Part-time faculty seek a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work
I first got involved in the contingent faculty movement my sophomore year, 2014-15 when I went to an event where professors talked about their experiences working for the college. After the teach-in, I was deeply struck by their stories, their struggles to make ends meet, and the information that they are receiving neither healthcare nor benefits. They are forced to reapply for their jobs, some once a year, while others every single semester. They were never sure if they would have an income in just a few months — whether they would be able to pay rent, make a car payment, or buy groceries. At that teach-in, one professor shared that he was being pushed to a breaking point. His working conditions and uncertain nature of his position were so taxing, it was making him so miserable that he was seriously considering quitting. For this professor, this attempt at organization was his last effort to continue teaching. He chose to try and make a change instead of just finding a new job, because he believed that teaching was the thing that he was best at — he loved working in the classroom with students and forming relationships with them.
His words didn’t have to stand on their own. They were backed up not only by the students who had come out specifically to support him but also all the other students who had come for their own professors. Recognizing the value that their professor’s brought to the institution, many students spoke up to express gratitude and admiration for their professors, advocating that such professors should be treated fairly in return for all their hard work.
This was how Students for Labor Action came to be. They formed a union, negotiated, and now, up to and including the strike. The group has supported contingent faculty in their fight for living wages and job security. This work by students has always been driven by the connections between students and their professors, and an acknowledgement that the way professors are treated impacts students. In my own time at IC, I’ve taken class with more contingent professors than I can count, and I’ve found them to be excellent and caring individuals, who are deeply dedicated to their work and their students.
It’s important to talk about the demands of contingent faculty, and the issue of wages of this campaign, being the most serious for part-time faculty. Many are on public assistance of some kind, such as Medicaid or food stamps. These professors are paid substantially less than even their full-time contingent colleagues. People doing the same work should be paid at the same rate. This is the principle of pay parity. Part-time professors aren’t asking to be paid at the same rate as tenure-track or tenured professors, just to be paid the same as full-time contingent professors.
Pay parity would do a great deal to bring part-time professors to a living wage. I’ve spoken to the college’s chief legal counsel, Nancy Pringle, and she told me that she couldn’t argue against the idea. She says that she is committed to pay parity—it’s just finding a path to this that the college can afford. This argument isn’t persuasive to me. Currently, contingent faculty teach about 30 percent of the courses not only at Ithaca College, but nationwide as well. For teaching these courses they are paid about 1 percent of the annual operating budget. The compensation plan proposed by the union would bring the pay for contingent faculty up to 2% of the annual budget—a change of less than one-third of 1 percent. Moreover, the contingent faculty has put forward plans to phase this in over a period of as long as five years. The idea that we can’t readjust such a tiny amount of our budget to help ensure that everyone in our community can meet their basic needs is preposterous.
The administration has long argued that being an adjunct or other contingent faculty member is a choice, and that if professors are unhappy with their working conditions, they should leave. But they don’t want to leave. And their students don’t want them to leave; they recognize that their professors belong at IC. Contingent faculty should be treated fairly for the work that they do.
Students for Labor Action is a group that will exist as long as it needs to, as long as professors are being mistreated by the college. Movements like this one have strength because they are born out of love and compassion. I believe that contingent faculty will win this campaign because of the enormous amount of love that they share with the other members of the community.
Taylor Ford is a fourth year sociology major who is passionate about enacting change for contingent faculty. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org