We Need an Adjunct Union
“TIME FOR ADJUNCTS TO FORM THEIR OWN UNION — ARE YOU IN?” screamed the headline of an email recently sent to the decade-old national adjunct listserv. The letter pointed out that the higher education unions "are busy dealing with K-12 issues or otherwise attending to the 'needs' of their tenured and tenure-track faculty." Paradoxically, it asked that "adjuncts 'stand up' to be counted (ANONYMOUSLY)" and directed people to a website where they could fill out a questionnaire in order to find out how many adjuncts at their college wanted to form a union. The anonymity was to protect the adjuncts from "fear and retaliation."
It was sent after another of many listserv discussions about the inadequacies of the three faculty unions (American Association of University Professors, American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association) in providing "fair representation" to adjuncts. Wisconsin’s Madison Area Technical College adjunct union had just lost an unfair labor practice lawsuit it brought to stop the tenured faculty union from teaching extra courses (overloads) and taking income away from the adjuncts. Both the adjuncts and the full-timers at this college are represented by the AFT, in separate chapters. I believe that the national AFT’s refusal to intervene ensured that the tenured faculty would prevail, as they usually do throughout the country.
Who wrote the mysterious listserv posting calling for a national union? Was it real or a prank? The return email address read simply “NunayourBusiness.” Since it was critical of the tenured faculty unions, I heard through the grapevine that some union leaders believed that their worst nightmare had come true: I, Keith Hoeller, had finally stepped up to the plate to form an adjunct union. But I had nothing to do with it.
The idea of a national adjunct faculty union has been building for some time. For years, Chicago activist Joe Berry had been urging the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL) to expand into a national organization, but nothing materialized. At the San Diego COCAL VIII meeting (2008), I proposed that COCAL expand into a national adjunct organization with a board of directors, elected leaders, and a dues-paying membership. Union leaders spoke against the motion, arguing that adjuncts were not capable of such a difficult task and they would not be able to fill out all of the necessary forms for incorporation. The motion was tabled. In December of 2008, I began to call leading adjunct activists around the country to form a new all-adjunct union. The goal was to put together a group of adjuncts who had extensive experience in creating social change and who were not afraid to act independently of the unions.
In January, 2009 Gregory Zobel wrote in Inside Higher Ed, “Adjuncts must lead their own labor reform movement. We need our own national movement separate from the AAUP, AFT, and NEA."
Then in February, 2009, tenured faculty member Peter Brown of the State University of New York at New Paltz issued a call on the adjunct listserv for an organization that “is not designed to supplant or be in competition with unions or any other currently existing organization… .” Though I was skeptical because Peter was not interested in forming a union and did not want to compete with the faculty unions, I nonetheless decided to join Peter’s efforts and served on the organizing committee of what has since emerged as the The New Faculty Majority. NFM has remained true to Peter’s vision of a primarily adjunct organization, which can be especially useful in "right to work" states where unions are nearly impossible to form.
Yet there still is a need for an independent national union of adjuncts, which would not hesitate to confront and to compete with the unions for ideas and members. It should be dedicated to the abolition of the two-track system, and to complete equality for adjuncts.
The Madison adjunct union is not an exception when it comes to unions placing a higher priority on the needs of full-time, tenure-stream faculty than on its adjunct members. Two of the most contentious conflicts remain the issues of the capping of adjunct workloads below full-time, and the right of the tenure-stream to teach overloads and take courses and income away from the adjuncts. Why should the low-paid, low-benefit adjunct faculty not be allowed to work full-time when the high-paid, high-benefit, full-time faculty are given preference to teach extra courses and earn even more money?
The Professional Staff Congress (AAUP-AFT) of the City University of New York has long capped the teaching its adjuncts can do, yet allowed departmental waivers for some adjuncts. The PSC recently announced that it was ending the waivers so as to “protect adjuncts and promote the creation of more tenure-track jobs." CUNY Contingents Unite protested that the only thing being protected was the tenured faculty, and that the union was throwing the adjuncts under the bus.
In “The Overload Debate” (Community College Journal, Fall, 2010), Jack Longmate points out how the AFT/NEA unions and the community colleges in Washington State have bargained contracts that severely limit adjunct teaching, while at the same time allowing tenure-stream faculty first choice to teach overloads as high as 200 to 300 percent of full time. Throughout the state system, even beginning tenure-track faculty have the right to “bump” adjunct faculty and take their courses, while adjunct faculty do not have the right to bump anyone, no matter how long they have taught. Longmate concludes that "a visitor from Mars looking at the differing treatment of full-time tenured faculty and part-time contingent faculty … might conclude that discrimination is rampant in the U.S. higher education workplace."
All of the problems that adjuncts face stem from dividing the professoriate into two separate but unequal classes: the tenure-track and the non-tenure track, and then treating the tenure-track faculty well and the adjuncts abysmally. Whenever you create an apartheid system like this, people wrongly assume that there is some real qualitative difference between the two classes and the better-treated class is deserving of their perks and the worst-treated class is undeserving. The best political analyses of this concept can be found in the civil rights movement and in Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex.
