March 20, 2018
To Convert or Not To Convert, That is the Question: The CUPE 3903 Strike and Precarious Academic Labour
A Discussion Paper
Lykke de la Cour
Department of Social Science
In the on-going labour dispute at York University, the administration insists that its offer to CUPE 3903 contract faculty adequately addresses the problem of precarious academic employment at York. The employer has offered two tenure-track conversions plus six Special Renewable Contracts (SRCs) per year, for a total of 24 appointments to positions within the York University Faculty Association (YUFA) over the next three years.
York’s administration maintains that this proposal is not concessionary, that it effectively addresses the concerns of contract faculty with respect to employment stabilization, and that their offer strikes “the right balance” in terms of meeting both the needs of contractualized faculty and the academic needs of faculties and departments. According York’s President, Rhonda Lenton, CUPE 3903’s Conversion Program is “unprecedented” in the university sector and, thus, the union should be more “reasonable” in its demands by adhering to “norms” in the post-secondary institutions in the province and within CUPE 3903 Unit 2’s “own history.” 
In what follows, I lay out the history of the CUPE 3903 Unit 2Conversion Program, including an overview of the number of contract faculty converted to tenure-stream positions over the thirty-year existence of this program. These figures demonstrate that the university’s current offer is indeed concessionary. This history provokes, however, questions about whether or not the the concerns and the needs of contract faculty, the university and York undergraduate and graduate students are really met even when CUPE 3903 Unit 2 has been able to successfully negotiate higher numbers of conversion appointments. I conclude by arguing that thirty years after the creation of CUPE 3903’s exemplary conversion program and after four major strikes by CUPE 3903 from 2000 to 2018, where employment precarity figured centrally in each labour dispute, this is the moment for York’s administration to start ‘doin’ the right thing’ and meaningfully deal with the problem of precarious academic labour at our university.
A History of the Conversion Program at York University
This spring marks the 30th anniversary of the first appointments made under CUPE 3903 Unit 2’s Affirmative Action Program, more commonly known as the CUPE 3903 Conversion Program.
On July 1, 1988, eight long-service Unit 2 members – 6 women and 2 men – became the first contract faculty at York University to be appointed to probationary tenure-track positions under the provisions of the Affirmative Action Program. Negotiated in 1987, this program was established in response to demands for greater job security raised by contract faculty and graduate students in two major strikes at York, in 1981 and 1984. In these strikes, contract faculty advanced proposals for transferring contractualized academic instructors with ten years or more seniority into probationary tenure-stream positions. Framed as shifting “part-time” faculty into “full-time” status, the reality then (as it is now) was that much of the work in Unit 2t was neither part-time nor temporary. Many contract faculty had taught for decades at a level minimally equivalent to (but more often significantly higher than) the teaching workloads of “full-time” tenured faculty, and did so over twelve months of the year through combinations of back-to-back four- and eight-month contracts, contracts which they had to apply for each and every year.
CUEW picketers at Glendon. Source: Pro tem 30 Oct. 1981.
The end result of the two 1980s strikes was the creation of the Conversion Program, enshrined in Article 23 “Affirmative Action Program” in the CUPE 3903 Unit 2 collective agreement. The fundamental principle of this program is embedded in the preamble to Article 23:
In recognition of the substantial contribution to the University community made by long-term employees, and of the obstacles that have faced these employees in their attempts to find academic employment, the parties have agreed to establish an Affirmative Action Program … The parties agree that this Program is an ongoing commitment .
To be in the AA Pool, a Unit 2 member has to have taught at least 5 years within the bargaining unit, have at least one course directorship in each of the preceding four years prior to their entry into the pool, and have had a total of 12 course directorships (or equivalencies) over those four years – essentially an average corresponding to a teaching workload of 3.0 courses per year. Employment equity provisions were subsequently added to the conversion program language, permitting a slight reconfiguration in the distribution of course directorships and equivalencies over the four years for employment equity groups. In the mid-2000s, a requirement was added that one of the recommendations for a conversion appointment also had to be from one or more of the designated employment equity groups, which are aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities, visible minorities, and women. LGBTQ was also added to this list as a result of CUPE 3903’s 2015 month-long strike and settlement. During the 2015round of bargaining, the Unit 2 bargaining team also managed to successfully negotiate the targeted number of employment equity appointments up to six.
