Precarity and identity

In search of a more just labour space

I’ve been a proud OSSTF/FEESO member for almost 10 years. I am honoured to be a part of public education and the trade union movement. Admittedly, my involvement with my local has been limited. That is not out of disinterest, but out of my own uncertainties around my precarious employment status as a teacher with an occasional teacher/long-term occasional (OT/LTO) contract. Building an identity as a teacher with an OT/LTO contract has never felt right, as I’ve always hoped the position would be temporary and I’d soon be hired into a permanent position. These uncertainties about my own workplace status have negatively impacted my identities as a public school teacher, a union member, and a person living in a society that describes itself as meritocratic and democratic. Importantly, I know I am not experiencing these issues alone; there are an estimated 50–100 thousand un(der)employed teachers (elementary and secondary) in Ontario (Mindzak, 2016).

Teachers with an OT/LTO contract make up approximately 34 per cent of local OSSTF/FEESO Bargaining Units.

This does not even take into consideration the workers in adult day school, or all education workers in the system for that matter, who are also struggling with precarity and job security. Ontario’s public secondary education system has a significant number of highly skilled and trained teachers and education workers, many of whom live in states of constant uncertainty regarding their employment futures and work identities.

My own lingering questions and the demoralizing employment numbers encouraged me to apply to McMaster University’s School of Labour Studies, PhD programme in 2017. My goal was to study some of the differences between teachers with different labour contracts, and how these differences were impacting their personal and professional lives. My general concern was that these different labour contracts were a growing sign of larger structural changes in Ontario public secondary education, specifically, and within global education trends, generally. These changes and trends can broadly be connected to movements for greater laissez faire economic policies, implemented in various forms globally and locally, and known by many policy researchers as neoliberalism.

I first read of neoliberalization during my MA studies in critical pedagogy. One of my professors at the time was educational scholar, Henry Giroux. He powerfully highlighted how neoliberal policy priorities such as privatization, deregulation, and commodification, were drifting into and impacting the American public education system. He would also connect these changes to a larger neoliberal project that sought to reduce the public sector, progressive movements, and organized labour’s ability to improve the lives of all people.

One of Giroux’s lessons pertained to the neoliberal trend of corporations using progressive and socially just language and representation on the one hand, while fighting and suppressing equity initiatives within their own workforce as well as degrading the environment, on the other. Critical pedagogy was partially about highlighting these economic and social contradictions to students, and then empowering them to engage and challenge the contradictions. From this experience, I fell in love with critical pedagogy, passionately wanted to learn more about it, and to pursue this pedagogy in my practice as a high school teacher.

I first began teaching shortly after the release of ‘Growing Success’ and other resources such as the ‘Think Literacy’ course guides and ‘Restorative Justice’ trainings. I was very excited about all of these tools. The Ministry of Education documents and board initiatives that I was reading, following, and learning from were extremely encouraging to me. I saw them as a sign that public education was heading in a socially just direction. Schools were, thankfully and rightfully so, becoming sites of research-supported and much needed social justice initiatives—at least rhetorically.

On the labour side, however, recent research by myself and others suggests that hiring and working conditions are becoming more unjust and inequitable. For the students, equitable and inclusive values of instruction and assessment have been shown to be in their best interest, as well as in the interests of the larger democratic society.

Helping all youth, especially vulnerable youth, succeed and reach their educational goals is why so many of us became teachers.

Yet, from my early research (an online survey with 579 participants and one-to-one interviews with 37 volunteers, all secondary school teachers in Ontario), many teachers, both permanent and occasional, do not feel that the values of equity and inclusion have been applied to the workers, either in the hiring process or their day to day working conditions.

The early data from my research points to a labour dynamic where, as a percentage, greater numbers of precarious, racialized, and female teachers with OT/LTO contracts, are working in the lower levels of a segmented labour sector, under a comparably larger percentage of white male colleagues with permanent contracts. Unfortunately, this study does not include much data on neurodiverse teachers nor adult day school teachers—both areas in much need of additional study. My limited data indicates that teachers that identify as neurodiverse or have an adult day school contract, may also be experiencing greater levels of precarity. According to my online survey, many teachers with a permanent contract are “keeping up without any (financial) problems,” whereas 25 per cent of the workers in the survey with an OT/LTO contract are “having real financial problems and falling behind.” Most teachers with an OT/LTO contract who took my survey were classified as “precarious.”

Precarious labour is inequitable for many and contradicts an equitable workplace environment. An inequitable hiring and employment scenario in public education seems contradictory to the inferred values embedded in progressive academic and instructional rhetoric. These contradictions between student learning rhetoric and employment reality may have problematic outcomes for student success, an authentically equitable public education system, and overall democratic culture.

Indeed, Abawi and Eizadirad (2020), in their article “Bias-Free or Biased Hiring?”, also point to an inequitable hiring situation, with a focus on racialized teachers. Eizadirad and Portelli (2018) explain: “So long as the hegemonic discourse of bias-free hiring as a strategy for closing the teacher diversity gap and promoting
a diverse teacher workforce is intact without a candid dialogue on race, power relations, and ongoing legacies of Canada’s settler-colonial past and present, the teacher diversity gap will persist through the guise of meritocracy and its neoliberal discourse with constant reference to saturated terminology such as accountability and choice.”

