial-load and part-time faculty to transition their teaching material online has taken place under “support staff” contracts.

Compensation (typically inadequate) and expectations have varied across units, but the refusal by management to call this work academic has been a constant. The issue is not the language itself: support staff in our fellow Local 563 do vital work that deserves to be recognized (and compensated) accordingly. The problem here is a question of equity: the work of teaching – whether in the classroom or online, in preparation or in practice – is not different when it is done by two different people just because the college says so.

By refusing to call the work of contract faculty academic, the college insists upon its right to treat – and pay – workers differently for doing identical work (as it already does in the very distinction between contract and full-time pay structures). It denies contract faculty the ability to gain service credits and seniority from this work; it prevents their work from contributing to benefit eligibility. For faculty who have made the difficult decision to refuse inadequate and inequitable contracts, it has meant the loss of income, as well as the stress and anxiety that comes from challenging power structures that can affect future employment. The nature of these contracts also has the convenient effect of removing this work from the academic protections present in our Collective Agreement and from the technical purview of our Local, which are particularly important at a challenging moment for our other academic freedoms and rights.

Calling this a problem of equity is deliberate: we’ve heard this word frequently over the last several weeks, and indeed Humber’s new Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion statement takes the liberty of self-declaring our status as “leaders” in this area. These messages talk about values, which are important; they are less likely to make clear statements about what values look like in practice. An honest examination of working conditions across the college is one place to start.

These institutional messages about equity have most recently emerged in the context of anti-Black racism across North America and ongoing organized collective efforts to demand responses to its particular history and effects (as we are given more evidence such institutions will not hold themselves accountable). The Local’s June 3 Statement of Solidarity on Anti-Black Racism emphasized previous demands following the anti-Black graffiti incident at the Lakeshore campus, including revised hiring practices, which must unequivocally mean hiring Black faculty in permanent positions. The December 9, 2019 letter signed by many members of the Humber community also stresses the importance of hiring African/Caribbean/Black counselling staff, and expanding support for existing resources like The BASE. An explicit commitment to addressing anti-Black racism, especially by developing a faculty whose composition resembles the diversity of our students, is foundational to any meaningful equity work (which also includes hiring and retaining Indigenous faculty and staff, among other necessary steps).

In order for such essential initiatives to begin to be effective measures against systemic racism, we must also address the unjust arrangements of work within the college. This requires asking clear and direct questions: how are different types of work allocated, to whom, and under what conditions? We know that precarious labour – work that is insecure and unstable, underpaid, without meaningful or consistent benefits – affects all workers. However, some are over-represented: precarious workers are more likely to be racialized, more likely to be migrants, more likely to be women.

We can see this on our own campus every day, often reflected on the departmental level in the demographic breakdown between full-time and contract faculty. We can also see this intersection between precarity and inequity reflected in who cleans the halls, sells the coffee, staffs the cafeteria. We see it in even sharper relief now in who is expected to return to work and with what protections, and whose labour disappears in sentences without subjects, promising “Enhanced cleaning and sanitization of equipment, tools and spaces“ (by whom? For what wages, and with what protections, like paid sick time?).

Most starkly, we see the fullest expression of racialized economic inequality and labour conditions in the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on working class and poor communities in Toronto and Ontario, including Etobicoke, and particularly on Black workers and other workers of colour, including migrant workers.

So far, throughout this institutional EDI messaging, we have been less likely to hear the relatively simple but powerful commitments that would begin to substantively address the relationship between equity and labour at these intersections, like equal pay for equal work, robust health benefits and paid sick time for every single worker, meaningful job security, or college-wide living wage guarantees for all faculty and staff who work on (or, now, “on”) campus.

The continued reliance on an ever-expanding pool of contract workers at our college (in and outside both our Locals) and beyond is fundamentally inequitable; these support staff contracts are just one well-lit corner in an attic full of cobwebs. Deepening reliance on precarious labour also makes the entire postsecondary system a driver of instability and inequity in the job markets our students face, along with our broader communities; as this pandemic is illustrating, these inequities also literally make us (unequally) sick.

As we stressed on the picket lines in 2017, the conditions under which faculty and staff do our work cannot be separated from the work itself. Hiring diverse faculty and staff into fundamentally inequitable environments will not suffice. Nor will overlooking existing working conditions for Black, Indigenous, and other racialized faculty and staff across campus, or the ways these conditions impact our students inside and outside the college.

These are longer histories and more complex dynamics than a single contract, department, or employer (or short bulletin writer) can reflect or solve. But building the world we want starts with what is in front of us, with what we can do in our sphere of influence. If the college is serious about its commitment to an equitable, diverse, inclusive community, what better place to start than with immediate, concrete changes to its own labour practices from the ground up?


Posted: August 31, 2020