For some time now, large gatherings of faculty members have included a session about adjuncts. Those frustrated at being kept off of the tenure track would hear the latest data on the shrinking pool of tenure-track jobs and attendees would trade horror stories about the use and abuse of part-timers. And then the meeting would get back to its regular agenda.
Things were notably different at the joint meeting this weekend in Orlando of the higher education members of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. First, the state of adjunct faculty members has become central enough that it is no longer a sideshow -- sessions on adjunct issues were plentiful enough during the meeting that an attendee could decide to discuss nothing else. Many of the sessions were packed. To be sure, there were plenty of horror stories being traded. But speaker after speaker cited real progress -- and the union leaders were trading ideas and not just gripes.
"There is a long way to go, but there is so much more bargaining going on about these issues than 5 or 10 years ago," said Gary Rhoades, a professor of education at the University of Arizona and author of Managed Professionals: Unionized Faculty and Restructuring Academic Labor.  Rhoades, who tracks contracts that deal with adjunct issues, said "there are more good contracts than ever before."
While there was general agreement that progress is being made for adjuncts, frustrations certainly haven't vanished. And one of the more intense discussions here was about a question that is delicate for faculty unions: Can the interests of faculty members on and off the tenure track be aligned such that they can work together?
Christine Maitland, an NEA organizer who focuses on higher education in the West, said, "we haven't achieved parity, but there are real signs of progress."
Generally, she said, unions have made limited progress on the issue of who does hiring and renewal of contracts, but more progress on pay and benefits. In particular, she noted advances in moving adjuncts away from hourly pay rates and toward salaries based on courses and other duties. The NEA has added detail on contracts for non-tenure track workers to its 2006 Almanac of Higher Education, which was released at the meeting and will soon be online.
Maitland stressed that the goal of converting people from hourly to salaried pay, and raising that pay, were part of a "conversion strategy" -- if colleges lose some or all of the economic incentive for relying on part-time, non-tenure track help, they may create more tenure track positions, she said.
A presentation about the first contract signed by the Lecturers' Employee Organization, which represents instructors off the tenure track at all three University of Michigan campuses, attracted considerable attention at the meeting. The union, an AFT affiliate, negotiated its first contract  in 2004 and won advancements in both salary and job security.
Lecturers won a "presumption of renewal" clause that gives them rights to expect continued work -- after they have worked continually for three years and passed a performance review. In addition, pay increases set minimum levels of pay and gave many part-timers large percentage increases. Bonnie Halloran, president of the union and an anthropology lecturer at Michigan's Dearborn campus, said that she saw a 40 percent increase in her salary -- and her first real job security -- after the contract was approved. She had taught at Dearborn for 10 years without job security, she said.
Halloran described how her union dramatized its demands through a variety of tactics, such as passing out bags of peanuts to make the point that adjuncts "work for peanuts." She acknowledged that adjuncts at Michigan benefit from operating in a pro-union state. She was able to meet one-on-one with members of Michigan's Board of Regents and to know that -- in a state where regents are elected by the voters -- senior AFT and AFL-CIO officials would follow up on those visits.
But some of the issues she mentioned were not at all unique to Michigan. One is the question of unity. Halloran's 1,300 members work on three campuses and include both full-time and part-time instructors. Members had to work out issues among themselves first, she said. For instance, while members thought that all were underpaid, there was an agreement to focus on the part-timers, who were in worse shape, she said. "We had to come to this as a group," Halloran said.
Knowing priorities is a key issue, said Rhoades of Arizona. While unions understandably focus on wage and benefits issues, he said that for adjuncts, the most important provisions in contracts may be those that deal with the number or ratio of slots that are to be tenure track or non-tenure track. He cited contracts with provisions about the percentage of tenure track faculty members and the directions in which that percentage can change, and provisions about whether individual part-timers can have their positions converted to full-time or tenure track slots. Unions need to be looking at these provisions from both "offensive" and "defensive" standpoints, depending on what provisions are in place now.
The issues can get quite complicated, he said. For example, a union might want to prevent tenure track positions from being converted to adjunct positions, but what about a case where there might otherwise be a layoff? Should a faculty member then be allowed to convert a slot to part time rather than having no position? These are the kinds of scenarios that are increasingly being addressed, Rhoades said.
Many of these scenarios also focus on the "conversion" issue of what direction a college is going in with regard to make-up of the professoriate, Rhoades said.
UItimately, Rhoades said, full-time, tenured faculty members have a strong incentive to help their adjunct colleagues on these issues. Without that solidarity, Rhoades said, the bargaining units of full-timers could easily dwindle and all faculty members could see their rights' eroded.
But he acknowledged that this unity was not possible on every campus. Where tenured faculty members "have a consciousness about these issues," part-timers have much to gain by bargaining together with them, Rhoades said. But at other campuses, where the senior professors dominate unions and don't much care about adjunct issues, working together "could be disastrous" for adjuncts, he said.
In another session, much of the discussion focused on another form of conversion: changing tenured faculty members who aren't concerned with adjuncts into those who will be allies.
One adjunct in the audience was blunt in discussing the way she feels many full-timers with tenure view the issues: "They've fought their way into the club and they are not interested in letting us riffraff in."
Other adjuncts talked about more practical problems with tenured/adjunct relations. Tenured professors, they said, engage in "bumping," where a tenured faculty member may claim a section of a course at the last minute (after the tenured professor's desired course didn't attract enough students), and the adjunct loses a job, often so late that the lost income can't be replaced.
Others in the audience said that tenured faculty members could be won over, and they suggested the following tactics (beyond moral suasion). Adjuncts were urged to:
- Look for concrete examples of how their economic demands could also help full-timers, even if the tenured faculty are not unionized. For example, one adjunct said that on his campus, when per-course payments went up for unionized adjuncts, the extra pay that full-timers received for teaching summer courses also went up (to match the adjunct level).
- Become more involved in college governance. By serving on curricular committees and the like, adjuncts draw attention to their expertise in what is going on in the classroom. (When another adjunct objected that part-timers can't afford to take time away from paying teaching gigs to do this, others countered that some union contracts are requiring pay for such service and others noted that some unions, seeing the value in this participation, are themselves paying members for this work.)
- Help full-timers in their disputes with the campus administration. One adjunct described how his union took a vote -- as full-timers were entering tense negotiations over a contract -- and let the administration know that in the event of a strike, the part-timers would not take on full-timers' classes. This move led to greatly increased respect and support, he said.
- Remember that tenured faculty members may be less political about their jobs. "You need to be careful that you don't have your most radical people doing the talking when you are talking with full-timers," said one adjunct.
Ultimately, person after person in the discussion said that the best argument to make was that tenured faculty members benefit from having their ranks increased. "I tell them that I'm organizing to eliminate our own jobs. When we are more expensive, they will hire more of you," an adjunct from Chicago said.
After the session, another adjunct in the audience commented privately on the choice of pronoun: "you." This adjunct said she agreed with the general strategy, but wondered if its ultimate success would benefit today's adjuncts or (more likely, she thought) a generation of freshly minted Ph.D.'s. Of course, she also noted that adjuncts have a ways to go before colleges start converting any significant number of positions, so for now, she's encouraged by the progress toward more pay and job security.