Job Security & Fairness for Sessional Instructors

Sessional instructors are a critical part of the teaching team at SFU. Improving the rights of sessionals is fundamental to sustaining an education system based on the principles of academic freedom and teaching excellence.

Job security through seniority

What rights do you have if exercising them costs you your job? TSSU fields regular conversations with sessionals who are being mistreated, often in violation of the Collective Agreement, and unable to bring their complaints forward because asserting their rights may result in not being rehired.

TSSU wants a Sessional seniority system that recognizes and values those who successfully teach for SFU. Some TSSU Sessionals have taught courses dozens of times and have been fixtures in their departments for decades. Attaining recognition that Sessionals perform valuable work will benefit future teachers at SFU, just as the work of unions at other Universities will benefit TSSU members who may go there to work.

Universities recognize Faculty service with an advancement system toward tenure. In recent years, numbers of teaching staff without tenure or job security has been on the rise, often referred to as adjunct labour — at SFU they are called Sessionals. In the US, 70% of all teaching in universities is done by adjuncts. Sessionals at SFU currently teach an average of 25% of courses, and now form a critical part of the teaching team at SFU. The expanding use of adjunct sessionals without the protection of academic freedom demonstrates a need to improve seniority rights for Sessionals here, just as our fellow Unions are doing elsewhere.

Unions at both York University and the University of Toronto have engaged in struggles to improve seniority rights for their Sessional Instructors. Both of these Unions have real job security and a pathway to permanent jobs for their sessional instructors. Seniority ensures that sessionals are able to exercise their labour rights effectively and it also forms the basis from which all other rights, such as academic freedom, arise.

What are the bargaining issues?

TSSU has proposed a seniority system where successful Sessionals accrue seniority with teaching service, with a percentage of positions reserved for graduates (though graduates can also be awarded other positions).

The employer has proposed taking away all rights of first refusal (ROFR) from current Sessionals who have earned it. The proposal only allows “graduate students actively engaged in coursework at SFU” to attain and use ROFR and perversely this earned right to teach will disappear as soon as you graduate. This concession would eliminate the current limited rights of first refusal, while offering no benefit to graduate students. This proposal does not give Sessional work to graduates, and actually allows the employer free reign to “fire” any successful sessional(Graduate student or not), simply by not offering another appointment.

The following are problems with this proposal:

  1. 1) It removes the very limited job security Sessionals currently have
  2. Graduate students can already earn priority and ROFR! This proposal would limit the application of ROFR to Graduates “actively doing coursework” and stop them from using it to access work upon graduation.
  3. Sessional work is more time consuming, and therefore pays less per hour than TA work. While pressure builds to decrease completion times, graduates doing more sessional work to support themselves makes little sense. We would expect departments to tell those with Sessional work that they should not expect to receive TA appointments, because they could access Sessional appointments.
  4. It moves away from creating enough security for Sessionals to file a grievance to assert their rights. Seniority rights mean members can feel secure and able to step forward. As Sessionals are already unable to stand up for themselves, this proposal would allow the employer to worsen working conditions and justify their actions by the lack of complaints from those precarious workers.
  5. There are departments where graduate students need additional access to work. Across the university, almost 25% of TA work goes outside the graduate population. TSSU has proposed a solution that delivers work and funding to graduates through TA work. The Employers proposal does not deliver any additional support to the graduate population.

SFU’s proposal cynically asks TSSU members to give up the limited rights we have now, driving experienced teachers to other places where seniority rights have been won. We know our members understand this need to pay it forward – that is why for over 35 years, TSSU members have fought for rights which serve the interests of the institution and its purposes by supporting graduate work and good teaching.

The current limited Rights of first refusal (ROFR) for Sessional Instructors

Sessional instructors currently have a limited right of return called the right of first refusal. This right is very problematic and TSSU believes it needs to be replaced by a more comprehensive seniority system. First, a Sessional must teach as a “Sessional Instructor” for either three consecutive semesters, or for five semesters in three years. In addition, one must teach an identical course three times in order to earn this right. After those two criteria are satisfied, the next three times that identical course is to be taught by a Sessional, that Sessional must be offered the course, for first refusal. After those three offers, the Sessional must begin the process from the beginning to re-earn the right.

Sessional positions as a career path

Many great instructors find sessional positions are not a career path towards a permanent teaching job. University Administrators realize that they can hire sessionals at lower rates with minimal benefits and save significant money in their budgets. TSSU wants to ensure that successful sessional instructors have a ladder to a permanent teaching position.

This career path is the future for many current PhD students and securing seniority rights ensures current PhD students get the same opportunity for permanent work as previous generations. Without a ladder out of sessional work, current instructors will be stuck in an endless loop of precarious work without ever being able to belong to the university community. TSSU also recognizes that in some disciplines the ladder into sessional work starts during graduate studies.

Sessional instructors are dedicated teachers, often winning teaching awards, and valuing their work strengthens teaching excellence at SFU. These instructors should not be stuck in a system where they have to reapply for their careers every 4 months.

Let’s Stand Up Together!

Over the past 35 years, TSSU members have fought for rights that support the core principles of education at SFU. At times, our members have also had to defend the interests of the institution, our members, and the public when these have been threatened. Today we must defend the rights of Sessionals by standing together. We must defend against a proposal that threatens SFU’s founding principles of academic freedom and teaching excellence by further eroding the job security instructors need to assert their rights. We must stop this proposal that weakens our members’ fair access to decent work by taking away the existing rights of return from all current sessionals, and, upon graduation, eliminates any right to work graduates have earned. Finally, we must make it clear that this proposal doesn’t deliver any additional funding to the graduate population and cynically asks TSSU members to give up the limited rights we have now. A better future is possible. We need to collectively say YES to earned job security for successful teachers.

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