A precarious professor's view as college strike continues

Among the disputes that led thousands of Ontario college professors to strike is precarious work – hiring professors on short-term contracts that leave them wondering every semester if they’ll have work, and how much, the next.

'I never believed that I would be in precarious work at 40,' says Mohawk communications professor

Rebecca Costie teaches communications at Mohawk College. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

As a contract worker, Rebecca Costie, 40, has been told she can't qualify for a mortgage.

A car loan? She hasn't even applied – she hopes to be able to continue to borrow a car from her parents for a while to come.

"There are a lot of people like me," Costie said while walking the picket line on Fennell Avenue on Thursday, "having to make decisions about whether they can start a family."  

"I never believed that I would be in precarious work at 40."

Sound like a college professor?

Costie teaches communication courses in the liberal arts program at Mohawk College. She has been teaching at Mohawk since 2008, and has spent the end of many semesters wondering if she'd be back the next.

'Often there would be a verbal assurance'

September began Costie's first semester back after taking two years off after the birth of her daughter.

"Often there would be a verbal assurance" that she'd have work, she said, "but for the most part, I am signing contracts the day before we leave for break."

And then, once the semester began, it was not uncommon to have her courses or hours change.

Signs on the picket line draw attention to the short-term and less secure contracts that 70 per cent of faculty members at Mohawk are employed under. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Among the disputes that led thousands of Ontario college professors to strike is precarious work – hiring professors on short-term contracts that leave them wondering every semester if they'll have work, and how much, the next.

The Ontario Labour Relations Board has scheduled a vote next week for college faculty who have been on strike since Oct. 16. About 500,000 students have been affected during the four week strike.

The professors will vote on what their college employers have called a final contract offer, after talks to end the weeks-long labour disruption broke down Monday.

'I love helping people learn'

In a commentary published in the Hamilton Spectator, Mohawk president Ron McKerlie said this week that the province's colleges have offered to set up a "provincial task force to address … concerns with precarious employment."

Geoff Ondercin Bourne is president of the Ontario Public Sectors Employee Union local chapter 240 that represents Mohawk. He said the precarious work issue has been a point of agreement with people in other sectors.

"No one supports us if we go out and say we want more money (in salary raises)," he said. "The precarity issue has solidified support from other sectors."

Geoff Ondercin Bourne is president of Local 240, the OPSEU chapter that represents Mohawk College faculty. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Before the strike, Costie was teaching two sessions of an introductory level English course. That was a contract for eight hours, which Costie estimated translated to 32 hours of work per week when grading and preparation was factored in.

Costie declined to say how much she earns when working and when striking, but she said that the strike pay from the union and a top-up from her local, doesn't leave her poorer.

"I am not actually in a worse situation (on strike)," she said. "That should tell you something."

For Costie, she hopes the public picture of the professors that are striking includes people like her, who aren't making six figures and driving Lexuses but rather trying to do something they love and find some security.

"I love learning; I love helping people learn," she said. "It requires a lot of time and effort to do that."

About the Author

Kelly Bennett

Reporter, CBC Hamilton

Kelly Bennett is an award-winning reporter who lives in Hamilton. She grew up in Victoria and covered economics and arts as an investigative reporter in San Diego. She loves digging into great stories, hiking and playing the violin. Drop her a line anytime at kelly.bennett@cbc.ca.

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