Labor & Work-Life Issues

Surge in Adjunct Activism Is Spurred by Bad Economy and Hungry Unions

December 14, 2009

Institutions like Western Michigan University, Montana State University, and Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art are home to new adjunct unions. In Massachusetts a group of part-time faculty members sued the state on behalf of adjuncts who don't get health insurance at community colleges. And the part-timers' union at Rhode Island College has ratified the first contract for adjunct faculty members in the state.

This increasing activity is devoted to reversing the fortunes of the largest part of the professoriate, a population usually characterized by low pay and benefit levels and scant job security. Now a combination of factors has prompted adjuncts to organize, break new ground at the bargaining table, and embrace other forms of activism.

The battered economy has pushed adjuncts to seek protection in an environment where their jobs are more at risk than usual. National higher-education unions are paying new attention to these instructors, who make up an ever-growing pool of labor on the nation's college campuses. And some adjuncts report being energized by success stories from their unionized peers.

Breaking the Silence

"For too long, there was the prevailing feeling among many adjuncts that they were an invisible part of the profession," says Barbara Bowen, a vice president at the American Federation of Teachers. "But the silence in the profession about contingent faculty has been broken."

The result: Ready-to-organize part-time faculty members who, in significant ways, have nothing to lose.

"I don't see any evidence that university administrations and the powers-that-be are going to change their general trend—which is solving their economic problems by taking skin from their employees," says Joe T. Berry, an adjunct activist who works full time (but not on the tenure track) as a labor specialist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

At the same time, the economic downturn has made some instructors' jobs even more essential to them as other sources of income dry up, says Mr. Berry. Many adjuncts are reluctant to quit despite working conditions that might warrant their doing so, and instead have decided to "hang in and try to make it a better job," he says.

Adjunct professors at Rhode Island College did just that when they ratified their first contract this fall. The union, affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, gained a 3-percent pay increase and seniority and job-security rights, among other things.

At Eastern Michigan University, part-time faculty members last week filed for the right to vote for union representation, which full-time lecturers there already have. Some of the adjuncts have worked there for more than two decades and want a union to "have a determining voice about the conditions under which we work," says Mark Wenzel, a part-time lecturer in the department of history and philosophy, in a statement released by the federation.

Aware that adjuncts are finding reasons for wanting to organize, unions are wooing them—in no small part because the numbers of tenure-track faculty members that can be added to union rolls is shrinking.

"If you're going to organize faculty, you've got to organize contingent faculty," says Mr. Berry. "They're the majority of the faculty now."

Equal-Pay Campaign

Since the middle of last year, the American Federation of Teachers has organized eight contingent faculty unions, representing more than 4,000 instructors (not including graduate students and postdocs). The union is also working to get states to adopt "equal pay for equal work" for part-timers as part of its Faculty and College Excellence Campaign, which began in 2007.

The American Association of University Professors, too, is making efforts to organize adjuncts. This month it announced that enough of them at Suffolk University, in Boston—58 percent of the 360-member unit—had joined the union to allow for what the union calls "fair share" provisions to take effect: Adjuncts covered by the bargaining unit can join as full members or else pay a fee that covers union expenses.

With a majority of adjuncts as members, plus the fair-share provision, the chapter will have "a solid financial base," says Michael Mauer, the AAUP's national director of organizing and services.

"We ran a huge recruitment effort and started out with a very low number" at Suffolk, he says. "But once we got our first contract, people started signing up to join when they saw what was possible. And they're still signing up. "

Some groups of adjuncts affiliated with traditionally blue-collar labor unions have won significant victories as well. Part-timers at the New School have been represented by the United Auto Workers since 2002. for This month the union announced the ratification of its second contract for part-timers there. For the first time, it includes the right to take leave for a birth, adoption, or to care for a sick child; a greater say in curricular decisions; and the right to keep health benefits when classes are canceled for low enrollment.

Still, part-timers have a long way to go. In some states, such as Ohio, they are prohibited by law from forming collective-bargaining units. But adjuncts there remain hopeful. The New Faculty Majority, a national advocacy group, has helped persuade lawmakers to introduce a bill that would remove that restriction.

"We've been working with the AFT, the AAUP, and the NEA in Ohio on this issue and we're all on the same page about this," says Maria C. Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority who teaches English composition in a full-time, non-tenure-track position at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland. "I think we stand the best chance that we ever have of getting this passed."

Building Awareness

Also hopeful are part-time faculty members at Temple University. Last month they held an Adjunct Awareness Week to bring attention to a campaign to unionize adjuncts, who make up nearly half of the faculty.

Regina Bannan, chair of Temple's adjunct-organizing committee, pointed to the full-time faculty union's recent success at the bargaining table, after protracted negotiations,­ as one source of inspiration. The four-year pact calls for pay raises, bonuses, and eligibility for merit pay.

Another motivator for adjuncts at Temple, says Ms. Bannan, an adjunct who teaches American studies, is that every other professional group of employees there—full-time faculty members, administrators, and professional and technical staff—is represented by a union. "In a lot of ways, we just want space at the table," she says.

But even in a union hotbed like Temple, there is still one tough obstacle. Although adjuncts are "receptive to unionization," Ms. Bannan says, "the hard work is in identifying them." Adjuncts are often poorly counted by administrations and are difficult to round up because they often go from campus to campus to work.

Once organizers get beyond that barrier, says Mr. Berry, the labor specialist at Urbana-Champaign, "it's never difficult to convince contingent faculty to join a union. Getting to an election is basically a matter of finding the people."

If that's the case, some say, what is happening now among adjuncts could be the beginning of a movement. Says Ms. Maisto: "I think there's been a lot of momentum, although things never happen as fast as people would like. There are still some horrible things happening, but I feel like there's definitely been some progress made."

Ms. Bowen, the AFT official, agrees. "This is not just about one individual adjunct or one group of adjuncts at one place," says Ms. Bowen, who is an associate professor of English at the City University of New York's Queens College and president of the Professional Staff Congress, a union that represents faculty and staff members in the CUNY system. "I think this is a movement that has a big task, and that's to transform higher education. The two-tier labor system in higher education needs to be undone."