Under the Conversion program, the administration provides “incentive” funding to hiring units that support an AA pool member for a tenure-stream position within their unit. This funding essentially covers the differential between the starting salary of a tenure stream appointment and the cost of three full course directorships. Unit 2 members in the AA pool can apply either through departments (normally those they regularly teach in) or directly to the Dean/Principal who then consults with relevant hiring units to determine if there is support for the application. Hiring units can also ask for a “special search” of eligible contract faculty in the AA pool to support for conversion to their unit.
Regardless of the process used, conversion candidates are required to assemble an application file that is reviewed and ranked by the relevant hiring units and Faculty Deans, and then submitted to the Vice-President Academic and Provost for appraisal and selection. As York’s administration considers conversions to be “strategic” appointments, the university’s hiring priorities, the quality of the candidate, and the “fit between the two” are supposed to guide the VP Academic’s decision-making in selecting who should be converted. What also, of course, figures centrally in decision-making around conversions is the number of conversions that CUPE 3903 Unit 2 manages to negotiate in each round of bargaining.
Conversions and the “Numbers” Game
In the period immediately following the negotiation of the Conversion Program, York’s administration appears to have lived up to its commitment over the first four years of the program’s inception, the period from 1987 to 1991, and converted twenty-six contract faculty to probationary tenure-stream positions. These appointments spanned a range of departments, such as Humanities, Political Science, History, English, Sociology, Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics, Social Science, the Center for Academic Writing, and Psychology.
Starting in 1992, however, the number of conversion appointments to probationary tenure stream positions began to plummet, largely displaced from 1993 to 2001 by a much weaker CLA Conversion Program that simply shifted a limited number of Unit 2 contract faculty from one form of precarious contractualized teaching to another, under the guise of potentially converting Unit 2 faculty from these CLA appointments. As Table 1 illustrates, the number of direct conversion appointments to tenure stream positions for Unit 2 fell to one or two per year over the next ten years, with three or four appointments occasionally in a given year. From 1993 to 2001, the university “converted” twelve Unit 2 contract faculty to CLA positions and, of these twelve, six were eventually converted from their CLAs to probationary tenure stream positions. So, in sum, while CUPE 3903 conversion appointments averaged 6.5 per year from 1988 to 1991, from 1992 to 2001 this average plunged to 2.9 per year. However, even at its lowest point, from 1992-2001, the number of CUPE 3903 conversions averaged more than what the administration is currently offering.
Table 1: Conversion Appointments 1988-2017
(These figures include only conversions to probationary tenure-stream positions and not the CLA conversions from 1992-2001)
Table 1 shows the ebb and flow of the number of conversion appointments at the university over the history of the program, with higher numbers periodically negotiated for 2002, 2003, and 2006 to 2008. 2015 to 2017 represents the highest number achieved for Unit 2 over a three year collective agreement. The 2015 CUPE 3903 Unit 2 settlement, however, included for the first time specifications around conversion numbers by stream, i.e. to either Professorial or Alternate Stream positions. A minimum of six recommendations out of the total twenty-four conversions negotiated for 2015-17 were to be to the professorial stream. In the end, eight Unit 2 members were converted by the university to professorial positions and sixteen to the Alternate Stream over the three year period.
Prior to Unit 2’s 2015 settlement, Alternate Stream conversions were individually negotiated by Unit 2 members during their application for conversion, provided they taught in one of the cognate units where Alternate Stream ranks were permitted under the terms of the YUFA collective agreement. Up until 2012, these units/departments included: Nursing, Kinesiology and Health Science in the Faculty of Health, the Faculty of Science and Engineering, the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics, the Center for Academic Writing, the Department of French Studies in LAPS, and the French Language Training Programme at Glendon. In 2012, YUFA’s negotiated settlement expanded the Alternate Stream to all departments at the university. A number of these departments, however, have subsequently refused to accept Alternate Stream appointments within their units, while some departments agreed to accept Alternate Stream faculty only with respect to CUPE 3903 conversions.
