The National Education Association is getting ready to join the other two national faculty unions – the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers – in offering a plan to deal with the growth of adjunct faculty positions.
The NEA released a draft of its plan Saturday at its annual higher education meeting, in San Diego. Like the AAUP and AFT plans, the NEA draft deplores the way many contingent faculty members are treated by their institutions on issues of pay, benefits, and job security. But the NEA draft differs significantly. The AAUP policy  calls for limits on the amount of time that someone can work as a non-tenure-track faculty member before either being offered tenure, given additional seniority or job protection rights or being dismissed. The AFT goal  is to have 75 percent of the classes in each department taught by tenured and tenure-track positions.
In contrast, the NEA omits those levels of specificity, and that may make the NEA plan more or less popular with faculty members, depending on their job situations and perspectives. Both the AAUP and AFT have been criticized  by some adjunct activists who fear that the groups are putting too much of an emphasis on creating new tenure-track jobs and not enough on improving the work conditions of current adjuncts. Not only does the NEA not include provisions like those, but in presenting the plan, NEA leaders focused over and over again about how they were opposed to “contingency, not contingents.”
In other words, the NEA wants its adjunct faculty members to know that it isn’t trying to get rid of them. To reinforce the point, the draft is sprinkled liberally with quotes or stories from adjuncts. "Contingency is a threat to quality, not contingent faculty. It's not who we are but how we are treated that undermines the quality of higher education," is one such quote -- from Frank Brooks of the Roosevelt University Adjunct Faculty Association.
Adjunct faculty members are not of one voice on how best to improve their situations. Some – especially those who have been out of grad school only a short time – want tenure-track jobs and would like nothing more than to see more of them created. Others, especially those who have been adjuncts for a decade or more, doubt that they would get a fair hearing for any openings, so they prefer to emphasize the need for better pay and benefits for those off the tenure track.
Kathy Sproles, president of the National Education Association’s National Council for Higher Education, said the association was trying to balance those varying interests with its approach, which does not set specific goals. At one point in the meeting in San Diego, she asked those present – the most vocal of whom were adjuncts – if they wanted to see set goals for the percentage of courses taught by adjuncts, and she didn’t get much of a reaction. She acknowledged in an interview after the session that if she posed the same question to a group of full-time, tenured faculty members, they would be more likely to want to see a specific goal.
The NEA’s approach may be working with its own adjunct leaders. At the meeting, most were appreciative over the effort, and said that they were pleased to see the association taking more of a role on the issue. At the same time, the same sorts of tensions faced by the other faculty unions were present here. One adjunct leader talked about the “ignorance” of the NEA on adjunct issues. Another raised the issue of why the draft had been prepared by an NEA committee that does not have any contingent faculty members on it. (Sproles said that the topic was assigned to an existing NEA committee, not one specifically created for this purpose, but she also acknowledged that the association needs to do more to get adjuncts in leadership positions.)
The importance of the adjunct issue to faculty unions is clear on a number of grounds. Many faculty leaders fear that the erosion of the tenured faculty base has resulted in a weaker professoriate, where smaller proportions of faculty members have both the job security and economic security that they would like and that they believe is essential for true academic freedom and the best possible teaching environment. But there is also the question of numbers: There are increasing numbers of contingent faculty members, and many of them are joining unions.
About 20 percent of the NEA’s higher education members are either part-time faculty members or graduate students. But the NEA’s draft report on the issue says that figure understates the extent of the NEA’s membership that is off the tenure track. Many NEA locals represent all full-time faculty members on the campus – on or off the tenure track – and a growing share of adjunct faculty members are in full-time, non-tenure-track positions. Sproles said that the growth of adjuncts is such that pushing the issue “will change the face of our union.”
As is the case with other unions, some NEA locals have separate units for adjuncts and tenure-track faculty members while others are combined. In some cases, different unions represent the different types of faculty members. And some of the adjunct organizing is taking place at private colleges that are generally off limits for faculty union drives under various court rulings. Sproles argued for the "wall to wall" approach, where all faculty members at a campus are represented by the same local. Most of those present seemed to agree theoretically with that approach, noting its advantages in bargaining, but several also questioned whether their tenure-track colleagues wanted them in the same unit.
The NEA report includes a review of various ways adjunct faculty members are mistreated, calls for more research on their numbers and work conditions, and also sets out several strategies for organizing them and winning better conditions for them, and more tenure-track positions. Among the ideas noted are more metro area union drives, such that all the contingent faculty members are represented. Playing off of that idea, one adjunct leader in the audience said he wanted to see more part-time faculty members start to file for unemployment insurance each time they aren’t rehired. Even if they do not get the benefits, they need to draw attention to their situation.
The sections on lobbying and contracts noted the need to find ways – through both negotiations and laws – to get “pro rata pay and benefits” and to work toward “gaining the rights, benefits and protections of full-time tenure system workers.”
Some of those at the meeting did talk about strategies for combining a push for more full-time faculty slots with improved conditions for contingents. Thomas Auxter, a professor of philosophy at the University of Florida and president of the United Faculty of Florida, said his union is currently pushing legislation to require that 75 percent of courses be taught by tenure-track faculty members and that all non-tenure-track faculty members be provided with health insurance and with pro-rated pay comparable to full-timers, and that no rules prevent the hiring of part-time faculty members when full-time jobs open up. The legislation would be phased in over five years, with additional funds provided. (The United Faculty of Florida has affiliations with both the AFT and the NEA.)
Auxter said it was important to look for “an overall plan,” such as the one being pushed in Florida, and not to just focus on one particular issue.
Similar efforts are being organized in other states, but notably one of those efforts is in California, which already has legislation on the percentage of courses that can be taught by part-timers. Sproles said she understands why some are pushing this approach, but she warned that the California law to date has not been effective at many institutions. Theoretically, community college districts that violate the law face financial penalties, “but there are so many ways that a school can get around that budget trigger,” she said.
Based on comments received Saturday and others sent in, NEA officials plan to revise the draft, which will then be forwarded for approval as strategy to various NEA bodies. Sproles stressed that when the final changes are made, she expected the NEA to provide "real resources" to carry out the plan.