Pushing for Job Conversions

Budget bill for community colleges in Washington State may represent union campaign's first success at shifting positions from part-time to full-time -- and the plan is not embraced by all adjuncts.
March 6, 2008

In the campaign to deal with the shift of faculty positions from full-time to part-time, what counts as a victory? Better wages and benefits for adjuncts? More job security? Collective bargaining? Or the job security that comes with a tenure-track position?

In recent years, adjuncts have won notable successes on a variety of fronts, particularly through unions -- although the most notable advances have helped but a small fraction of those off the tenure track. In Washington State, a national union-backed effort may be about to achieve legislation that specifically goes after "conversion" -- taking part-time jobs and turning them into full-time positions, with tenure eligibility.

The state Senate's version of the budget provides $500,000 for such conversion efforts at the state's community colleges. That's not going to convert that many jobs -- about 20 new full-time slots would be created. Currently the funds aren't in the House of Representatives version of the bill, but faculty advocates are hopeful that the funds will be added.

While the amount of money is small, the step may be significant in that it would establish a state policy of shifting such positions -- and provide the money (even if a small amount) to back it up. In other states, bills have mandated ratios of full- to part-timers (and frequently those laws have been ignored), or individual collective bargaining agreements have included funds for creating more full-time jobs. But the specific conversion of jobs is different -- and raises tough issues.

The effort in Washington State is part of the FACE campaign (for Faculty and College Excellence) of the American Federation of Teachers. FACE's goals are in fact dual: better treatment for those off the tenure track and a gain in the proportion of jobs that are on the tenure track. Last year, FACE's first with programs in legislatures, it was able to have numerous hearings, and also saw some increased appropriations for pay and benefits for part-time faculty members (including those in Washington State). But if the budget legislation goes through, it would mark the first key success in conversion of jobs -- a goal AFT leaders in Washington State view as crucial to converting more jobs in the years ahead.

To Phil Ray Jack, the legislation is long overdue and its significance is obvious. "Every quarter, I have students come up to me and and say 'what are you teaching next quarter?' and I have to say 'I don't know,' " said Jack, on an interview while he was on a bus going from a teaching assignment at one campus to one at another. (He teaches primarily at Green River Community College, where he is an AFT leader, but his "part time" teaching career involves five courses a semester, at three campuses.)

Jack said that he believes faculty leaders have shied away from talking about the impact of part-time teaching slots on the quality of education because they have not wanted to imply that adjuncts are working less hard or are less committed to students. But he said that there is an impact on students, and professors, and that this suggests the value of shifting positions. When he tells students he doesn't know what he'll be teaching, he said, he's denying them "the continuous contact" that they need.

There are also problems in governance and decision making, he said. Jack recalled attending a meeting of professors on reaching students who come to college with significant deficits in their preparation. He asked the professors in the audience how many of them were part timers and he was the only one. He did a poll of those at the meeting on how much teaching of at-risk students was done by part timers on their campus, and over 80 percent was. So here was a room full of professors talking about the teaching of students they by and large didn't teach, while those who did the teaching didn't have the ability to be there as they were dashing from job to job, he said. "There is a real impact on students and quality," he said.

The problem -- even with only 20 new full-time jobs being created -- is who will get them. The original FACE-inspired legislation in Washington State this year included not only the funds for conversion but a directive that "priority" be given to hiring current part timers for the new full-time jobs. That bill died. When the funds were restored as part of the budget bill, the "priority" designation disappeared.

So while colleges would be free to hire current part timers, they wouldn't be required to do so. (In Washington State community colleges, the vast majority of openings for full-time positions are filled by people who have taught part time at a community college in the state, but at four-year institutions nationally, part timers regularly complain that they are passed over for positions -- even to teach the classes they have offered.)

John Boesenberg, director of human resources for the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, said that the board opposed the priority designation. "We believe the best candidates should be hired in a local decision-making process," he said. "Local decision makers are best placed to make the decisions."

The state board welcomes the conversion funds, he said, adding that he believes that if the new jobs are created, most will end up going to people who have taught part time. "We believe legislation isn't necessary."

But while the AFT is pledging to try to get the priority status added next year, some part timers view the legislation as a betrayal that will lead to lost opportunities for them. Leaders of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association have in fact been campaigning against the FACE legislation, which they view as a bill the favors full-time interests over theirs.

Doug Collins, who teaches English as a second language at South Seattle Community College, said that the fight over the priority status misses a larger problem. "We have nothing to gain from this -- only something to lose from this," he said, because the new full-time jobs will replace anywhere from one to three part-time assignments. "There's no way you create a full-time slot unless you are laying off a part timer."

Because full-time instructors have precedence over part timers in course selection and scheduling, adjuncts who keep their jobs will also see their situations worsen, he said. "A real solution wouldn't put us in competition with one another," Collins added.

As to the argument that some dramatic change is needed to create more of a full-time faculty, Collins said that many adjuncts -- himself included -- don't want a full-time job, and so shouldn't have their interests dictated by a union with tenured professors. "This is all misleading," he said, because legislators who want to help adjuncts will think they have done so.

Sandra Schroeder, president of the Washington Federation of Teachers and an English professor at Seattle Central Community College, is mystified by the criticism -- and defends her union's efforts. She noted that because of efforts prior to this year, part-time instructors currently are paid on average about 60 percent of what a full timer would earn per course at a community college. While that's a large gap, it's better than the 50 percent of a year ago, and the gap has been shrinking.

Schroeder vowed to continue to push on closing the gap, but also said that when about half of community college classes are taught by people off the tenure track, there are staffing issues that need to change. "We're trying to make progress in both areas," she said.

"We need more people with tenure," she said, and many of those who could earn it if more jobs are converted are current part timers. "There is a pool of highly experienced, well qualified people, and when some of them get these jobs, there will be more full timers fighting for part timers."


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