Over the thirty years that the conversion program has operated at York, a total of 124 CUPE 3903 Unit 2 members have been converted to probationary tenure stream positions, 98 to the professorial stream, and 10 to the pre-2012 and 16 to the post-2012 Alternate Stream. This translates into an average of 4.1 conversions per year. Of these conversions, 55% were women and 45% men. Fifteen percent of the initial 1988-1991 conversion cohort were racialized contractual faculty, a majority of who were women. After 1990 and up to 2003, no racialized faculty appear to have been converted. But from 2003 onwards, racialized faculty constituted eight percent overall of all conversion appointments, most of these conversion candidates were black males and Asian women. From the available data on conversions from 1988 to 2017, it is impossible to assess how many (or if any) conversions involved Indigenous, disabled or LGBTQ contract faculty.
York contract faculty who are converted to either a Professorial or an Alternate Stream position must meet the bar for Tenure and Promotion (as set out by Senate, Hiring Unit, and YUFA documents) like all other regular hires. Only two faculty appointed through the conversion program, one in the late 1980s and the other in the early 2000s, failed to obtain tenure. Outside of the recent conversions who are currently going through the T&P process, the remainder of contract faculty appointed through the conversion process (roughly just under 100) have successfully met the criteria for tenure and promotion and many have gone on to have quite illustrious careers at York, academically as well as in terms of contributing in major ways to service at the university. Faculty appointed through the conversion program have served as departmental Chairs, UPDs, and GPDs, as chairs and co-chairs of Faculty and Senate committees, as Associate Deans, and as College Masters. They have headed major research networks. Many have won both York and provincial teaching awards. The “pool” of tenured faculty at York who obtained their positions through the conversion program also boasts a Grammy Award winner.
University Sector ‘Norms’ and Precarious Academic Labour
CUPE 3903’s Conversion Program certainly does stand out in the university sector as a unique program for shifting long-term contractualized faculty into probationary tenure stream positions. Although Queen’s University Faculty Association does vaunt one of the few other conversion programs in the province, conversion appointments under the QUAF collective agreement are to non-tenured “continuing” positions (Continuing Adjunct Appointments). Contract faculty at Queen’s can apply for conversion to such a position after six years of consecutive service as a “Term Adjunct” and once they have completed a specific cumulative total of full-course equivalents. Carlton University also has a provision that permits the transfer of long-term Instructor Employees to the ranks of tenured faculty in “exceptional circumstances.”
President Lenton’s claim that CUPE 3903’s Conversion Program is “unprecedented” in the sector is true in the sense that this program provides opportunities for long-service contract faculty to transfer into, not contractual or “continuing” appointments, but probationary tenure-stream positions. However, in her March 13th “Memorandum on a Path Forward,” the President essentially troubles rather than praises the uniqueness of this program, insisting that CUPE 3903 should be “reasonable” and adhere to “norms” of the sector.
What we all should all be asking here is what are these “norms” and why is she arguing this?
Over the past three decades, ‘normativity’ in the delivery of post-secondary education in Ontario, as elsewhere, has come to mean fewer tenure-stream faculty appointments and an ever-growing reliance on precariously employed contract faculty in order to accommodate enrollment growth within a context of declining investments in academic and faculty resources. Significant pedagogic transformations, such as increased class sizes, a greater use of unpaid “peer” mentoring, on-line instruction, and the erosion of graduate education, etc., have also come to be defining hallmarks in the sector, for the same reasons.
One gain that CUPE 3903 Unit 2 has managed to achieve in this context – albeit through several major strikes – are a modicum of measures that buttress against the downward drift at York towards sector norms around precarious academic employment, i.e. the “McJobs” that have increasingly come to characterize work in the college and university sector where the majority of faculty are hired on last-minute contracts of four or eight month duration and for which they must apply for every year. With respect to contract faculty at York, the issue is not – nor has it been for several decades now – about wages and benefits, but rather about greater employment stabilization that would ultimately benefit not only contract faculty but also undergraduate student education by having a stabilized cadre of instructors. As contract faculty across the province have long maintained, their working conditions are students’ learning conditions.