My early fieldwork backs up these findings. There is an overrepresentation of precarious, racialized, and female workers with OT/LTO contracts when compared to those same demographics amongst workers with a permanent contract. Building on previous research by the Directions Evidence and Policy Research Group, which reported that Regulation 274 (Reg. 274), which placed strict limits on teacher hiring practices in Ontario, had made some improvements in hiring but still had many drawbacks (Saldaris, 2014), it would seem that the Reg. did not go far enough. Interestingly, Reg. 274 appears to have been applied differently across the various school boards. That some teachers working for some boards might have had an equitable experience with Reg. 274, while other teachers with other boards were left feeling that Reg. 274 was structuring in their precarious status, is a recipe for animosity, division, and mistrust. Now that Reg. 274 is no longer, the issues with inequitable hiring remain. However, this is only the tip of a larger public educational sector employment issue, and that issue is: Public education in Ontario is funded under the premise that it is primarily for youth and primarily to facilitate their passage into the flexible demands of a neoliberal labour market that is seeing increases in precarious work.

Another labour scholar, Stephanie Ross, writing in this publication, Education Forum, in 2017 also drew attention to increasing precarity in Ontario public education and the negative impacts that this has on the health of workers. (See “The rise of precarity,” Education Forum winter 2017, vol. 43, issue 2). Ross, referencing the research into precarity by Lewchuk and the PEPSO Project, highlights how individuals can internalize their employment status as opposed to connecting it to larger labour market restructuring, “Many lose confidence and self-esteem as they blame themselves for their lack of success in the labour market.” This also highlights a major contradiction in education: the simultaneous effort to encourage lifelong learning and an intrinsic appreciation of education, while also believing that because of the demands of the larger economy, we only need funding for a given number of students and enough teachers for the number of “bums in seats.” This latter logic places teachers in the role of only being needed according to the dictates of certain type of economic vision.

The neoliberal vision of education is one that views teachers, students, workers, and people as commodities. Neoliberalism views public education as a system that should be kept on an austere budget and privatized whenever possible; as opposed to a vision of education that is funded at levels which enable it to expand, grow, and align with optimal learning conditions and an equitable and inclusive knowledge economy. If that means one teacher and an educational assistant for every five or ten students (as is the case in elite New York City private schools), then that is what should be. In a democracy, public education must not be seen as an investment for a neoliberal commodifying function, but as an investment into a non-monetized democratic and civically engaged culture. These best practice funding policies and their subsequent school environments are more likely to facilitate an educational system and a larger social culture that is conducive for authentic and rich lifelong learning, as well as fostering a democratic and civically active culture. Forms of lifelong learning that are geared to an economy that commodifies teachers, students, and people, may not lead to an intrinsic appreciation of education, nor a democratic society.

To help subvert these larger neoliberal policies, public education unions and their allies must argue for a radically renewed vision of public education. From an environmental and health standpoint, the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic are showing we need new forms of social organization. From an economic, technological, and political angle, the Fourth Industrial Revolution and automation will drastically restructure the world of work and of school. The massive ‘reserve army’ (to use Marx’s term) of teacher labour in Ontario can help with this new vision. There is past policy such as the Bank of Canada Act, that could be used to help fund the revolution in education that myself and many others are calling for. There is research from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) that shows a way forward during the multiple crisis of climate change, the pandemic, and rising inequity. There is polling from the Broadbent Institute that shows a majority of Canadians support policies such as a Wealth Tax, to help pay for measure to reduce socio-economic inequality and fund a Just Recovery to the Pandemic (

The pandemic, the climate crisis, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution have shown that is time for us to dream of our ideal education system and begin its implementation. Yes, these dreams and their realization will benefit us as workers. However, they will also create a growing labour sector in the public knowledge economy for future workers that will be a pathway to good, unionized jobs. As global communication and interaction increases, it will also help facilitate equitable local and global community collaboration and integration through enhanced public knowledge systems. Imagine walking into public schools where class sizes are no larger than 10 students. Imagine walking into libraries or community centres where there is a teacher available for various forms of help. Imagine local civic councils, sites of higher learning, and community groups, with the ability to use a pool of teachers to help with projects and research. Now, imagine what a better society we would have. This is all affordable and possible. It would be a reality that aligns with long needed language of intersectional justice, equity, inclusion, and decolonization. Finally, as W.E.B. Du Bois reminds us, “children learn more from what you are than what you teach.” Therefore, this new and more just labour space would also be a more hopeful educational experience for students. Seeing teachers as not precarious, but equally valued regardless of gender and/or race, will show students that equity and inclusion applies to all workers. Importantly, it will display to them that there is good quality, community oriented, public-sector jobs for them to aspire to and that nobody will be left precarious in a world of plenty.

About Andrew Wilkin
Andrew Wilkin is an occasional teacher in District 21, Hamilton-Wentworth.

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