Organizing for Adjuncts

At gathering of union leaders and campus administrators, both sides point to gains through collective bargaining for those off the tenure track.

April 4, 2012

NEW YORK -- The plight of contingent faculty is familiar to many – they don’t make enough money, there is little job security and many have to move from campus to campus to make a living wage.

These familiar complaints were aired once again Tuesday at a session at the annual conference organized by the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York. Unionization of those off the tenure track has been growing, and at the session, representatives from both management and labor credited collective bargaining with helping achieve significant gains for such faculty members.

Where there was disagreement, it was over who to blame, with administrators saying that economic realities forced them to rely on adjuncts, while union leaders tended to question the motivations of institutions that shift more teaching to those without good pay and benefits.

Margaret Merryfield, senior director, academic human resources at the California State University System, said the situation with contingent faculty is not always deliberate. “It is the nature of the rise and fall of university space,” she said. Sometimes, she said, they are hired to serve students' needs, especially at a time when there isn’t a whole lot of tenure-track hiring going on. “If you think this is all deliberate, you are giving management too much credit,” she said.

She pointed to some important gains made by contingents through collective bargaining in the CSU system: full health benefits for those with 40 percent appointments or more, three-year appointments for those who have taught six years or more, a chance for new work to be offered to lecturers in place of new hires, and a graded salary scale that mirrors tenure-track salary scales. More than half of the 21,910 faculty in the CSU system are contingent, Merryfield said, and the system works well in growth mode but not so well when the economy is contracting.

But those on the other side said that the problems were more fundamental: administrators either do not understand the nature of contingent faculty or remain opposed to collective bargaining efforts by them. Indeed many states do bar collective bargaining by employees of public colleges, although those institutions were not well-represented here, given that the meeting is of a group of people who seek to talk across labor-management lines.

Alyssa Picard, organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers in Michigan, who often helps faculty unions negotiate their first contracts with management, said that administrators frequently do not have clear ideas about their contingent faculty: who they are, what their qualifications are and “other metrics to making a contract work.”

On the other side, contingent faculty members, she said, are engaged in a constant struggle of trying to be less contingent. “We can do that by providing some measure of job security, by lengthening terms of contracts or even dreaming big – positions that are not time-limited,” Picard said. The work of faculty members who are in danger of losing their appointments every four months might be a lot different than that of someone with a more secure job, she said.

The big divide, according to her, is an inability by some administrators with full-time jobs to fully comprehend what life can be like for contingent faculty.

Joe Berry, a labor researcher, painted a more sinister picture. Not only is there is harder bargaining by administrators  now, but many indulge in moves, he said, that could be described as “union busting.” One example he gave was the dispute at University of Illinois at Chicago where the union and administration have been at loggerheads over an unionization effort.

Berry said the resistance to collective bargaining in private industries is now spreading to higher education. “My argument is to expand collective bargaining, the management folk at traditional collective bargaining institutions -- it is in their interest to cooperate and reverse this trend.” His advice to contingent faculty: “Organize, organize, organize,”

An administrator taking part in Tuesday’s panel discussion, Robert Zazzali, vice president for employee and labor relations at Rowan University in New Jersey, said that contingent faculty should not be used to provide cheap labor or balance the budget.

 “There is a real need and there is a role that contingent faculty play,” he said, but they should be used for short-term or specific purposes only. “I know that sometimes there are economic realities that dictate otherwise,” he said.

At Rowan – where the collective bargaining agreement covers all faculty members – a plan is evolving to hire instructors: a full-time teaching position that won’t be eligible for promotion but will have more job security. "We will perhaps use the instructor rank more, maybe we will capture some contingent faculty. It is a good way of holding on to some of those effective teachers,” Zazzali said.


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