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Adjunct faculty members don’t have a lot of power on most campuses, especially if they aren't part of big collective bargaining units. But adjunct faculty members and other temporary employees at the University of Memphis just skirted what many saw as a cut to their retirement benefits, with the help of their small union in state where it lacks the power to engage in collective bargaining.

“We are viewing this as a big victory since, as far as we can tell, this has never been an issue before,” said Steven Payne, a graduate student instructor in anthropology at Memphis and member of the United Campus Workers-Communication Workers of America chapter. “No one has ever said, ‘This is a problem, you can’t implement this program.’”

In mid-December, as the campus cleared out for the holiday break, the university announced that it was making changes to its retirement plan for temporary employees, including hundreds of adjunct instructors, and that it would need to lay off and rehire all of them. For adjuncts, who are technically rehired every semester – even those who have been working at the university for many years – the idea of getting laid off was jarring, but not that different from what they experienced when contracts expired.

Many were concerned about changes to their retirement contributions, however. Currently, employees contribute 6.2 percent of their taxable income to Social Security, which the university matches. With the proposed changes, temporary employees would no longer contribute to Social Security at the same rate (but would still contribute 1.45 percent to Medicare) and instead automatically be enrolled in a new “Temporary Employee Retirement Plan.” Under that plan, the university would stop matching the Social Security contribution and employees would contribute 7.5 percent of pre-tax pay to an individual, private retirement account. In informational material, the university said the change benefited employees because they had “full control of the investment options” and were eligible to withdraw retirement funds upon leaving the university, even before retirement.

The plan, which is technically a Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) alternative, was made possible by the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990. The law changed the tax code to allow public employees classified as temporary, seasonal workers in new positions, to contribute to private accounts instead of Social Security. A number of colleges and universities, particularly in the South, have moved to adopt them in recent years for adjuncts and other contract employees, where union density is low and where some states – including Tennessee – bar collective bargaining for public employees.

Although FICA alternative plans for adjuncts aren’t new, there has been little to no blowback at other campuses. Experts attribute this to the difficulties associated with organizing adjuncts generally, and in right-to-work states in particular, along with widespread confusion about adjunct retirement benefits. Many adjuncts, especially those who work at different institutions, don’t know what, if any, retirement benefits to which they’re entitled; college and university plans don’t tend to be generous but do vary. Some employees also find privatized retirement preferable, since the plans offer more flexibility than Social Security.

But at the University of Memphis, a public institution where just 10 percent of eligible employees are paying union members, there was some outrage. Adjuncts and other temporary employees said they objected to what they saw as a disingenuous information campaign surrounding the change. For example, they said, individual adjuncts could travel with their accounts, but if balances got too low, banks would begin to charge maintenance fees (although those fees are nominal), and there are taxes upon withdrawal. The change also amounted to small monthly deduction in take-home pay, of a few dollars. Faculty members said, too, that private retirement accounts demanded a degree of financial literacy and a time investment not required by the current plan. But most important, opponents said, the change would likely make more adjuncts ineligible from drawing on Social Security down the line, since 40 fiscal quarters of active contributions are required to ever benefit.

“This is has a significant impact on their retirement,” Payne said of his colleagues. “Adjuncts and temporary workers already are the most vulnerable workers at the university, and the lowest paid, and the least likely to be able to maintain a comfortable lifestyle in retirement” without Social Security.

But union members said they knew that wouldn’t be the most persuasive public rhetoric. So they conferred with other unions and drafted a local media strategy that focused on the bigger impact that the university’s ceasing to contribute to Social Security on the part of some 2,000 temporary employees would have. They contacted Social Security watchdog groups, saying the change would mean millions of dollars in lost contributions, and sent out press releases portraying the change as an “attack” on public retirement benefits. Union members said only intended to “bruise” the administration, and didn’t expect it to budge.

Within five days, however, the university announced that it was tabling the plan, at least for now. Via email, Maria Alam, head of human resources, told employees: “We heard your concerns and in our attempt to accommodate all issues raised and suggestions made, it has been determined that the Social Security Alternative Retirement Plan will not be implemented until further notice.”

Alam said that a simultaneous review of other employee matters impacted the university’s decision. Ultimately, she said via email this week, “it was in the employees’ best interest not to move forward with any other additional changes during this time.”

She said the plan nevertheless would have benefited adjuncts, saying that adopting a FICA alternative “gives temporary employees the flexibility to invest in a retirement plan as well as have access to their money in case of hardships as allowed the [Internal Revenue Service],” such as termination of employment or total disability. Alam declined to say how much the move had been projected to save the university, citing the fluctuating numbers of temporary employees from semester to semester.

Jeffrey Lichtenstein, a data technician who would have been affected by the change, helped lead the effort against the proposal for the union. He attributed the success to having a “small core of union activists” who coalesced around an issue of common concern, and then made that concern matter to the public.

“We know that people really care about Social Security, since it’s an extremely important and personal issue for the vast majority of Americans,” he said. “There was public outcry and it put the university in an extremely difficult position.” He called it an important but “partial” victory, however, since the university might propose the change again in the spring.

Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy organization, said the issue spoke to the “chaotic” landscape surrounding adjunct faculty benefits, and she applauded what the union had accomplished. More generally and most importantly, Maisto said she and other adjunct advocates oppose any change that further defines adjunct instructors, who make up the majority of the teaching force, as temporary.

“Whenever we hear about a system or proposal or a software system that is going to make it easier to keep adjunct faculty contingent, that’s obviously not something we think is a good thing, because it’s missing the point,” she said. “These institutions shouldn’t be making it easier for contingent faculty to be kept contingent when there’s so much evidence that at its core contingency harms students as well as faculty.”

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