Do Adjunct Votes Count?

Massachusetts union debates whether part-timers -- who are in the majority by far -- should get full vote in electing leaders.
April 27, 2011

Part-timers outnumber full-timers 5,000 to 2,000 in the union that represents community college faculty and professional staff members across Massachusetts. But when it comes to electing union leaders, part-timers each get only one-fourth of a vote. This year, adjuncts and their allies are hoping to change that.

Every year since at least 2004, efforts to amend union bylaws have come to the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Community College Council (MCCC), which is affiliated with the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the National Education Association. While support for proposed changes has increased and even crossed the 50 percent threshold, efforts to amend the bylaws have fallen short of garnering the necessary two-thirds of the MCCC's members. And the issue is slated to be raised at this weekend’s meeting of the MCCC’s Delegate Assembly.

The crux of the issue is the weight of the vote that adjuncts can cast. Advocates for a change want each member -- whether adjunct or full-time -- to have a full vote in electing leaders. Currently, the bylaws of the union allow adjuncts -- defined as those who work less than half of a full-time position -- one-quarter of a vote each in elections for chapter leaders, directors and officers of the MCCC. Full-time faculty members have a full vote. In other contexts, including statewide contract ratification, adjuncts can cast a full vote.

Dues are also paid as a pro-rata basis, with part-timers paying 30 percent of a full-timer’s dues, and those teaching less than three credits paying 15 percent of the full-time rate (the differing proportions in voting rights and dues do not seem to trouble very many people on either side of the issue, and may have to do with NEA rules, said several faculty members).

By comparison, the notion of each union member being granted a full vote is in the constitution of the American Federation of Teachers Higher Education. In addition, its standards of good practice declare that, in cases in which full-timers and part-timers belong to the same union, "part-timers must have full voting rights on all union matters, including the election of officers and the ratification of contracts." The American Association of University Professors does not have guidelines in place covering adjunct voting rights in unions in which adjuncts and full-timers are organized together. Some adjuncts say that such blended units can be troubling for them because their union peers often act as their job supervisors.

In Massachusetts, advocates for and opponents of a change to the bylaws both see a fair amount of common ground, and agree that the union has done much to help adjuncts. Nonetheless, the conflict illustrates the ways that the interests of full-time and part-time faculty members can run counter to each other in labor relations, how fear plays into each side's position, and how power is divvied up in unions, like MCCC, in which full-timers comprise the minority of the faculty but still wield the majority of the power in a union.

“The quarter vote is symbolic to me,” said Betsy Smith, an adjunct professor of English as a Second Language at Cape Cod Community College who has been perhaps the most vocal advocate of changing the weight of adjunct voting rights. Smith acknowledged that it was difficult to cite specific examples of how the discrepancy in voting weight had negatively affected adjuncts in the past. But she described the situation of adjuncts as an issue of social justice, and invoked as precedents the fights to secure full voting rights for women and African-Americans.

“It’s indicative of a lack of taking people with really similar academic backgrounds and really similar years of teaching experience seriously,” said Smith, who holds a Ph.D. and has taught for 30 years, the last 11 of them at Cape Cod. “When my union doesn’t give me respect, it’s easier for my administration not to give me respect. When I go to the bargaining table, they see me as being substandard.”

The opinions of advocates like Smith seem to be slowly persuading full-timers, those on both side agree. Joe LeBlanc, a full-time English professor at Northern Essex Community College and president of the council, said his views have evolved over time and that he now favors granting a full vote to adjuncts (as president, however, he cannot vote).

“It’s clearly a question of human rights,” he said. “Every member of the MCCC should receive the same vote in a statewide election.” He also characterized opposition to the one-person, one-vote efforts in fairly blunt terms. “It comes down to a word, and the word is fear,” he said. “And I think the fear is unfounded.”

At least one opponent acknowledged that fear was playing at least a small part in the continued resistance. Putting the union’s leadership and agenda in the hands of adjuncts who outnumber full-timers would further weaken the status and influence of full-time professors, said Phil Mahler, professor of mathematics at Middlesex Community College and state treasurer of the MCCC, as well as a former president and vice president of the state union.

“To me, there’s something sacred about full-time work which I personally wish to preserve,” he said. “I think if unions aren’t working hard to maintain the dignity of full-time employment, they’re all washed up.”