York’s administration seems to have lost sight of the fact that the ‘normativity’ which has come to characterize colleges and universities in Ontario – i.e. plummeting numbers of tenured faculty and a concomitant increased reliance on precariously employed contract faculty, occurring alongside exorbitant tuition fee rises that have exceeded national standards – is currently under attack from a broad range of constituents (or “stakeholders” the term more commonly used in this corporatized era): contract and tenured faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, unionized faculty associations, umbrella organizations (such as the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA), CUPE National’s Ontario University Workers Coordinating Committee (OUWCC), and its sibling in the U.S. (the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor.(COCAL)), student organizations (such as the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and our own York Federation of Students (YFS)), as well as a multitude of international scholars and student and faculty associations in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, who are deranging the neoliberal “norms” associated with teaching, learning, and working in post-secondary institutions today. Blogs and posts to websites associated with the Chronical of Higher Education and The Guardian show that the “norm” which President Lenton is referring to, is, in fact, under siege.
In 2010, the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Contingency and the Profession published a seminal report about university sector “norms” in the U.S. and suggestions for creative bargaining proposals to address the situation. This report can be accessed at: https://www.aaup.org/report/tenure-and-teaching-intensive-appointments. For the sake of expediency, go to “Section I: The Collapsing Faculty Infrastructure” and “Section III: Conversion to Tenure Is the Best Way to Stabilize the Faculty.” While the AAUP did not reference York University in their report, given that CUPE 3903’s conversion program started in the late 1980s, one can only surmise that they probably do know about York’s program and are now trying to emulate it, otherwise why the reference to “conversions”?
Collapsing or Already Collapsed?: The Faculty Infrastructure at York
The failure to deal with CUPE 3903 Unit 2 employment precarity has propelled four major strikes at York over the past eighteen years – in 2000/1, 2008/9, 2015 and now again in 2018.
The public and the media are quite rightly asking: why?
While York is certainly not the lone post-secondary institution in the province to experience labour strife – several strikes have occurred in recent years, at the University of Toronto, Laurentian University, Carleton University and ,of course, the five-week strike at Ontario’s Colleges last fall – the situation here is nevertheless distinctive in that, compared to other universities in the province, York has historically over-relied on contract faculty in the delivery of its undergraduate education.
This point has been repeatedly highlighted in numerous reports, including The “Other” University Teachers: Non-Full-Time Instructors at Ontario Universities, released by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario in 2014. In this report, the authors note that the “growth in the number of sessional instructor assignments at York University has far outpaced the growth in the number of full-time faculty appointments.” Figures contained in HEQCO’s study also show York as an outlier in the Ontario university sector in that the number of contract faculty employed at the university exceed that of full-time faculty, and have for most of the institution’s 50+ year history.
In 1990, there were 1,237 faculty in YUFA, but 1,449 contract faculty at York. By 2009, the figures were: 1,465 in YUFA/1,582 contract faculty. The number of faculty in YUFA did go up, in 2015, to 1,548 compared to 1,306 contract faculty. But what YUFA’s numbers mask is the dramatic increase that transpired, from 2013 to the present, in Contractually Limited Appointments (CLAs) within YUFA. There were 98 CLA appointments in YUFA in 2012/13. This jumped to 134 (2013-14), 155 (2014-15), 186 (2015-16) and 172 (2016-17). When these positions are taken into account, probationary tenure-stream and tenured faculty in YUFA actually numbered only 1,362 in 2015, while faculty working on contracts (either within YUFA, CUPE 3903, or CUPE-Exempt positions in Administrative Studies, Osgoode, Schulich, and Continuing Education) totaled 1,492. Since 2015, York’s tenure-stream complement has, overall, increased by only 29 faculty.
