Unionizing in the Age of Adjuncts
Part-time professors nationwide seek improved working conditions
Higher, livable wages, access to health care benefits and improved job security rank high among the demands by adjunct faculty at higher education institutions across the country. At noon on Feb. 25, adjunct faculty and their supporters walked out of classrooms across the country to advocate for these demands.
National Adjunct Walkout Day, initially proposed by an anonymous adjunct writing instructor at San Jose University, was aimed at raising awareness about the current working conditions of adjunct professors at colleges and universities across the nation. The demonstrations are part of a nationwide movement to increase wages and working conditions for adjunct and part-time faculty in higher education, chiefly through establishing unions.
Adjunct faculty — college and university professors who are hired on a part-time, non-tenure contract and typically restricted to teaching one or two courses per semester — make up a notable amount of the higher ed workforce.
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education determined at least 75 percent of higher education faculty in the U.S. were contingent faculty — meaning graduate student teaching assistants, full-time non-tenure-track faculty, part-time or adjunct faculty. Of the more than 1.5 million higher education instructors in the U.S., approximately half are employed part-time, the Department of Education reported in 2011.
The walkout garnered support from some students and full-time, tenured professors, across the country in areas including Seattle, Chicago and Ithaca, New York.
A unionizing effort among part-time faculty at Seattle University has encountered extreme resistance from university administration. The university claimed as a Catholic, Jesuit-led institution, it has religious exemption from the National Labor Relations Board’s jurisdiction. Due to a series of court battles, ballots remain uncounted from the election to join Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 925 that took place about a year ago.
Louisa Edgerly, adjunct instructor at Seattle University, was motivated to join the unionization efforts after years of balancing multiple part-time positions.
“That inconsistency and uncertainty had been part of my life for so long that just the thought that there was active organization going on to make that less normal for adjuncts and to make some amount of job security and fair compensation more normal for adjuncts seemed like a really worthwhile thing to put some time into,” she said.
Despite pushback from the university, Edgerly said community support continues to grow, especially following National Adjunct Walkout Day.
“We had 400 people turn out for an amazing walkout and rally and teach-in on campus, with just phenomenal energy, and since then we’ve really only been gaining momentum,” she said. “More and more people are publicly indicating their support for us on campus. We have a broader community of support from everything from local city council members to state legislators to members of local parishes.”
Edgerly also noted the support the movement received from tenured and tenure-track faculty, as well as students.
“On campus at [Seattle University] and then hearing from other adjuncts all around the country, just the tremendous amount of support that’s come from students has been one of the best parts of this movement for me,” she said.
She said some student support comes from understanding that improved working conditions for the professors directly impacts their abilities to perform their roles in the classroom. For example, balancing positions on various campuses means adjunct faculty are less available to their students, and frequently changing employers means unreliable wages and no access to health care.
More reliable contracts, increased wages and access to health care benefits are key concerns for adjuncts unionizing across the country, but particularly pressing for those located in areas with high costs of living. In Seattle, the cost of living is nearly 21 percent higher than the national average, according to a Forbes report for 2014.
“Just not knowing every 10 weeks where your next paycheck is gonna come from or how big it’s gonna be makes it really, really difficult just to figure out how you’re gonna pay the rent,” Edgerly said. “And rents here are going through the roof.”
The Movement at Ithaca College
The lack of job security and increased reliance on part-time professors is also present at Ithaca College, where there are currently more than 200 part-time faculty members. Last spring, some of the college’s part-time faculty started a relationship with Adjunct Action, the SEIU’s national campaign to unionize adjunct faculty.
On March 19, the student organization IC Progressives hosted a teach-in to raise student awareness about the union organizing efforts.
The idea for the teach-in came out of conversations between students and the union organizers at the college about campus events in response to the Eric Garner and Michael Brown tragedies.
