Fighting the Fear

Adjuncts and union leaders consider the challenge of organizing workers who have reason to worry that activism could cost them their positions.

April 8, 2013

PITTSBURGH -- Seeking to rouse their colleges to stand up against inadequate compensation and working conditions, adjunct instructors and labor activists here collided with the concern that speaking out could be worse than keeping quiet.

“The key internal block for change, I think, is fear and fatalism, and that feeling can only be overcome by courage, by hope, by positive relationships with people similarly situated,” said Joe Berry, an author and adjunct activist in Chicago.

But in searching for solutions that would inspire instructors off the tenure track to overcome that fear, speakers at the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers conference here cast about for cultural and historical analogies without seeming to settle on a specific one.

Is the adjunct movement most like the rise of student societies of the 1800s, which originally operated in secret before becoming an accepted part of the undergraduate experience? Are adjunct instructors like international students, unable to voice their opinions because of their status? Should the movement look to organized labor in Europe for pointers on how to coordinate activism at multiple institutions?

Under the banner “Countering Contingency,” speakers representing academic departments, unions and humanities associations implored the adjunct faculty members in attendance to organize -- whether through traditional unionization or other means. 

“I may be completely misguided in what I’m saying, but I cannot imagine organizing the University of Pittsburgh with the [Industrial Workers of the World] at this moment,” said Robin Clarke, an English instructor and a member of the IWW. Clarke said she thought the Pittsburgh branch of the IWW may not be strong enough to unionize at her institution, and that she would rather see the Steelworkers make an attempt.

But the appeals were regularly deflated both by instructors who feared they would be “tarred and feathered” for suggesting unionization and those seeking to channel that fear into an effective organizing strategy.

“Pay alone doesn’t organize, and I think it’s a funky lesson to draw,” said Heather Steffen, a graduate student in literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. “It’s not the thing that’s going to get people past their fear of losing their job if they organize. It has to be attached to other issues.”

But sessions specifically devoted to addressing those issues -- pay and benefits, job security and respect -- quickly became exercises in hindsight. Michael Bérubé, professor of literature at Penn State University and former president of the Modern Language Association, opened his presentation with a crack about being short on solutions, but even in jest, the remark came close to summarizing the weekend.

Even in cases where adjunct faculty members had rallied their colleagues in support of unionization, much of the conversation revolved around the obstacles such initiatives face. Adjuncts at Duquesne University, who in 2012 overwhelmingly voted to join the United Steelworkers and have since been struggling to be recognized by their administration, likened themselves to “muckers who sometimes have to pause to pull our boots out of suckholes.”

Drawing laughter from the audience, Joshua Zelesnick, an adjunct English instructor at Duquesne, described the unionization efforts at the institution as a virus.

“We’re trying to inject ourselves into the bloodstream of our university,” Zelesnick said.

Despite the frustration expressed by some panelists, the about 80 attendees appeared heartened by the turnout -- the three-day gathering occasionally spilled out of the conference space because of a higher-than-expected number of paper submissions.

And there were success stories scattered among the tales of undercover labor activists and endless legal complications. David Rodich, executive director of the Service Employees International Union Local 500, detailed the organization’s “metro strategy,” which has so far unionized adjunct faculty members at American and George Washington Universities.

Rodich also discussed the risk and prevalent fear he said he has witnessed during his work with the universities in the Washington metropolitan area, and said the push to unionize more adjunct faculty has to come from a change in perception -- and not from local battles that move from one institution to the next.

“It’s not about a fight with an institution. It’s about us taking responsibility for our profession,” Rodich said. “If the reality is we are trying to force [universities] into a sea change that is inconsistent with how the rest of the market does it, we’re going to be banging at that door for a very long time.”

Jack Longmate, adjunct English instructor at Olympic College in Bremerton, Wash., suggested the market could follow in the footsteps of Vancouver Community College in British Columbia, which is often lauded as an adjunct utopia. Longmate has adapted the college’s procedures, which create a single salary schedule for all instructors and a seniority system for adjuncts, into a model that discards the idea that instructors off the tenure track should be treated differently than their tenured colleagues.

“We’re dealing with a cultural issue here in our minds,” Longmate said. “Contingent faculty are seen as a different kind of animal.”

But while he said an adjunct seniority system would not cost colleges and universities a dime, Longmate acknowledged that bringing adjunct compensation up to the level of tenured faculty members would cost Washington State about $100 million per year.

He said, “We could say all we want about being a big, happy family, but until we solve these kinds of conflicts of interest, there will not be true solidarity around.”

Update: This story has been changed to clarify a quote from Robin Clarke.


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