Clash of Interests

Adjuncts at 2 California community colleges push for union separate from full-time professors, reflecting a growing divide nationally.
May 11, 2006

Is a one-size-fits-all union best for everyone at the bargaining table? Adjuncts and full-time faculty members at two community colleges in southern California -- Grossmont and Cuyamaca Colleges, near San Diego -- are currently in battle mode over the question, and their contentions are highlighting an issue that is becoming of increasing concern to professors.

“Objectively, any kinks in unity between adjuncts and full-timers in the same union are a perfect setup for administrators to be able to divide and conquer,” says Zoe Close, a full-time faculty member and chair of the humanities and religious studies departments at Grossmont. “The situation with part-timers amounts to exploitive labor. No full-time faculty member I know likes this situation.”

Close is president of the independent United Faculty union, which includes about 300 full-timers and between about 900 part-timers at Grossmont and Cuyamaca Colleges.

“They certainly talk the talk,” says David Milroy, an adjunct French instructor at Grossmont. “The full-time faculty, however, never seem to vote in people who actually help us.” He argues that part-timers aren’t well-represented in the union’s leadership roles. Only 2 of the more than 20 seats on the union’s steering committee are reserved for part-timers. Close says that there are eight additional at-large seats, which could be filled by adjuncts, but that voting by part-timers has traditionally been low in elections.

Milroy has been rallying part-timers in the college district, and they could soon be granted the ability to vote to form a separate bargaining unit. He says that more than 600 adjuncts have now signed a petition in favor of doing so, which would be enough support to hold an election under state labor rules. The unit would be represented by the California Teachers Association, which has been supportive of the part-timers' efforts thus far.

Milroy says that while he and Close used to be friends -- in fact, she is a former student of his -- he doesn’t think they are anymore.

As part-timers have become an increasing presence at colleges and universities nationwide, Close and Milroy are not the only ones who don’t see eye to eye. Many adjuncts say that their interests can’t be met by mixed unions because part-time issues tend to sit on the back burner, while full-timers make substantial progress. But some full-timers respond that they’re able to form a more effective overall bargaining unit for negotiations with administrators when the two groups work together, and that part-timers often don’t have the time, power or resources to wage negotiations that frequently take years.

In recent months, there have been notable wins by part-time unions, which have buoyed the hopes of part-timers nationwide. Last October, adjunct members of the United Auto Workers union at the New School, in New York, negotiated a breakthrough contract, which some have called a model for adjunct job security. In November, the Adjunct Faculty Association at Nassau Community College, on Long Island, a deeply rooted independent, hammered out an agreement that substantially increased wages and benefits, and in January, adjuncts at Suffolk University, in Massachusetts, voted in favor of creating their own union, which is associated with the American Association of University Professors.

Robert Gaudino, vice president of the Nassau union, says that he hasn’t seen many instances in his decades of union membership “where adjuncts being part of the full-time union get anything like a fair shake.” “It’s painfully evident that wherever a full-time union represents part-timers as well, they get left behind and left out,” he says.

Gaudino says that throughout the 1970s and early '80s, full-timers at his institution treated part-timers as if they were “slaves to do the grunt work.” Ultimately, adjuncts there revolted, struggled through two strikes, and formed an independent union of their own – all of which culminated in their recent bargaining successes with administrators.

Full-timers at Nassau, represented by an American Federation of Teachers union, are considered to be well paid and have been largely successful at negotiating attractive contracts. Leaders with the union say that the independent part-time arrangement has ultimately been a positive development, and that many of the tensions Gaudino points out are historical in nature. 

“There’s no reason our model couldn’t be effective nationwide,” says Gaudino. “The large numbers of part-timers everywhere make it possible. We have the power.” He also says that adjuncts should not be fearful that they’ll “end up homeless” if they choose to strike, saying that many are accustomed to working several jobs to make ends meet, and that striking at one institution doesn’t mean they can’t work at another in the interim.

“Part-timers need solid leadership that is not afraid,” he says. “Our two strikes weren’t fun or pretty, but adjuncts have to understand that they have great strength.”

Not all adjuncts believe that Gaudino’s action plan is necessary. Andrew Purvis, an adjunct English instructor at Cerritos College, in California, says that he’s found it beneficial to be part of a combined union, in his case one that’s affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. “Part-timers often don’t have the time or power necessary to bargain with the district,” he says. “I think we have greater strength in our numbers.”

Purvis believes that different legal environments in different states may make it more advantageous for part-timers in different regions to become independent. “I’m glad that part-time unions can succeed,” he says. “I wonder, though, if this is more illustrative of the abilities of specific negotiators or specific unions in specific states.” 

Larry Gold, who directs the higher education department at the AFT, says that as a general rule, organizers there believe that faculty interests are best advanced when full-timers and part-timers are represented by the same local. 

“But that's not the end of the story,” says Gold. “For locals representing both full-time and part-time faculty, we also believe that adjunct faculty should have full voting rights, that they should be actively encouraged to participate in all union affairs and that the union should push for full implementation of part-time faculty rights.” The organization offers a “ Standards of Good Practice” document on the subject. 
Gold also sees the rationale behind Gaudino’s arguments. “Although we think that bargaining together is preferable, sometimes the full-time faculty or the part-time faculty at a college just can't agree on a common program and feel they can not pursue their aims together,” he notes. “In those cases, or when the impetus for bargaining comes from just one side, the faculty are likely to form separate locals, many of which are successful.”

Even in these cases, though, Gold says that the union urges full-time and part-time faculty unions to work together as closely as they can to prevent them from being in a divide-and-conquer situation vis-a-vis administrators.

Milroy, who is leading the part-time union breakaway effort at Grossmont and Cuyamaca Colleges, says that the ideal would be a “wall-to-wall” union where part-timers and full-timers have a unified voice to achieve positive results for all.

“Full-time faculty are intricately entwined with the campus,” he says. “Yes, they might be able to do some things we can’t. But if they aren’t representing us well, all that doesn’t amount to anything.”

The state labor relations board in California is expected to decide soon on whether the part-timers at Grossmont and Cuyamaca can proceed with their plans to secede.


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