Revolt in the Adjunct Ranks

CUNY's faculty union promised big results, but part-time activists want proposed contract rejected and more open debate.
July 30, 2008

When the current leaders of the faculty union at the City University of New York were elected in 2000, they ousted their predecessors with a vow to be more activist and to deliver more for faculty members, including part timers. Since then, the union leaders have indeed been activist and politically vocal, drawing regular criticism from professors who would prefer to see the Professional Staff Congress take a more moderate stance.

But in an unusual reversal that points to some of the tensions in academic labor over how to balance the needs of full-time and part-time professors, the union (affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers) is facing intense criticism from those whom it pledged to help: the part timers who lack the pay or job security of those on the tenure track. Some part-time professors are organizing to urge the entire union membership to reject a contract recently negotiated by the union.

The dissident part timers charge that the contract -- by failing to achieve anything in the way of job security for most part timers and by calling for the same percentage increase wages for most full-time and part-time professors, even though the former enjoy much higher salaries -- effectively adds to the inequality between those on and off the tenure track. Adding to the controversy is anger from part timers who say that the union's leaders are blocking them from communicating their concerns to the union's full membership.

The union leaders told the critics of the contract that they could not distribute their views in the union newspaper (it was too late for the deadline, they said) or use e-mail to the entire membership because the union leaders have voted to endorse the contract, making that stance official policy even before the membership votes.

Because adopting a contract is one of the union activities that requires a membership vote, this has infuriated many adjuncts and some others -- even some who think the new contract was the best the union could hope for. Some critics have noted that they are shocked that the union would block its own members from sending e-mail to the union's list of member names, when union leaders boasted that one of their contract gains was the right to do union business on CUNY computer networks.

One group of angered union members sent out an e-mail that said: "The union as such does not have a position, until the membership has voted.... The unseemly and damaging haste to push this through is reflected in the officers saying 'No,' again and again, to reasonable requests for fuller discussion."

The debate has been playing out at campus chapter forums about the proposed contract and on a listserv for the elected leaders of the CUNY union, which voted 92-13 to recommend the contract to the full membership. But while critics on the Delegate Assembly who took part in that election were able to use an internal discussion group to debate the contract, only they are permitted on that discussion. The heated debate there -- some of which was leaked to Inside Higher Ed -- is not generally being made available to members or the public. Not only do the e-mail messages show frustrations by adjuncts, but also minimal patience by the union leaders, some of whom appear to be losing patience with what are termed "adjunct complainers."

One critic of the union leaders who is on the listserv posted this comment: "Were we told that the declared priority of job security would be dropped? Were we told that increased inequity would be accepted? Were we informed during the months of negotiations that a sudden settlement would be presented and it was unalterably the 'best' that could be gotten -- the 'best' meaning things getting worse for most of us?"

Those who are against the contract say that it does much too little for part timers -- even after the union leaders repeatedly promised that this contract would yield real progress.

In one analysis widely discussed on the listserv, an advocate for the part timers wrote that an adjunct at the top salary step, with 12 years of service, who taught seven courses a year, would see a three-year salary increase under the contract from $23,800 to $27,700. Calling such figures "poverty wages," many have said that it is a sham for faculty union leaders to endorse any contract that couldn't do better.

Further, at a time that a number of adjunct unions are winning various forms of job security for part timers -- multi-year contracts after an initial probationary period -- the CUNY contract didn't make headway in this area. James Hoff, an adjunct at CUNY's Hunter College and City College campuses, said that "job security is the most important issue, and the fact that other unions are getting it is very disheartening. The leadership said they would make it a priority and not to have any movement on it was devastating."

The faculty union's leaders say that they tried to do more for adjuncts, but that the CUNY administration (which declined to comment for this article) stood in the way. That argument doesn't convince Hoff. "The union says that they are up against an absolutely intransigent administration, but that's not a sufficient reason to settle. Settling is the wrong thing to do."

Many experts on academic labor didn't want to comment on the record for this article, with some saying that the CUNY situation is a fight in which they didn't want to offend either side. But privately, they noted that it's very hard for any contract to be universally popular, given that negotiating teams can't get everything they want (especially if a state's economy starts to tank just as negotiations are wrapping up). And the CUNY faculty union had to negotiate at a time when the CUNY administration has been enjoying considerable success in attracting top faculty members (to tenure-track and tenured positions) and in a city with no shortage of people looking for academic jobs and willing to work part-time. Further complicating matters, some full timers want more of a focus on their salaries and benefits -- and don't hesitate to tell union leaders that.

