How Fast Is Fast Enough?

SAN JOSE -- At a forum for adjunct faculty members Saturday, organizers asked participants to write down notes about their concerns about job security and compensation issues. The first note read aloud asked: "How do we get multi-year contracts?" To which one adjunct in the crowd shouted: "How can we get one-year contracts?"

March 29, 2010

SAN JOSE -- At a forum for adjunct faculty members Saturday, organizers asked participants to write down notes about their concerns about job security and compensation issues. The first note read aloud asked: "How do we get multi-year contracts?" To which one adjunct in the crowd shouted: "How can we get one-year contracts?"

The differing perspectives reflected in the exchange were present throughout the forum and other sessions here at the biennial joint meeting of the higher education divisions of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. Both unions have placed more emphasis on adjunct issues in recent years -- and both can point to organizing drives and contract successes as a result.

Both also face large numbers of adjuncts who feel that the progress isn't nearly fast enough or comprehensive enough. So for every adjunct who has gained a one-year contract and wants to go long term, there are many who work course by course -- and who have just come through a year in which many adjuncts lost sections due to budget cuts, dramatizing their lack of security.

In a session here Saturday, union leaders discussed what they considered to be successful efforts at building coalitions to advance adjunct rights. But at the open forum, there was less emphasis on building coalitions (although the topic did come up) and more of a debate over whether more visible, more public protest was needed -- with some advocating a national, one-day strike of adjuncts. Further, in the forum, at least some of the grievances were directed not just at administrators but at the senior, tenured faculty ranks.

The discussion of coalition building -- and some of the discussion at the forum -- was more focused on practicalities.

Steve Doster, chair of the Higher Education Advisory Council of the NEA's Ohio branch and a faculty member at Shawnee State University, described efforts in that state to overcome a serious obstacle for unions: State law bars adjunct unions. The NEA, the AFT, and the American Association of University Professors organized a meeting for state leaders to talk about academic staffing -- and the impact of relying on part-timers. That was followed by a proposed bill to lift the ban and a hearing on it. While the legislation certainly hasn't passed, Doster said that lessons have been learned.

At a hearing on the bill, Doster testified, along with a faculty colleague who is in the humanities. While she received "aggressive questioning," he noticed that he did not. He had stressed that he is a C.P.A. and teaches management and has worked as an auditor. "I got treated with much more respect" than did his colleague, whom legislators "shredded," he said. He advised others to be sure to include some adjuncts whose C.V.s would impress Republicans as well as Democrats.

While Ohio is just getting started on legislation, Oregon can point to modest progress for adjuncts. David Rives, an instructor at Portland Community College who is president of the AFT in Oregon, discussed how the organization has pushed the AFT's Faculty and College Excellence Campaign, known as FACE, which calls for increasing the percentage of teaching that is done by those on the tenure track while also improving the treatment of those who teach off the tenure track.

Rives noted that in the decade prior to FACE's 2007 launch, faculty groups in Oregon tried for five different pieces of legislation to help adjuncts. None of the measures passed.

In 2007, a legislator introduced FACE legislation, and while the full bill went nowhere, legislators agreed to order a state study of faculty staffing in public higher education. Then, in 2009, even with the national and state economies collapsing, Rives said that the goal was to move FACE further.

That year, a bill was enacted that forced colleges to collect and share the information needed for the 2007 study (some said they didn't have it), and to allow adjuncts the right to use the state employee system's health insurance plan. While the law didn't require that the state pay for the insurance, Rives said that he hopes that some campus unions may win that right through bargaining. Even without that, he said, some adjuncts are helped because they had difficulty getting coverage themselves.

He said a key part of building a coalition was inserting the union into legislative circles. Beyond lobbying, he noted that in 2008, an AFT member was elected to the legislature. "You need someone who is in the issue," not to please someone else, but because the person knows it matters, Rives said.

Rives said the idea is to keep going back and adding improvements. Craig Smith, of the national AFT's higher education staff, said that it is also important to reach "a widening circle of stakeholders" to talk about these issues. For instance, he said that the AFT has recently started discussions with several national student groups to seek their support on adjunct issues. “We’ve been thinking about who else cares about the issue or might care more about the issue if they know more about it," he said.

Not Fast Enough

The idea of slow progress, legislative session by legislative session, may not go over well with all rank and file adjuncts.

Several said that they wanted a very simple focus. "I think we need a national campaign from AFT that just says equal pay for equal work, period," said one adjunct leader from New Jersey. "The FACE campaign is fine, but we need something stronger."

This adjunct also said he was tired of surveys -- such as a recent one released by the AFT -- that note how committed adjuncts are to teaching, even if they aren't well-paid. "We are not doing it for love of teaching, but for compensation and recognition and respect, and we don’t get any of that.” He said that tenured faculty members are treated with respect not only on job security and pay, but on classes. "We get the leftovers ... the 7 in the morning classes."

Marcia Newfield, who is the adjunct leader in the City University of New York faculty union, said of the various campaigns for those off the tenure track: "They have big booklets. They have small booklets. They have Web sites, but it's not enough. We need to embarrass the universities." She said that without some meaningful change, "it's only a matter of time" until colleges "outsource online teaching to India."

Another adjunct suggested that there is a need to rethink language. "The big elephant in the room is that the category of adjunct is fraudulent," she said. "They are sort of categorized as last-minute temps, and this is a lie" given that colleges depend on large adjunct contingents semester after semester. "Is there a way to expose this lie? Can we make it illegal to call adjunct faculty adjunct?"

Many of the issues raised by the adjuncts involve the relative rights of faculty members on and off the tenure track. Several criticized "bumping" rights that allow tenured faculty members to take on courses that have been assigned to adjuncts, singling out the practice of letting retired faculty members do so. Others talked about the assignment of classes, office space and general respect.

Another frequent area of criticism was the practice of across-the-board percentage raises for adjuncts and for those on the tenure track. Since the latter are paid more, usually by a lot, an across-the-board raise adds to the salary gap, several noted.

While many of the adjuncts advocated forms of immediate action, others cautioned that success would take some time. John Govsky, an adjunct at Cabrillo College, said that non-tenure-track faculty members have made advances in two ways: state legislation and local bargaining. Neither of these methods is speedy, he noted.

"It's political and it's a long hard slog," he said.


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