Why do educators need unions? Aren’t teachers professionals and doesn’t it diminish their professionalism if they join unions? These are questions underneath several of the big issues in education—charter schools as non-unionized competitors for public schools—the role of due-process rights for teachers—the cost of professional salaries for teachers and the cost of fringe benefits and pensions at a time when many politicians want to slash taxes and reduce the size of government. It is sometimes instructive to look at an old issue from another angle, however, and the plight of adjunct faculty in colleges and universities is another context to examine the need for unions.
Adjunct faculty are the teachers who, these days, are likely to have earned a Ph.D. but have not found full time work. It used to be that these part time college teachers were found teaching remedial classes or any of the many sections of freshman English, but increasingly they are picking up courses across the academic disciplines. In an important piece in The American Prospect, Justin Miller explains: “Part-time. Contingent. Non-tenure track. Casual. Adjunct. Non-standard. Peripheral. External. Ad hoc. Limited contract. New model. Occasional. Sessional. Call them what you will, but these professors have now become the majority of college and university faculty. Their jobs are defined by low pay, limited instructional resources, tenuous employment security, and a complete lack of institutional support for their own research and writing. Contingent faculty has become a subset of the new working poor—the subset with Ph.D.s… Today, part-time adjunct instructors comprise more than half of all faculty (not including those at for-profit institutions); another 20 percent are full-time without tenure.” Miller adds that of all college faculty, “Just 30 percent are traditional tenured or tenure-track appointments.”
The phenomenon of colleges hiring adjunct faculty is a subset of what is now called “just-in-time” employment. Instead of staffing on a regular, full-time schedule, employers wait to see exactly their needs and then hire by the task—whether it is hiring a waitress on short notice for peak hours or finding guys to unload a truck right after it has come into town or hiring a college teacher for an extra section of freshman English during fall semester when most arriving students try to take that course. Originally the idea was that contingent faculty would spend a few years gaining experience before joining a tenured faculty, but as colleges have been forced to cut spending, more and more adjuncts have become trapped in a system in which they earn between $2,700 and $3,500 per course and patch together employment from a number of colleges and universities across a region just to try to make ends meet. Many find that no matter how hard they hustle, their families need food stamps and Medicaid to survive.
Over the years unions have been slowly increasing their membership among contingent college staff: “Traditional higher education unions like the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and the National Education Association had been organizing contingent faculty for decades—mostly, however through comprehensive faculty unionization efforts, not by specifically targeting contingents.” They are now stepping up efforts, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has launched what it calls the “Faculty Forward” initiative, demanding benefits along with year-long contracts for the adjuncts it organizes.
Joe Berry of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL) is, according to Miller, credited with developing a regional, rather than a college-by-college organizing strategy. Miller quotes Berry: “That’s the way building trades organized 130 years ago—not by individual employer, but by those practicing the craft in that immediate area and then they made all employers have the same standards. Entertainers—the musicians, the actors—organized on that basis. There’s a lot of precedent…. It’s the workplace-appropriate strategy for organizing this sector.” A regional union for contingent faculty makes very good sense for a Ph.D. who in one semester drives considerable distances each week to teach classes at community colleges in three counties plus another class at the state university.
Due to persistent cuts in state budgets from the combined long term effects of the Great Recession and tax cutting across many states, Miller believes when organizing is undertaken within institutions, is likely to be more successful at private than in public colleges and universities. He cites Tufts as an example: “In Tufts’s School of Arts and Sciences, more than half of the instructors are not in the tenure stream. In September 2013, part-time lecturers voted to form a union… About a year after the unionization vote, the administration and the union settled on a contract that’s since become a model for SEIU’s Faculty Forward campaign. It offers, at a minimum, year-long contracts for all adjuncts and up to three-year contracts for those with more experience. The part-time lecturers also get first notice and a guaranteed interview for full-time openings. Increased compensation was, of course, a key part of the contract, with as much as a 40 percent pay bump for those teaching Romance languages. By 2016, all part-timers will make at least $7,300 per course; those with eight years of service will earn a minimum of $8,760. And work done outside the classroom will be compensated.”
Teachers—whether in public schools, or in charter schools, or in colleges and universities—need protection of their rights and salaries in an economy that seeks to cut costs as its first priority.