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Adjunct activists Cindy Oliver and Stanley Aronowitz present during Monday's COCAL XI conference in New York.

Michael Lisi/United University Professions

NEW YORK – If adjuncts want more workplace rights, they have to take them. That message was echoed throughout a discussion on non-tenure-track faculty rights here Monday at the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, or COCAL, conference. It's being held this week at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York.

The biennial gathering draws participants from the U.S., Mexico and Canada, and adjunct activist panelists from all three countries advocated striking as a real and valid means of achieving short- and long-term goals.

“Unless and until faculty, including part-time faculty, hit the streets and occupy the classrooms,” said Stanley Aronowitz, a tenured professor of sociology and urban education at the CUNY Graduate Center, “there won’t be any change of substance.”

Aronowitz, who has worked as an adjunct professor several times throughout his career, said this idea applied even in those states where collective bargaining or strikes among public employees is prohibited by law. Faculty members at Nassau Community College who went on strike last year over protracted contract negotiations paid hefty fines for violating New York State’s Taylor Law, for example. (Under the law, the union was permitted to engage in collective bargaining, but not to strike.) But Aronowitz and other activists said that striking is a fundamental right that should be ensured by the First Amendment; without the right to strike, he said, collective bargaining too often becomes “collective begging.”

Participants here responded to Aronowitz's remarks on strikes with strong applause.

Maria Teresa Lechuga, a Ph.D. candidate in pedagogy at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, added: “We need to stop asking for permission to organize ourselves.”

Panelists said that striking is always a “last resort,” to be exercised only when adjunct faculty members and administrators can’t otherwise reach common ground. But in order to ensure public support when and if the time to strike comes, advocates said, adjuncts need to nurture relationships with other kinds of workers, along with parents and students.

Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy organization, said adjuncts shouldn't be afraid to bring up their working conditions with their students. She said such conversations are part of students' "civic education" -- an essential part of their studies.

Aronowitz said faculty members should seek to connect with their adult students who are part of labor unions. Such students are frequently “absolutely distant” from the historical labor movement, he said, but have the potential to be powerful allies.

Several audience members said they saw striking as an opportunity to improve adjuncts’ working conditions and, by extension, students’ learning conditions on their campuses. But they expressed concerns about whether it was possible.

Betsy Smith, an adjunct professor of English as a second language at Cape Cod Community College, said she worried that her union wouldn’t consider striking because it was part of the Massachusetts Teachers Association – a mostly K-12 union affiliated with the National Education Association. “Children aren’t running in the streets” when a college faculty union strikes, but the union’s primary orientation might make for a “differing philosophy,” Smith said. (In an interview, Barbara Madeloni, the teachers' association president, said the union sees the “profound exploitation” of adjuncts as a “critical issue,” and that it supports individual chapters’ right to vote to withhold labor.)

Cindy Oliver, president of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of British Columbia, which represents 10,000 instructors in the province’s colleges and universities, said she thought all public employees except perhaps first responders retained the moral right to strike (although she noted that teachers in neighboring Alberta aren’t legally allowed to strike). And it can be a powerful tool; in British Columbia, where it is legal, an imminent strike some years ago helped a faculty union secure language about conversion of some part-time slots to full-time faculty positions and the right of course refusal, among other job security gains, she said.

Another audience member from the University of North Carolina system said adjuncts there “need help,” but that state laws prohibiting public employees from unionizing hinder organizing efforts.

Maisto said non-union organizations such as the Ohio Part-Time Faculty Association and the South Florida Part-Time Faculty Association can be an effective collective voice for adjuncts in non-union states. And she said the New Faculty Majority, which works with unions but is not a union and includes many members in states where unionization of public employees is not permitted, has seen many gains in recent months. National media coverage of adjunct employment issues has increased by 600 percent in the last few years, for example, she said, and Congress recently has expressed interest in adjunct issues, such as through a new bill to extend public service student loan forgiveness to non-tenure-track faculty members who can't find enough work to meet the program's 30-hour per week threshold.

Lechuga said that Mexican adjuncts, faced with faculties in which 76 percent are non-tenure-track, on average, and legislation that prohibits them from collective bargaining about anything other than salary, are in the midst of forming their own version of the New Faculty Majority. It’s called the Coalition for the Unity of the New Academic Majority in Mexico.

Conference participants also discussed gains won through non-hostile negotiations between adjuncts and administrators. A member of the Service Employees International Union-affiliated adjunct union at Montgomery College in Maryland, for example, said that her newest contract ensures a clause that the college will make a “good faith” effort to offer adjuncts the same number amount of credit hours as they’d taught the previous semester.

Aronowitz praised such non-financial goals. He also encouraged adjuncts to negotiate for explicit, pedagogical principles in their dealings with their administrations, recalling the philosophical goals more associated with the labor movement of a bygone era.

“Don’t get me wrong – we need more money, but that’s not the substance of what the labor movement should be, and what it once was,” he said.

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