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  • Writer's pictureRJ Smith

Revolt at La Sorbonne: Why I’m Striking

I have never participated in industrial action in my life. But today I sent an email to my students telling them I will not be attending our next class nor any others for the foreseeable future.

I have chosen to take this step because of the egregious conditions to which I am subjected as a non-tenured academic in the French public university system.

I am what is called a ‘vacataire’, a term which comes from the French word vacation, meaning session’.

Being poorly paid on rolling contracts is a fact of life for adjunct faculty members. But conditions as a vacataire are so bad I feel I have no choice but to take a stand. In descending order, here are my principal grievances.

Lateness of Payment

Today is the 6th of February. The last time I was paid by La Sorbonne was in July 2019, despite leading five classes from September to Christmas last semester. (I arrived back in Australia at 6pm on Christmas eve just so that I could give my last class on 23 December).

This has been routine since I started working in the institution over two years ago. Payment comes in one lump sum several months after the previous semester has ended.

Rate of Pay

Vacataires across France are paid at the standard rate of 41,41 euros per hour. But this is only for the hours actually spent in the classroom and does not include the hours of preparation time put into each class.

The officially accepted ratio of preparation-to-class time is three hours of preparation for every one hour of class. I believe this to be an underestimation, but even on this basis vacataires are paid 10.35 per hour, a mere 30 centimes above the French national minimum wage.

When you include the time spent marking exams, responding to emails, writing references and general administration it is significantly lower. We are also taxed at a rate of somewhere between twenty five and thirty per cent, far more than if we were regular workers earning the minimum wage.

No Work, No Pay

If class is cancelled because of a student blockage (common), or because we are sick, or because of an administrative error (double booked rooms, conflict with another exam), vacataires are not paid, despite often spending several hours preparing for the class.

The burden is then on us to attempt to organise a catch-up session, but due to the overstretched administration and lack of facilities this is often not possible.

Critical Mass

There are now over 100,000 vacataires in France, few of whom are under any illusions about the exploitation to which we are all being subjected.

Last night I attended an extraordinary meeting at the Tolbiac Centre in the south of Paris. At 8pm in an amphitheatre on the ground floor around fifty teachers from Paris I gathered to express our fatigue and dissatisfaction with what is going on.

These were not radicals or trouble-makers but intelligent and hardworking people making an argument most thought had been won centuries ago: that workers have the right to be paid a reasonable wage within a reasonable period of time of work being rendered.

A vote was called and by (unanimous) consensus we resolved to commence a general strike starting today.

The poor pay and general strain teachers are put under (whether tenured or not) is a shame, because teaching is both an important and enjoyable job. There is nothing more satisfying than imparting knowledge to (and receiving it from) a receptive audience. But you reach a point where you feel things can’t continue.

I hope our actions will make the government see that things need to change. And quickly.

Below is the email I sent to my students:

Dear all,
I regret to inform you that from today I will be participating in strike action and will not be attending our next class.
I am a vacataire, that is, a professor non-titulé. I knew my position as an adjunct faculty member would be precarious, but the conditions to which vacataires are subjected in France are so egregious and exploitative that I feel I have no option but to take this action.
I taught five courses at Paris I last semester. To date I have not received any payment for this work. Indeed I have not been paid by La Sorbonne since July 2019.
I do not expect to earn a lot of money as a teacher. But I am not a volunteer, and expect to be paid within a reasonable period of time after completing my duties.
I hope the university will listen to the grievances of the many vacataires and other professors participating in this action and propose a solution quickly so that our disruptions will be minimised.
I will keep you all informed about developments as they arise.
I hope you will appreciate why I am taking this course. It was not a decision I took lightly.
Please communicate with your colleagues in case they are not on this list so that everyone is aware of the situation.
Yours sincerely,
RJ Smith.

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