“Those events were rather spontaneous and emotional and they really caught people’s attention and they really moved people, and we were just talking about how important that was,” Brody Burroughs, art lecturer at Ithaca College and a member of the union organizing committee, said. By contrast, the unionization effort involves a lot of structural and procedural work, but the organizers felt that campus energy could be challenged into the movement.
“We thought it might be good to have a teach-in, because if we could connect those structural things with the issues that move people, maybe some of this activism can find some traction,” he said, “ … and then maintain that mechanism so we can agree about the next thing that should happen, whether it has to do with racism in this country, or workers’ rights, or poverty on the other side of the world, we have a network.”
Burroughs has taught at Ithaca College part-time for the past five years. Previously, he spent a year teaching full-time at the college — he has a total of five years full-time teaching experience — and also spent five years working at the Handwerker Gallery.
While the unionization effort at the college mirrors the demands of the national movement, the group does not have specific requests of the administration yet.
“We are continuing to talk to constituents, so we run into the same issues — office space, compensation — but it’s not formalized yet because we’re not at that part of the process. We can’t really prioritize that list without an official survey,” Burroughs said. “But the issues are consistent and they’re reflected in colleges and universities across the country.”
The union organizers at the college hope to continue to foster campus support, then file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board at the end of this semester, Burroughs said. The NLRB would then hold a union election. If the part-time faculty members voted in favor of establishing a union at the college, leadership positions would be established within the union and then the union would begin negotiations with the college.
Although much of the organizing focuses on improving health care benefits and job security, the college’s part-time faculty are paid $1,300 per credit hour — or $3,900 for a three-credit course, which is above the national average. Next year, the college has budgeted for an increase of $100 per credit for part-time faculty and full-time faculty teaching an overload; however, this was not in response to the unionization movement, college President Tom Rochon told The Ithacan in March. Rochon noted that a raise in response to the union movement would be illegal, and said it was merely the budget year for which this increase in pay was planned.
Burroughs called the raise a “significant victory and first step for improving the lives of people who are working part-time.” However, he also said although the raise every few years may allow part-timers to catch up, it doesn’t take into account economic factors.
“Because of the cost of living or inflation, you’re gonna make less next year than you made this year, and so the psychic cost of that is that you get demeaned. Every year your take-home pay is worth less and you feel like you’re worth less,” he said. “That psychic cost is huge and is a cost that we could address without any money. It’s just a procedure, and so we hope to build on things like this most recent adjustment to our pay with more things like that.”
In a 2012 Coalition on the Academic Workforce study, the median pay among respondents was $2,700 for a three-credit course; degree credentials showed a strong correlation to compensation. CAW is a group of higher education associations that conducts and compiles research on non-tenured part-time and full-time higher ed faculty in the U.S.
Those with bachelor’s degrees earned on average $2,250 per course, those with master’s degrees earned $2,400 and doctorate degree earned $3,200, according to CAW.
Beyond credentials, the presence of the unions impacted the wages of part-time faculty: Institutions without union representation averaged $2,475 per three-credit course, whereas those with union membership averaged $3,100.
Nationwide Organizing Efforts
As of October 2014, there were adjunct organizing efforts in 22 states and Washington, D.C., In These Times and Labor Notes reported. A key part of the current nationwide movement is “metro strategy,” or coordinated efforts to unionize higher ed adjunct faculty city by city, rather than focusing on individual institutions.
Joe Berry is a labor historian and adjunct organizer currently on the board of the New Faculty Majority, the only membership organization for contingent faculty nationwide. He also wrote the book Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education, which many consider the go-to manual for adjunct organizing.
Part of the book explored metro strategy as applied to adjuncts, which Berry said came from an organizing movement in the 1990s and 2000s in Boston.
He said the concept of metropolitan strategy is: “We need to build organizations that are metropolitan-wide and then try and gain contracts with particular employers.”
He emphasized that there are two key parts of applying this strategy.
