Why Don't We Insist on Equity?

Brian Taylor

December 02, 2010

A new contract between United Steelworkers and Harley-Davidson, the motorcycle manufacturer, will reduce its full-time payroll at one plant and instead add, as its needs arise, "casual" workers who will make $18.50 an hour to full-timers' $31. What made that agreement—along with similar ones between the International Association of Machinists and Mercury Marine, and between the United Auto Workers and Kohler, maker of plumbing fixtures—worthy of front-page coverage in The New York Times?

It's reporter Louis Uchitelle's explanation that those contracts have legitimized two-tiered wage scales. Once seen as an emergency measure to be taken only in hard times, those wage scales are now being made permanent.

Even scarier is Uchitelle's forecast that the lower-paid tier of the scale could become "the only tier once all the veterans have left or retired."

All of this should ring a bell in academe. In a further parallel to our own industry, with our well-known glut of new Ph.D.'s, Harley-Davidson's chief executive said: "The simple economic fact is that we overproduced and now we have to burn off the excess."

In the higher-education business, such burning-off measures already are fairly permanent. That's why Barbara Bowen, president of City University of New York's Professional Staff Congress, gave a speech last summer in which she said that faculty unions for full-timers need to start negotiating contingent issues first—before tackling the full-time issues. Speaking at a conference at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she said that contingent employment in academe is already twice what it is in any other industry, even retail.

But she acknowledged that knowing what needs to be done and convincing full-time faculty members to do it were two different things. And in early November, her membership voted 3 to 1 to reject four specific proposals for pay parity, job security, and promotion, as presented by their adjunct and contingent counterparts at the union's Delegate Assembly. (The union's negotiations committee did accept some of the proposals in a modified form: For details and an incisive overview on the status and working conditions of adjuncts at CUNY and elsewhere, see this November 19 article in

The ranks of the nontenurable have more than doubled since the introduction of temporary teaching positions as an emergency measure in response to stagflation in the mid-1970s. Contingent faculty members now make up 73 percent of the nation's professoriate, according to figures from the U.S. Education Department.

So why can't faculty members hang together on equity issues? What can stop this trend that has already divided and is about to conquer us?

We can continue to play the myopic game of those who created the two tiers in the first place by focusing on the differences between faculty members. The status quo is tough to buck: A former adjunct I know who, after 20 years in that role, finally won a tenure-track job, used to question the pay differential between full-time and part-time instructors. Now, suddenly, he can appreciate how full-time status brings immeasurable benefits to education because you have "opportunities to really sit down and discuss pedagogy with colleagues, whether it is casual lunchtime conversations, attending seminars and conferences, or part of the tenure process." Even people who should know better get drawn in to the same old rationalizations.

But what if, instead, we were to insist—in our requests to deans, in our contract negotiations, and, yes, even in our casual conversations at lunch or elsewhere—on identical standards to evaluate faculty members, regardless of their full- or part-time status?

What if we insisted on the same standards for pay, benefits, security, and professional advancement as well as for credentials and performance? What if we refused to speak the two-tiered language at all—except to insist on equivalent compensation for equivalent work? Wouldn't equity rob management of the incentive to rely on adjuncts anymore? Of course it would.

Not insisting on equity limits our role to nodding and smiling in the ever-more-urgent conversation about how to save higher education. As the president of the United Steelworkers' Milwaukee local, whose membership voted 53 percent to 47 percent to approve the two-tiered contract with Harley-Davidson, admitted, "We ended up accepting their agenda."

The implications are disheartening enough for a product that pretty much stands for proud individualism. But is what's good for the Electra Glide, the Softail, and the Fat Boy, not to mention for outboard engines and bathroom fixtures, good for future generations of American minds? No.

A mind is not a faucet, although in just the way a faucet can be turned on or off, minds can be opened or closed. Students' learning conditions are their teachers' working conditions—not 27 percent of their teachers' working conditions. As Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, wrote in September, "The only goal worth fighting for is full justice for all who teach." As long as we're having to strip down to essentials, let's strip down to that one.

Steve Street, a lecturer in the writing program at the State University of New York College at Buffalo, has taught writing and literature in colleges and universities since 1980, never on the tenure track. He writes occasionally for the Adjunct Track column.