After the First Contract

Adjunct leaders -- even as they push votes on collective bargaining -- are talking about how to maintain engagement with the rank-and-file well into the future.


August 6, 2014

NEW YORK – How can adjunct unions keep their members engaged after their first contracts have been negotiated? And what’s next on various higher education unions’ agendas? Those and other questions were the focus of a session on adjunct organizing at the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor conference, or COCAL, here Tuesday.

“It’s not just about that election, the ‘win,’ ” said panelist Malini Cadambi Daniel, higher education campaign director for Service Employees International Union, which now represents 21,000 adjunct professors nationwide. “It’s about that second, third, fifth, that 100th contract.”

She added: “We have to change the culture.”

Cadambi Daniel said lessons in member engagement can be gleaned from unions in right-to-work states, such as culinary unions in the Las Vegas area, which must work hard to retain voluntary members. She and other panelists said being part of a union should be a kind of lifestyle, with opportunities for social, political and intellectual enrichment and activism.

COCAL, a biennial gathering held this year at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York, attracts speakers and participants from across the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Arturo Ramos, an adjunct professor of sociology and former president of the Union of Academic Workers of the Autonomous University of Chapingo, in Mexico, said adjuncts must see themselves as a "social and political force" with the power to transform not only their working conditions but the state of higher education.

Donna Nebenzahl, adjunct professor of journalism at Concordia University in Montreal and part of its Part-Time Faculty Association, said adjuncts at her institution have made that leap and are reaping the benefits. Concordia adjuncts have strategically sought over time to “permeate” the university’s governance structure, and serve – with compensation – on committees of all kinds, including hiring committees. That visibility has bred respect from the administration, she said, which is demonstrated by contract wins such as a $240,000 professional development fund specifically for part-time faculty. The Concordia part-time faculty union is one of Quebec's largest, with 1,000 members.

One adjunct professor of American languages from Rutgers University at Newark, Richard Gomes, said he was stunned by that figure, since he has trouble drumming up interest among his colleagues in a $25,000 professional development fund. Without sufficient interest, he said, there's no way that fund will grow. Nebenzahl said her union promotes the fund through trice-yearly application periods and presentations from past recipients. Now, she said, even the university magazine regularly features part-time faculty research projects.

Alyssa Picard, assistant director of the American Federation of Teachers’ higher education department, said it’s also important for chapters to gauge their member outreach through hard metrics. That way, she said, the organizers have a sense of adjuncts' level of engagement after bids are successful, when the tedium of actual negotiations sets in. The union represents about 70,000 part-time faculty members nationwide, many in units along with full-time and tenure-line faculty members.

Susan Michaelczyk, a full-time, non-tenure-track professor assigned to Boston College’s College of Arts and Sciences Honors Program, is second vice president of the American Association of University Professors – its first-ever adjunct professor to serve as an officer. She said that sustained activism is possible even outside of a union context, since AAUP has both union and non-union advocacy chapters. But the ongoing effort must be "grassroots," and come from the campus level, she said; Picard agreed, saying it was up to faculty members on individual campuses -- not the national AFT -- to enforce colleges' and universities' commitment to best employment practices.

Going forward, Cadambi Daniel said SEIU’s Adjunct Action citywide and regional organizing campaign will target Connecticut and New Hampshire, with hopes of adding to its growing list of successful union bids across the country. Both she and Picard said their unions are interested in targeting the for-profit sector, as well; Picard said AFT’s objectives include shutting down institutions with the worst track records. She didn't say which for-profits, or how seeking to close them would impact the adjuncts who work at them. But Cadambi Daniel said some institutions are guilty of forcing their professors to recruit students and setting extremely low standards for students in order to get credit for student seat time and protect their revenue streams.

More immediately, said Susan DiRaimo, a 33-year adjunct professor of English at several CUNY campuses, adjunct members of the system's Professional Staff Congress union are seeking something they've never had in their upcoming contract negotiation: employment protections. 

"Hopefully we'll get some job security in this new contract," she said.


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