“One part is to recognize that the workforce is effectively a metropolitan workforce, not a single employer workforce … and therefore has to be organized on a metropolitan basis,” he said. “Number two, that you have to build a metropolitan strategy organization, not just a bargaining unit at one particular employers.”
He said various unions that apply the strategy emphasize different parts of the concept, and this organizing strategy is not contained to adjuncts.
“It’s like construction workers, or actors, or musicians, or many people who work in catering and culinary trades,” Berry said. “Historically, workers who are in the kind of position we’re in organize geographically, not employer by employer, because employer by employer, we’re not a stable group.”
Many are organizing with SEIU, the largest union in the U.S. The union has organized workers in various industries, from educators to health care providers to custodial and maintenance workers. More than 22,000 higher education contingent faculty have joined SEIU.
Adjunct Action, the SEIU campaign, is currently organizing in smaller regions as well as large cities such as Baltimore, Boston, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia/Connecticut, San Francisco/Bay Area, St. Louis and Washington state.
Citywide or regional unionizing efforts often cite inspiration from the success of self-organizing adjunct faculty at four higher ed institutions in D.C., according to reports from Inside Higher Ed. In 2005, George Washington University adjuncts unionized with SEIU. Following that, Montgomery College unionized in 2008; American University in 2012; and Georgetown University in 2013. The Georgetown effort saw immense support, with 72 percent voting in favor of joining the Service Employees Local 500.
After seeing the success in D.C., SEIU began to apply this strategy to Boston in 2013, where adjunct faculty at Tufts University, Bentley University and Northeastern University voted to join SEIU.
SEIU is not the only U.S. union organizing adjuncts. The American Federation of Teachers is also leading organizing efforts in some regions. Following some competition, AFT made an agreement with SEIU that it would handle metro strategy in Philadelphia, where organizing efforts are ongoing at Drexel University, Haverford College, Philadelphia University, Penn State and Temple University. AFT already represents adjuncts and full-time faculty at Moore College and the Community College of Philadelphia.
History and Criticism
There has been a trend toward non-tenured positions in higher ed among both part-time and full-time faculty in the past two decade.
“By 1998, full-time non-tenure-track faculty comprised 28.1 percent of all full-time faculty and 16 percent of all faculty. Part-time non-tenure-track faculty comprised 95 percent of all part-time faculty, and 40 percent of all faculty,” according to a report by the AAUP.
The report’s statistical data was updated in 2014 and demonstrated an increased reliance on positions that are non-tenured and part-time: “As of fall 2011, non-tenure-track faculty members composed 40 percent of the full-time faculty and 19.4 percent of all faculty members. Part-time faculty composed 51.4 percent of the faculty,” according to the report.
The contingent faculty at colleges in the U.S. are disproportionately women. The Nation addressed this issue in a 2013 article, “The Pink Collar Workforce,” citing estimates from the National Center for Education Statistics, CAW and AUUP. According to these groups, women make up 51 to 61 percent of all adjunct faculty, whereas full-time tenured faculty are 59 percent male.
Berry emphasized the importance of female leaders in this movement — for example, the president of New Faculty Majority is Maria Maisto — because of this imbalance, as well as the history of women in the field.
“One of the reasons why the casualization of faculty was able to be done in the way that it was done is because — without as much protest as their should have been over the years, since the ’70s — is because the job changed from an only upper-class white male job to a job that included a lot of women and minorities,” Berry said. “That made it politically more possible to degrade the job, and so it became both cause and effect.”
Burroughs acknowledged the societal changes in the higher education model and said the goal is to work within that to produce better conditions for contingent faculty.
“The model that college is something you went away to and when you left you automatically got a job is the past. Education serves so many different needs these days, and it’s gonna have to adopt a different model to adjust to that, and lately that model has been a corporate model,” Burroughs said. “We need to balance that corporate model with protection for our rights and value the contributions of our faculty, who are every bit as professional and are providing the same exact services as their full-time colleagues.”
Jessica Corbett is a senior journalism major. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.