A Day Without Adjuncts

With National Adjunct Walkout Day a month away, interest grows, and it is prompting discussions among faculty leaders. But many supporters feel the need to back the effort in ways other than walking off the job.

January 27, 2015
National Mobilization for Equity

Adjuncts sometimes say they make up higher education’s invisible class. So an idea pitched on social media a few months ago struck a chord: What would happen if adjuncts across the country turned that invisibility on its head by all walking out on the same day? National Adjunct Walkout Day, proposed for Feb. 25, immediately gained support, and adjuncts continue to use social media and other means of communication to plan what the protest will look like on their campuses. Some tenure-line faculty members also have begun to pledge support, and Canadian adjuncts recently signed on, as well.

At the same time, some unions have advised members not to participate due to no-strike clauses in contracts or state laws that prohibit striking among public employees. Others object philosophically to the idea and have proposed alternative methods of highlighting concerns about their conditions of employment. And some adjuncts worry about being the only one on their campus to participate, or not participate.

National Adjunct Walkout Day was proposed in October by an adjunct professor of writing at San Jose State University who wants to remain anonymous, citing concerns about job security and a desire for the protest not to have a designated leader. But she and others continue to help direct communication about the day. They’re in the midst of an online roll call to get a sense of how many adjuncts might be participating on how many campuses.

“The growth is amazing -- it's so exciting to see adjuncts on different campuses getting involved for [walkout day],” said the San Jose State adjunct. “It seems to have tapped into something that was already there and is hopefully reaching even the most isolated of adjuncts.”

It’s hard to estimate how many adjuncts might be participating based on social media activity alone, but there is a lot of enthusiasm. Adjuncts at Ohio State University, for example, created an informational video for students about adjunct faculty employment issues, encouraging them to write letters to the university president, post on social media, and participate in any actual walkout. “Ohio State is one of the biggest schools in the country, and if enough people speak up, the situation is bound to improve,” the video says.

Other adjuncts elsewhere have proposed teach-ins, meaning they won’t walk out but will use the day to talk to their students about adjunct faculty concerns, such as relatively low pay, little institutional support, and the impact of their teaching conditions on student success. Some also have proposed a “grade-in,” in which adjuncts meet in a central place on campus to do work, highlighting the fact that many adjuncts don’t have their own office spaces. Others still have proposed wearing T-shirts identifying themselves as adjuncts, akin to a kind of coming out, rather than a walkout.

“If every part-timer were distinct and visible all day, it would make quite a visual impression,” one adjunct wrote on the official walkout message board. “People simply don’t know that we are the majority of teachers. This is more ‘coming out’ than ‘walking out,’ but it is also far less dangerous. You can’t get fired for wearing a T-shirt -- that’s free speech.”

Beyond concerns about job security, some of these alternative proposals stem from the fact that many states prohibit public employees from striking, usually with fines. And lots of union contracts even in states without such laws have no-strike clauses. United University Professions, the American Federation of Teachers-affiliated faculty union for the State University of New York, last month advised members not to participate in walkout day, citing New York’s Taylor Law prohibiting strikes among public employees.

“While I support our adjunct brothers and sisters in their quest for a living wage and better working conditions, we cannot support, encourage, or condone this particular action,” Fred Kowal, union president, wrote in an e-mail to UUP members. “I am working with staff of the American Federation of Teachers to come up with alternative actions that will be meant to promote and pursue the goals we have established in UUP: bringing adjuncts into full-time status with job security and a living income.”

In an interview, Kowal said that “direct action has a place and always has had a place in the progressive movement, but in New York, we are absolutely restricted by the Taylor Law.” He said he’d also heard some opposition from members to the walkout, including one who said, “I don’t like the message it sends. It’s like we’re walking out on students, and we don’t want to do that.”

Kowal said he advocated other means of expression and that adjunct faculty concerns remained a major part of the union’s legislative agenda.

The Professional Staff Congress, the independent faculty union for the City University of New York, isn’t explicitly advising its members not to strike, but it’s not endorsing walkout day, either. Fran Clark, union spokesman, said adjunct faculty members working with the union will organize a petition drive to support the union’s contract campaign and a union membership drive to coincide with the week of Feb. 25. National Mobilization for Equity, a loose coalition of unions and other faculty advocates, is also advocating National Adjunct Action Week from Feb. 23-27. The coalition is endorsing walkout day in the middle of the week “with the proviso that [it] does not support, encourage or condone anyone violating state laws, e.g., the so-called Taylor Law in New York State.”

Service Employees International Union, which has adjunct faculty chapters at private institutions across the U.S., is leaving decisions about whether or not to participate, and how, up to individual unions.

California doesn’t prohibit strikes among most kinds of public employees. The California Part-Time Faculty Association, which is not technically a union but represents the interests of more than 40,000 adjunct community college instructors, is organizing a day for action in Sacramento. University Professional and Technical Employees, a Communication Workers of America-affiliated union representing adjuncts at three state colleges, is hiring a bus for the occasion. Community college adjuncts in the San Diego area are planning teach-ins. But these efforts are all distinct from strikes.

Adjuncts teaching in the California State University System, who are represented by the California Faculty Association, meanwhile, are prohibited from striking under most circumstances -- including a walkout day -- by their collective bargaining agreement. (The union is affiliated with SEIU, the American Association of University Professors, and the National Education Association.) Jonathan Karpf, a lecturer in anthropology at San Jose State University and an associate vice president of lecturers with the statewide union, said its Lecturer Council still plans to vote in early February on whether or not it will support walkout day. Karpf said expected it would vote to do so, and if it does, “solidary actions of various forms” will happen on most if not all 23 state university campuses on Feb. 25.