York’s historic over-reliance on contract faculty, coupled with significant declines in new tenure-stream positions across the university sector generally, has resulted in a large build-up of Unit 2 members in CUPE 3903’s Affirmative Action Pool. In December 1987, the conversion pool totaled 64 Unit 2 members. By 2007, the pool had increased to 83 members. It now currently stands at roughly 220 members. This dramatic increase over the past ten years coincides with what the AAUP describes as the “collapsing” tenured faculty infrastructure, but it also appears to be highly connected to York University’s historic and ongoing failure to invest in faculty resources thereby perpetuating an enduring reliance on precariously situated contractualized academic faculty.
Who are the Unit 2 members in the Conversion Pool? As Table 2 indicates, most (96%) have been employed at York for ten or more years, generally teaching at an intensity equal to or more than double what tenure-stream faculty teach. Fifty-five percent of the AA pool is female (compared to 44.3% of tenured faculty). Overall, eleven percent are racialized or Indigenous contract faculty, the majority of whom (92%) have ten or more years of service at the university. Among the higher seniority AA pool members, with 15+ years of service, the percentage of racialized and Indigenous Unit 2 members is higher (12%). The Conversion Pool also includes six faculty who were “returned” to Unit 2 as a result of the cancellation of the SRC program (Special Renewable Contracts) in YUFA in 2012. Two more SRCs are expected to return to the bargaining unit this summer once their YUFA contracts end.
Table 2: 2017 Conversion Pool Years of Service Profile
|Years of Service
One of the central conundrums at the heart of the current labour dispute, with respect to Unit 2, is that the bulk of the AA pool are contract faculty teaching in programs and faculties at York where the full-time faculty complement is “collapsing.” Seventy-three percent of Unit 2 members in the conversion pool teach in liberal arts programs at Glendon and Keele campuses, while contract faculty in the Faculty of Health, School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design, and the Faculty of Science constitute respectively 12%, 11% and 4% of the pool membership. But as Table 3 shows, these are precisely the faculties that are shrinking or stagnating in terms of York’s full-time faculty complement.
Table 3: York University TT Faculty Complement 2008-17 (Changes)
The “shrinkage” of YUFA faculty will no doubt continue, given YUFA retirements and given that, according to its Multi-Year Budget Plan, York University’s administration forecasts a net increase to the tenure-stream faculty ranks of only 27 in 2018-19 and 28 in 2019-20. This is despite the fact that the report predicts undergraduate enrolments at York will reach 45,000 students (domestic and international) by 2018-19, “surpassing,” as they note, “the 2012-13 levels of 44,300.”
Interestingly, undergraduate enrollments at the university, in 2015, were largely the same as they were in 2008/9: 46,496 versus 46,079. So given the decline in the tenure-stream faculty complement noted above, whom then is going to do the teaching? York will either have to move towards downloading more teaching (and service) onto fewer tenure-stream faculty, by increasing class sizes and insisting that only classes that meet enrollment targets will run (i.e. more rigid class cancellation policies around courses that don’t meet targeted enrollment numbers), or will have to continue relying on a large cadre of Unit 2 employees. The latter solution is problematic as it is precisely this over-reliance on contractualized faculty that have led to critiques of York from organizations such as the the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.
In their 2014 report, HEQCO noted of the significant upsurge of contractualized academic labour at York which had transpired over the first decade of the 2000s when the number of contract faculty increased from 791 in 2002-3 to 1,774 by 2013-14. But embedded in their comments about this expansion was an implicit critique of tenured faculty at York and their “underperformance” with respect to undergraduate teaching. The report’s authors wrote:
The percentage increase in sessional instructor assignments at York University far exceeded the increase in students during the same time period. Student enrolment increased by 30% between 2002-2003 and 2004-2005 and remained relatively steady in subsequent years, increasing only 1-3% yearly until 2012-2013. In contrast, the number of sessional instructor assignments grew at an annual rate of between 10 and 15% during the 2005-2013 period 
‘Doin’ the Right Thing’: Conversions and Special Renewable Contracts (SRCs)
President Lenton’s argument – i.e. that stabilizing Unit 2 contract faculty beyond what the university has already offered (two conversion and six SRCs appointments per year ) would run contrary to “open” collegial search processes that are the “hallmark” of universities across the country – rings somewhat hallow given the collapsed/collapsing faculty infrastructure at York University. The majority of new hires over the past ten years have been directed to the Lassonde School of Engineering, and even these numbers appear to be now tapering off.