One long-time CUNY observer, who described himself as sympathetic to the adjuncts' cause, said that they were criticizing the union for the wrong reasons. The problem wasn't lack of commitment to adjuncts, but the lack of a plan, he said. Looking at the economic and political realities of the state and city over the last year, he said, no union could have done much better for part timers. But this person said that the union leaders "repeatedly overpromised" to adjuncts what would be possible this year. While part of the politics of contract negotiating is getting the membership motivated and excited, this person said, promising so much more than can be delivered invites the sort of backlash now taking place, and discourages trust in the union leaders.

Sigmund Shen can see a range of perspectives. He's now on the tenure track at LaGuardia Community College and he's a member of the union's Delegate Assembly. But he previously worked at CUNY as an adjunct at Brooklyn College and York College. He said that the current union leadership is much more focused on adjunct issues than previous leaders were and he applauds that.

"I do understand that some of the adjuncts are concerned that it doesn't go far enough," he said. But they are wrong to blame the union when funds are limited by the lack of sufficient support from the state and city, he said. He said that raising these issues will help the union negotiate a better contract in the future, but that rejecting the current contract is unrealistic.

Union leaders acknowledged that there is "real disappointment" among many adjuncts and that this disappointment is vocal. Marcia Newfield, who is the union vice president for part-time issues and who is one of the adjuncts who served on the negotiating committee, said that "right now we are having a problem. The people who want us to vote No, they are not the majority, but they are vocal." She added that they are "dominating the discussions" being held on campuses about the contract, although she predicted that the contract would win approval.

Newfield noted that adjuncts gained 100 "conversion slots" -- full-time positions that will be made available to long-serving part timers. While such conversion slots -- especially with the requirement that current adjuncts get hired -- have been much sought by many adjunct activists, many have questioned whether these are enough to make a difference. (There are some 8,000 adjuncts at CUNY.) Newfield also noted that more money is being added for professional development for adjuncts and that for adjuncts at the highest pay levels (those who have worked more than 12 years), a special bonus increase will be higher than the bonus to be received by those full-time faculty members at the highest pay levels.

She acknowledged, however, that some of those full timers are earning six-figure salaries -- which is decidedly not the case for those with more than 12 years of experience as an adjunct.

On job security, she said she was as frustrated as anyone, especially since CUNY does hire many part timers year after year after year. "We gave them signatures on petitions. We gave them stories. We did what we could do," Newfield said. She added that she wanted to tell CUNY administrators: "What. Is it going to kill you to offer job security? You've had them for 20 years."

Other parts of the contract, Newfield said, contained significant advances for those beyond part timers. She said health insurance for graduate student instructors is much improved. She said that there are improved parental leave policies for new full-time faculty. The overall raises, she said, will matter to many people.

"We got other things," she said. "The dissident part timers are saying we should force everyone to say No, but that won't make our lives better.... And they didn't sit at meetings for a zillion hours and see management."

Steven London, first vice president of the union, said he wasn't surprised by the anger of some adjuncts, but that it was misdirected. "Long-serving adjuncts who are dependent on CUNY are exploited," he said. "We have met stiff resistance from CUNY in terms of trying to improve their working conditions. Am I surprised people working under such circumstances are upset? No."

But London defended the decision not to let the contract's critics share their views with mass e-mail as a reasonable one. "We have a very broad, democratic process for ratification," he said. At the point that the Delegate Assembly recommends to the membership that it approve the contract, that decision becomes official union policy, he said. He noted that there was considerable debate about the contract at the Delegate Assembly meeting and that the union newspaper covered the debate (although critics note that the coverage of the criticism, while accurate, was relatively modest in the context of pages of information in favor of the contract, and that not every professor reads his or her union newspaper cover to cover).

If the union leaders agreed to let critics of the contract have the e-mail list to send out their views, every other group that has an opinion it wants to communicate to the members would feel entitled to the list, he said. "It's not up to the leadership to choose this position or that position" to be shared with the members. He said it would be "an arbitrary expression of power" to decide which groups should be able to have the e-mail list.

He also said that allowing critics to e-mail union members would undercut the ability of the union leaders to negotiate with management. "Imagine a circumstance when the [union] leadership says 'OK we'll agree with you, CUNY,' and we'll agree to have a contract ratification -- only when we put this out to the membership, no matter how small, how scattered the opposition, and no matter how inaccurate, we're going to promote those views too," he said. "Under what circumstances would management think that we are negotiating in good faith?"

The adjunct critics note in turn that ratifying a contract isn't just one of the many decisions union leaders face, but one of such significance that it requires a full membership vote. This being the case, they say, it's reasonable to be able to have supporters and critics of a contract both be able to communicate directly with all members.

London stressed that he agreed that adjuncts deserve more than they'll get in this contract. He said that the union is not trying to prevent anyone from communicating with anyone -- but is just not allowing "union resources" to be involved. "Those who want the membership to vote [against the contract], they can express their views," he said.


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