Keith Hoeller, an adjunct instructor of philosophy at Green River Community College in Washington and founder of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association, which is not a union, said he supported walkout day in theory, but said it suffered from a lack of leadership from an activist group with a strong agenda -- including plans for what happens after walkout day.

“We want symbols, but we don’t want air symbols,” he said. “If people walk out, is it going to be a blip? Is it going to be an empty gesture? I’m hoping that lots of people walk out, but even if we do, what do we do after that?”

Hoeller -- who has in the past criticized general faculty unions for not doing more to push adjunct faculty interests -- said part of the problem lies with unions. He asked why they aren’t doing more to help adjuncts participate in walkout day, such as setting up funds for fines. He also noted that K-12 teachers seem to strike with some frequency, sometimes with union support, and don’t appear to suffer fines.

Joe Burns, a Minneapolis-based labor attorney and author of Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America, said the vast majority of states ban striking among public employees, but whether or not strikers get fined or otherwise suffer consequences usually depends on the “success” of the strike.

“The general rule has always been that the more successful the strike, the more protected participants are,” he said. “That means how many people participate but also how does the message resonate with the public -- all of this factors into determining the potential repercussions.” For example, Wisconsin teachers engaged in a sick-out across the state in 2011, he said, but drummed up enough public support that policy makers “looked the other way.”

Burns added, “It makes sense if you think about it. It would seem like if all adjuncts [on a given campus] struck, the employer would have to say widespread concern here is what we should be addressing, not punitive measures.”

The walkout day’s success also could ride on the support of tenured faculty members, which organizers say is growing. Jessica Rett, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of California at Los Angeles, has officially canceled her class on Feb. 25 in support of adjunct walkout day. Rett said she was happy to hear about walkout day because “universities' increasing reliance on and exploitation of adjunct professors is unsustainable, and there have been relatively few opportunities, until now, for faculty to protest.”

She continued via e-mail: “University education involves substantially more than the transmission of facts and is at its best when its faculty are engaged in active research, helping the students engage in active research, and afforded the same benefits and job security as workers in other sectors of the workforce. Universities that cut tenure-track research positions for adjunct positions are saving money at a significant cost to their own reputations and the quality of their students' education.”

Carol Tilley, associate professor of library and information science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has endorsed walkout day on social media. She said she hadn’t talked to other tenure-track faculty members on campus, but she guessed many were aware of adjunct faculty concerns due to recent unionized efforts among adjuncts on campus. She said she’ll participate in adjunct walkout day, but likely “symbolically,” since she doesn’t teach on Feb. 25.

Nancy Leong, associate professor of law at the University of Denver, who once taught as an adjunct, also has written about walkout day on her blog.

“Those of us who are tenured and tenure-track faculty should care in an even more immediate way, as the fate of the adjunct is intimately tied with the fate and shape of our own institutions,” she wrote, encouraging tenured faculty members to consider team teaching with nontenured faculty members. “For now, I hope everyone -- particularly my fellow tenured and tenure-track faculty -- will mark their calendars for Feb. 25.”

In an interview, Leong said she would participate in walkout day but planned to “take a lead” from adjuncts at Denver. She said adjunct faculty members at law schools don't share the exact same set of concerns as adjuncts elsewhere on campus, given that many of them have other jobs and are hired to teach based on their professional expertise. But she said it was important for faculty members across campus to show concern for contingent-faculty working conditions.

Despite all the enthusiasm, that could prove difficulty on some campuses, given the decentralized nature of the protest and adjuncts’ precarious status. As one adjunct posted to the walkout day message board: “How do you know if anyone else at your campus is participating? Adjuncts are notoriously isolated. We don’t have access to the e-mail lists of all contingent faculty. I want to put info about #NAWD [the protest’s Twitter hashtag] on my syllabus for the spring, but it would be really difficult if I was the only one walking out and didn’t know it. Likewise, it would be really difficult if I was the only one NOT walking out on my campus.”

Still, it appears some campuses are bracing for a big turnout. Campus Safety Magazine recently published “13 Steps Your Campus Should Take to Prepare for National Adjunct Faculty Walkout Day.” Pointers include “remind officers they can be recorded,” “prepare for traffic control issues,” and “provide officers with flex-cuffs so they don’t lose their issued cuffs if detainees are taken to jail.”

The article’s author, Lt. John Weinstein, commander of Northern Virginia Community College Public Safety District No. 3., did not immediately return a request for comment about what, if anything, had informed his advice. He finished his post by saying, “The adjunct day of protest may turn out to be benign and peaceful. Prudent planners will get out in front of the event by planning for all possible contingencies. Good luck.” Some adjuncts criticized the post on social media as advocating a militarized response to walkout day, but many more poked fun at it in tweets such as this one, from @AddieJunct: "Lol, it's back! Worried adjuncts will take over your campus? #NAWD-proof in 13 steps."

Some other quirky developments have sprung up around walkout day. PaperClip Communications is offering a $389 webinar on what to expect from the event. The webinar site says it will help participants “understand the motivation behind the upcoming National Adjunct Walkout Day and how events surrounding this movement may look on your campus.” A spokeswoman for the company said many of the registrants appear to be academic administrators.

Aaron Hughey, professor of counseling and student affairs at Western Kentucky University, is leading the webinar at PaperClip’s request, for a standard contract fee. He said it would be a “balanced and informative presentation, with time for questions at the end.” The San Jose State adjunct helping organize walkout day said she didn’t know what the webinar was. 


Back to Top