We are in the midst of a fundamental crisis at York where something major needs to be done about the buildup of Unit 2 contract faculty in the AA pool.
To not do anything with respect to this group of faculty will simply perpetuate a continued reliance upon and an exploitation of their labour in working conditions that are deleterious to the mission of undergraduate education at York and, I would argue, injurious to the interests of York’s diminishing TT faculty complement who are facing mounting pressures around increased class-size, higher levels of service, and the erosion of the workload protections enshrined in YUFA’s collective agreement. This is already happening, and it will continue to ensue unless the moment is seized here to “do the right thing” and stabilize the work of those contract faculty who are essentially the permanent “full time” employees within Unit 2 and have been for decades – the AA pool.
Not dealing with the AA pool furthermore runs contrary to York’s reputation as a university committed to social justice. Indeed, it fundamentally contradicts this image of York. As already noted, there are significant equity dimensions associated with the AA pool, given the over-representation of female, racialized and Indigenous contractualized employees in this group. It is highly likely that there is an over-representation of other employment equity categories as well in the conversion pool
The language of Article 23 in CUPE 3903’s Unit 2 collective agreement quite purposefully references “Affirmative Action,” reflecting the political spirit of the late 1980s so as to shine a spotlight on the troubling “class” hierarchy that operated then and continues to operate within universities, and especially at York – i.e. the deep social and economic divisions that operate between an intentionally subordinated and disadvantaged group of contractualized faculty and their more privileged tenured faculty colleagues, and the injustice of this.
Thirty years later, after four major CUPE 3903strikes, from 2000 to 2018, this injustice remains. It is time to start ‘doin’ the right thing’ here which means dealing with the Affirmative Action pool in a meaningful and concrete way.
 York U’s memo to CUPE 3903, provided through the Ministry of Labour Mediator Tue, 13 Mar 2018 19:01:42 -0400 (EDT) http://labour.yorku.ca/2018/03/13/memorandum-on-a-path-forward/; March 9, 2018 letter to Professor Phillips, from Rhonda L. Lenton, President & Vice-Chancellor, http://labour.yorku.ca/yorks-response-to-open-letters-from-ocufa-york-community/.
 CUEW Local 3 Executive, “Memorandum on Affirmative Action for Long-Service, High-intensity Part Timers,” January 14, 1988.
 Sterling Taylor, “New strike hits York University as 1,500 go out,” Toronto Star 18 October 1984, p. A17.
 Article 23.01 CUPE 3903 Unit 2 Collective Agreement, 2014-17, p. 77
 Alice Pitt, Vice-Provost Academic Memorandum to Deans, Faculties of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies, Education, Environmental Studies, AMPD, Health, Lassonde, Science, and Principal, Glendon College on 2016-17 CUPE 3903 Affirmative Action (“Conversion”) Program, November 30, 2016.
 Faculty Relations, York University, “CUPE Conversion Appointments.”
 Email communication from Sheila Embleton, Chief Steward, YUFA, March 18, 2018.
 Article 126.96.36.199, 2015-2019 Queen’s University – QUFA Collective Agreement.
 Article 9.8 Instructor Employees, 2014-17 Carlton University Academic Staff Association Collective Agreement.
 Field, C. C., Jones, G. A., Karram Stephenson, G., & Khoyetsyan, A. (2014). The “Other” University Teachers: Non-Full-Time Instructors at Ontario Universities. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, p.28.
 These figures are taken from York University Factbook and Quick Facts http://oipa.info.yorku.ca/data-hub/quick-facts/
CUPE 3903 Conversion List 2015-16
 Ibid.; CUPE 3903 Seniority List 2018.
 York University, Multi Year Budget Plan 2017-18 to 2019-20, p. 98.
 Ibid., p. 101.
 York University Factbook.
 Field, et al., p. 27.