Artists Deserve a Living Wage: The Story of NSCAD Part-Time Academic Workers Joining CUPE 3912

Claire Drummond

This image is from the Arts Workers Coalition strike, an organization formed in the US in the late 60s to demand fair and equitable working conditions for artists, as well as equity and diversity in the art world more broadly. This was our rallying cry during the unionization process.

Part-time academic workers at NSCAD University are some of the lowest paid in the country, living in the second most expensive city in the nation. Teaching Assistants at NSCAD haven’t gotten a raise in over 40 years, and course instructors struggle to pay for groceries and rent with their low wages. Needless to say, the situation for precarious Instructors, Teaching Assistants and Research Assistants at NSCAD is dire, and we had never had the protection and bargaining power of a union until we joined CUPE 3912 in the spring of 2023. Unsurprisingly,100% of members voted in favour of unionizing, and it was about time that we demanded more than the scraps that we’re given by our employer.

Artists are precarious workers to begin with — so many of us have grown accustomed to being paid little or not at all for our labour. This is the danger of a labour of love — aren’t we so lucky to spend our time making images, sculpting, weaving and performing? In many ways, we are, yet the stereotype of the starving artist exists for a reason: art, though essential to the wellbeing of our communities, does not pay the bills (in fact, as many of my colleagues can attest, we spend more on our art practices than we make). 

How, then, as the cost of living soars to unfathomable and fundamentally unliveable heights, are artists meant to live? This is the question that haunts myself and my colleagues at NSCAD. The answer is often to teach. For artists, a 9 to 5 job makes sustaining your own art practice very difficult. The flexible schedule of teaching art combined with the general expectation that as an art teacher, you yourself are a practicing artist, means that you don’t need to sacrifice your art practice for a paycheque. Many artists who pursue teaching do so at the post-secondary level — a Master of Fine Arts allows you to teach at University, for example, and working as a Teaching Assistant or Research Assistant is meant to give you the work experience you need to get a job post-graduation. There was a time when getting an MFA and a tenure-track position seemed like a foolproof way to make it work as an artist. However, this idea is quickly becoming a dream that feels like it will never be realized for many of us. 

Universities like NSCAD are increasingly run like for-profit corporations that rely on the underpaid labour of contract instructors such as those now represented by CUPE 3912 to teach the breadth of their courses. Rather than hiring full-time faculty and paying for benefits, they opt for the cheap labour of contract instructors. Over half of the courses at NSCAD University are taught by contract instructors. Students pay the same amount of tuition as they would for a course taught by tenured faculty, yet contract instructors are paid a pitiful fraction of their salary. It’s a win-win for the university — they get more bang for their buck, as it were — the same quality of courses taught by highly specialized instructors for next to nothing. But at what cost? The cost is a human one, as it always is in instances of corporate greed. Unfortunately, many of us are so desperate for a job that we settle for the poverty wages that NSCAD pays us in the often unrealized hope that it will lead to something better and more permanent. We love our students and we love teaching, but this cannot mean that we have to pay the price of NSCAD’s greed, the price of which is the suffering of Instructors, Teaching Assistants and Research Assistants.

Contract instructors are profoundly struggling to pay their increasingly absurd grocery bills and the cost of rent in Nova Scotia, costs that only continue to rise. To add insult to injury, contract instructors are only hired on a per-semester basis with absolutely no job security and no benefits. Many of us would never even dream of going on vacation, let alone eating at a restaurant. How does our employer expect us to live? What is the university doing with all of the money that they’re making from exploiting part-time academic workers? All we know for certain is that Instructors, Teaching Assistants and Research Assistants aren’t seeing a cent of it. Through the process of joining CUPE, we will change that.

The NSCAD Bargaining Committee has nearly finished the first draft of our collective agreement, and we plan to send NSCAD the notice that we will begin bargaining in the beginning of July. We are demanding a liveable wage, benefits, more job security, and equitable working conditions. Through collective action, we will hold our employer accountable and demand fair wages and working conditions. We will have our labour justice cake and eat it too — a labour of love, and a livable wage (and actual cake because lord knows NSCAD workers deserve a little treat)!

Claire Drummond is an artist, educator and labour organizer from Tio’tia:ke Montreal. Her creative and pedagogical practices work at the intersection of care, visual art and social justice, engaging with the inextricable relationship between activism and art. She recently completed an MFA in Painting and Drawing at NSCAD University. Before studying at NSCAD, she was almost entirely self-taught, though her mother taught her to paint when she was little. She previously completed an MA in Cultural Studies at McGill University, focusing on gender and performance in postwar film. She finished her MA longing to pursue painting full time, which led her to embark on an MFA as well as a lifelong career in creative practice. Her expertise in gender studies nevertheless informs her current practice, as well as her focus on the ways in which representations of the human figure can promote awareness of social issues. She is currently the CUPE 3912 NSCAD Vice President and is excited about mobilizing for systemic change at NSCAD University and beyond.

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