Riding down the escalator at the University of Toronto’s massive Robarts Library, lecturer Elena Basile talks about the latest contract negotiations at York University, which together with the University of Toronto, is one of her two employers.

"At one union meeting," she says, "someone called the university the knowledge factory — where we punch in grades." She has her own metaphor. Universities, Basile says, are becoming the "Walmart of the situation," hiring professors like her to teach undergraduate courses with little security while offering salaries that put much of their teaching faculty barely above the poverty line.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers estimates that one out of three university professors are on temporary or part-time contracts. The phenomenon of part-time precarious work in academic settings is changing what it means to be a professor, as a profession once considered be a ticket to a middle or even upper-middle class income is rapidly becoming low wage, precarious work.  At York University, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents contract faculty, estimates that 43 per cent of undergraduate courses are now taught by non-tenured contract faculty like Basile.  

After ten years of teaching at Canada’s two largest universities, Basile calculates her average income per year at anywhere from $25,000 to $30,000. This past year brought a "bonanza", says Basile.  Along with two courses in the fall and another two in the winter, Basile landed another in the summer, putting her in the $50,000 range for the first time ever.

Along with most of her colleagues, Basile voted to give her CUPE bargaining units at both the University of Toronto and York a strike mandate.  The unit representing non-tenured faculty like Basile at U of T has sent a tentative agreement to a ratification vote.  "A ‘yes’ is not a foregone conclusion," says Basile.  "There was lots of anger and a couple of really tense moments when people broke down crying," says Basile, at a meeting with her CUPE bargaining unit to discuss the union’s tentative agreement with U of T.

Meanwhile, talks at York University have ended with a strike, the fourth in less than a decade.  

Still, Basile counts herself lucky.  Coming from Italy, she did her own undergraduate studies at the Università di Bologna, a publicly-funded university. Unlike many of her Canadian-born colleagues, Basile doesn’t have a student debt load.

But the stress of not knowing what lies ahead from one academic year to another takes a toll, both mental and physical. Basile has type 1 or juvenile diabetes, a condition diagnosed only two years ago, brought on she suspects by the precarious work.

But there are still other blessings to count.  With a five-year-old daughter, Basile is grateful that her partner has a fulltime job — the only reason she says she can afford to keep teaching in a field where most of her work goes unrecognized and unpaid.

As a professor in sexual diversity studies and literature, Basileès areas of research include psychoanalysis and literature as well as queer theory and contemporary experimental poetry and translation. But Basile counts her greatest achievements as the moments in the classroom when she sees something in her students’ eyes or in their papers that shows they’ve arrived at a new insight into the role of desire or the role of their bodies in the world they occupy.

"It might be awakened already," says Basile. "But I’m feeding it, nurturing it.  But it also ends up nurturing me."

She pauses.

"I don’t need to be paid $100,000 for that," she laughs. "I do need to be paid enough to have a sense that I can live on this."