Mahler and others were quick to praise the abilities of their adjunct colleagues and to point to a record of advocacy on behalf of their part-time colleagues. Adjuncts gained the right to unionize, they say, when full-timers led a strike on their behalf. They fought to increase pay for adjuncts (it has nearly tripled since the first union-bargained contract in the late 1980s), though it’s still far short, on a prorated share, of what full-time faculty earn. Seniority rights are in place that allow adjuncts to reasonably expect to teach classes after an established record of solid performance. Full-time faculty members also cite more recent history: the union joined a 2009 lawsuit that adjuncts filed against the state, seeking to force the Commonwealth to classify them as employees rather than consultants, which would make them eligible for health insurance through state plans.

The larger reason that the one-quarter vote should continue to be in place, argued those in favor of the current system, was that full-timers have a more complete view of the campus. They more often come into contact with other faculty members, counselors, librarians and financial aid staff who are also part of the union -- and therefore they make more effective union leaders.

Adjuncts, who may teach one class and hold another day job full-time, said Mahler, are simply not as plugged in to the latest in curricular developments, or as versed in the demands that are being exerted on community colleges to meet completion goals, for example. Full-timers are also paid and expected to advise students, hold office hours and serve the college -- all of which give them a view of the college that is different from adjuncts'. “They are not attuned to the wider picture of what a community college is about or what the union is about,” said Mahler.

And union leaders, said Mahler, need to be intimately familiar with the workings of the institution. “Adjuncts do a wonderful job of teaching and they’re paid to do that, and that’s all they do,” he said. “[But] if you need the curriculum revamped, you need full-time people.”

Tiffany Magnolia, a full-time associate professor of English at North Shore Community College and president of the chapter there, opposes giving adjuncts a full vote for what she calls historical, practical and philosophical reasons. She said the one-quarter-vote provision was originally put in place to safeguard against an administrator who teaches one course on the side putting himself up for election for officer and winning a seat -- and then using that inside position to break the union (she said the attempt was made in the past, though advocates for the change say adjuncts would never vote for such a candidate).

She said she has objected to prior efforts to resolve this concern, such as assigning adjuncts full voting rights on the basis of seniority, because they posed what she called “record-keeping nightmares.” But she said she might favor a proposal that would require candidates to win a majority of votes from both full-timers and part-timers.

Magnolia also does not see the issue of voting rights as being terribly important to most adjuncts, based both on her own experience and on their record of participation in union elections. Though she did say the issue meant a great deal to the “1 percent” of adjuncts who have made it a cause, adjuncts rarely participate in union elections: while there are two at-large spots reserved for adjuncts on the statewide board of the union, she said that only one person ran. “There’s clearly not a tremendous clamoring for representation,” she said.

Magnolia, who is in her seventh year as a full-time professor at North Shore and taught for two years before that as an adjunct, cobbling together a living by teaching on as many as five different campuses, said she is sympathetic to the plight of adjuncts. “The issue of this one-quarter vote is a bit of a red herring,” she said.

The larger issue is that adjuncts are a truly integral part of the college, said Magnolia, and need to be compensated appropriately. “The truth is, if the adjuncts weren’t there, the college would shut down,” she said. “They should be able to garner more for the courses that they’re teaching. If we’re going to get people riled up about something, it should be that. Instead, this is what we’re fighting about.”

While Magnolia made the transition from adjunct to full-time faculty, Harry Bowen traveled in the opposite direction. Bowen, a professor emeritus of history at North Shore, taught there full-time for 37 years and acknowledges that adjunct issues never figured much on his radar until he rejoined the faculty as an adjunct seven years ago. Now, he advocates for a change in voting rights.

While part-time and full-time faculty share many areas of agreement -- a desire to hire more full-time faculty and reduce the reliance on part-timers, for example -- Bowen said he has come to see that the two categories of faculty have a conflict of interest.

This conflict is, in some sense, grounded in fears that persist for both sides, said Bowen. For adjuncts, it’s a fear born of the instability of their employment. For full-timers, it’s a fear of being outnumbered and rendered extinct.

“I think there’s this fear that the pie is only so large and that, if the adjuncts improve their compensation and rights and benefits, that means less of those things potentially for full-timers,” said Bowen. “It’s a kind of a problematic relationship.”


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