The recent “research” on adjuncts has followed the historical trend. When society has two groups of disparately treated people, science has not hesitated to "prove" why the distinctions are valid and why the lower class is inferior. Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man documented how 19th century science "proved" that blacks were biologically inferior to whites. We are now seeing a rash of research — most of it conducted by tenured faculty — that claims to “prove” that adjuncts are inferior to tenure-track faculty.
This research only tends to confirm what many tenured-faculty — and union leaders — in academe already believe. It helps them to justify why they are treated so much better than we are. That is why I recently told a Chronicle of Higher Education reporter there should be a moratorium on all such research on adjuncts.
All three of the faculty unions are wedded to the two-track system and seem unable to think outside the two-track box. Not surprisingly, none of the unions have called for the abolition of the two-track system, and none of them really have a concrete plan aimed at ending the system and all of its inequities. The New Faculty Majority has at least been working on a broad-scale 20-year plan, the Program for Change, proposed by Jack Longmate and Frank Cosco, which models the equal treatment developed by several of the Canadian unions. Instead, the primary solution of the AAUP, AFT, and NEA has been the creation of, or conversion to, more new full-time tenure-track faculty appointments. More importantly, the national unions are run by tenure-stream faculty who do not hesitate to favor their own class at the expense of adjuncts. Many of these tenured national union leaders have become leading voices of the adjunct faculty movement and are routinely quoted on adjunct issues.
When adjunct leaders have emerged independently of the unions, union leaders have not hesitated to employ adjunct-bashing techniques to displace them. Union leaders have learned to enforce loyalty by labeling their adjunct critics as "anti-union." They have also learned to hurl accusations of "anti-tenure" and "anti-full-timer."
But while targeted as miscreants by American faculty union leaders, independent adjunct leaders are often commended and praised by non-U.S. faculty union leaders, such as those of the 10,000-member Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of British Columbia, who actively work for equal provisions for all of their members, not just those who are tenured and full-time.
Imagine if the civil rights movement had been led by white people, or the women's movement had been led by men, or the gay movement had been led by heterosexuals. Of course any social movement for the oppressed needs allies, but where would these movements be today if their primary leaders had not come from the oppressed class?
There can be no solidarity in any union that adopts and supports a two-tiered system. Virtually all faculty unions in the U.S. have bargained — and continue to bargain — entirely separate and completely unequal contracts for their tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty. For decades the teachers unions have been following the practices of the Sheriff of Nottingham instead of Robin Hood.
The tenure-stream faculty are paid much more than the adjuncts; the tenure-track faculty are eligible for regular raises and promotions, which the adjuncts are routinely denied; the tenure-track faculty receive much better health care, retirement, sick leave, and professional leave benefits, along with sabbaticals; the tenure-track faculty have their pick of classes and classrooms, as well as private offices; the tenure-track faculty have tenure and they are the last to be laid off, while the adjuncts have no job security and they are the first to go. The only time the word “equal” appears in the union vocabulary is when they bargain an equal percentage cost of living raise for both groups, which means that the tenure-track faculty receive four times as much money as the adjuncts since they earn four times as much. The academic system is especially abusive because the adjuncts have been denied the job security they need in order to confront the tenured faculty.
There is a serious legal issue at the heart of the academic labor movement. Unions have long fought to avoid employers setting up and running their own labor unions. And federal labor law forbids "employer-dominated unions" in the private sector. But the three faculty unions have numerous chapters where adjunct faculty are in the same unions with the tenured faculty who serve as their direct supervisors. Everyone knows that people are loath to bite the hand that feeds them, even more so when that hand is protected by tenure. In their 100 years of existence, the NEA, AFT, and AAUP have failed to negotiate meaningful job security for nearly all of their adjuncts. Their monomaniacal devotion to tenure as an all-or-nothing idea has caused them to fail to seriously develop other forms of job security for adjuncts. Even now, in the midst of the Great Recession, with the wholesale massacre of thousands of adjunct faculty, the three unions are focused on protecting and increasing the number of tenured faculty.
It should be obvious why all three national faculty unions want adjuncts in the same unions, and why they fear an independent adjunct union. As long as adjuncts are in the same unions as the full-timers, they will be powerless and easy to control. The unions will not have to compete with them at the bargaining table. And union leaders know all too well that the adjuncts — who have no job security and are completely dependent on the full-time faculty — will not be willing or able to organize enough brave souls to take over the unions. The adjuncts will continue to beg the full-timers to represent them and to push their agenda for them.
If adjuncts want to have their own union, there is no way to avoid the hard and dangerous work of forming a new national union from scratch. While I am doubtful that this can or should be done anonymously, I am confident it can be done. As Gregory Zobel wrote two years ago, “a national adjuncts’ union offers the chance for adjuncts to steer their own course, direct their own future, and accept full responsibility for the outcome.” It should be exciting.
Keith Hoeller is the co-founder of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association. He has published two dozen opinion articles on the topic of adjunct faculty, drafted and promoted legislation for adjuncts to give them regular sick leave, and initiated two successful class actions to obtain health care and retirement benefits for adjuncts.