New Book Offers Guide to Organizing Adjuncts

Author of "Reclaiming the Ivory Tower" offers his views on activism and collective bargaining for contingent faculty members.
November 30, 2005

Part-time faculty members continue to be frustrated by their salaries, working conditions and general lack of job security. At the same time, some adjuncts have recently won victories on a variety of issues -- largely as a result of either unions or other organizations working on adjuncts' behalf.

A new book -- Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education (Monthly Review Press) -- offers a step-by-step guide on how adjuncts can organize and develop strategies to improve their working lives. The author of the book is Joe Berry, who teaches labor education and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Roosevelt University. He is also the head of the Chicago Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor. In an interview, Berry responded to questions about the themes of his book.

Q: What do you see as the key to organizing adjunct faculty members? Why do adjuncts come together on some campuses and not others?

A: First a word about naming: Adjunct is the most commonly used word, but precarious, or contingent, or non tenure track, who are now the faculty majority, also include a rapidly increasing number of full-time non tenure track (FTNTT) folks. When I use the word adjunct below, please know I mean to include them too, unless I specifically say part-time. What unites us is our casualized status. In answer to your question, I list some lessons in the book, but to boil it down, I would say persistence. Contingent faculty are organizable everywhere, eventually, whether they are part-timers, full-time non tenure track faculty, grad employees, or any of the other permutations and names they have hung on us. Everyone wants more respect for ourselves and our work. We must create a context where hope and courage outweigh fear and fatalism.
Q: On some campuses, adjuncts are represented by the same locals that represent full-time faculty members, while on other campuses, the two groups have separate units. Is one approach preferable for adjuncts?

A: First, it should be a decision by the adjuncts, not the full-time tenure track faculty alone, the administration, or the labor board or law. In the best of all possible worlds, people who work in higher education, no matter what their classification, should be together in the same democratic, participatory, union and even in the same bargaining unit. Most of the best contracts nationally for contingent faculty are in places where there are combined unions and contracts. However, for particular legal, political and historical reasons in many places this is not possible and, in those cases, organizing independently is the realistic choice. Even in those cases, we should strive for maximum cooperation with other campus workers, unionized or not, while protecting our essential interests.
Q: Some adjuncts fear that making working conditions better for part-time faculty members will discourage adjuncts (and full-timers) from pushing for the creation of more tenure-track jobs. Do you think these fears are valid?

A: Not in my experience. Tenure-track jobs are declining as a percentage overall, but not because adjunct conditions improve. Gaining full-time tenure track slots should be a uniting issue for tenured and tenure-track faculty. It’s not the overriding uniting issue for contingents. Adjuncts are, however, concerned with who gets the tenure track jobs and how they are chosen. Discrimination against long-time contingents is widespread and well documented, though unfortunately not illegal unless combined with demonstrable age, race or sex discrimination.

Q: There have been some notable contract successes recently for adjuncts, with many people talking about the deal at the New School. What do you see as the key demands adjuncts should be raising in contract talks?

A: Key demands are dependent on local conditions and should come from democratic processes among those affected. That said, we need to raise demands both for economic (pay, benefits, etc.) equity and for increasing job security (seniority rights, due process, “just cause” for discipline and non-reemployment, preference for full-time tenure track jobs). We also need to fight for better conditions for our work, such as issues of class size, offices, paid office hours, etc. Our teaching conditions are really our students’ learning conditions and we need to be explicit about that. These are all manifestations of the central issue that unites us all: a desire for respect for ourselves and the work that we do, and, by extension, for our students’ rights to the best education possible.

Q: Tenure is considered by many to be vital for academic freedom. What impact do you think it has on academic freedom for a greater and greater share of professors to be working off the tenure track?

A: There is no true academic freedom without job security. It is an oxymoron, as recent cases have illustrated, though most are never publicized. The great majority of people teaching in post secondary education today have no tenure system and also no union contract job security (“just cause” and due process). No one really wants themselves or their children to be taught by people who are afraid to speak the truth as they see it, but that is the reality today. This casualization of the majority of college and adult teachers change over the past thirty years can only have a negative impact both on students’ education and upon the ability and power of faculty to play their proper role in democratically helping to govern their institutions themselves. In fact, I think freedom of speech and job security on the job should be enjoyed by all campus workers, not just professors.

Q: Are there colleges that you think are treating adjuncts well?

A: The best conditions are at those places with the best union contracts. Some non-union places may have some good conditions for some contingent faculty in some departments for some period of time, but this is never secure without a union to enforce these conditions. “Treating adjuncts well” under whimsical paternalism, whether at the department chair, dean or presidential level, is never really good treatment. We fight for equity and fairness because it is our right, and should be enforceable, not because a particular administrator has a conscience and some personal power for a time.

Q: What would you most like for administrators to know about the push for adjuncts to organize?

A: Don’t take it personally. There is a reason that in virtually every union certification election among part-time contingents, we vote to unionize. The problems are structural, not personal, and your personal opinions and behavior cannot change this fundamental need for us to have a collective voice through independent democratic organization. When it comes on your campus, let it happen in its own way. Organization of contingent faculty (and all campus workers for that matter) can be the best thing to happen for the true mission of mass, critical, democratic higher education in a generation. Administrators need to resolve that they are partners in that mission rather than corporate managers and CEO’s. Administrators can’t determine if we organize or not, but you can decide what role you will play.


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