When faculty members off the tenure track discuss their grievances, a common theme is that their employers pretend they are temporary employees when in fact they teach at the same institutions semester after semester, year after year. So when adjuncts find themselves bumped off health insurance or treated as non-employees between semesters, they talk about how such policies are both insulting and expensive to them. In fact, unions cite such treatment as evidence of why adjuncts need better job security protections.
But what about unions? Do they treat adjuncts who work semester after semester as long-term members, or do they also promote the illusion that they are always short-term employees?
An adjunct faculty member at Olympic College, in Washington State, recently raised the issue when he was surprised to find his membership in the National Education Association treated as, well, contingent. The ensuing discussion led other adjuncts to talk about how ironic (or hypocritical) it is for unions to demand treatment of adjuncts as full-fledged faculty members when these organizations don't necessarily do so.
Here's the e-mail Jack Longmate posted on a listserv for adjuncts:
"I suspected there was a problem with my NEA membership when (a) I didn't receive a copy of the recent NEA Higher Education Advocate while colleagues at my college did, and (b) I received a letter from the state NEA office, welcoming me as if I had just joined for the first time. I've been a member since about 2000 and published a piece in that issue of the Advocate, so I wrote to the state office to ask what the problem was. The administrator for membership explained that as an adjunct instructor, I am categorized as 'quarterly, non-continuous' and that 'non-continuous memberships must be renewed each year after ongoing employment is verified.'"
Longmate went on to say: "Surely one the primary reasons to join a union is to promote job security; it seems ironic that contingents don't seem to get a break even within their union. Also ironic is the fact that the piece I published  in the NEA's Higher Education Advocate urged unions to promote job security."
Inside Higher Ed contacted the NEA's national higher education office to ask about Longmate's post, and the national office referred the question to the union's Washington State affiliate.
Eddie Westerman, a spokesman for the Washington State branch of the NEA, said that Longmate had raised "an interesting quandary about how we reconcile the association's governing documents with the reality of our legal requirements around dues collection and membership records." He said that the union's "governing documents say you have to be employed in public education to be eligible to be an active class member." For adjuncts, it is impossible to verify employment status until later in the periods for which they are employed, so they are generally removed from membership rolls.
If a union can provide a list of those hired back, they can stay on, he said. But many colleges don't hire adjuncts until just before the semester starts, and a union would have to include only those who are formally hired. Westerman also said that union locals could negotiate contracts that designate all adjuncts as continuing employees, but if they can't do that (and that's not a contract provision management tends to jump at), the union has no choice but to regularly remove the adjuncts.
Westerman said that the issue posed by Longmate was a "dilemma," and that the union would look for ways to respond. But Westerman added that the issue "could be solved at the local level at the bargaining table."
Longmate said in an interview that he was pleased by the idea that the state affiliate was looking at the issue, but that he remained frustrated by the current rule. "The policy of annually suspending union memberships of contingent faculty until receiving confirmation of continuing employment would seem to treat adjuncts much like some colleges treat adjuncts, as expendable extras," he said.
The NEA is not the only union facing some tensions over dues for adjuncts. The president of the American Association of University Professors, Cary Nelson, plans to argue next month in the association's magazine that that the AAUP's dues structure makes it difficult to recruit adjuncts to its unions, and that the dues structure should change. These dues and related questions are sensitive issues beyond the money involved or the inconvenience of adjuncts going on and off union rolls. All the national unions are currently pushing campaigns to improve both pay and working conditions for adjuncts, and also to create more tenure-track positions. The push for more tenure-track jobs, while praised by many, also has some adjuncts fearful that these campaigns – if successful – will leave them without jobs.
While the NEA says that its rules require the adjuncts to be periodically removed from membership rolls, there are other options. Craig Smith of the American Federation of Teachers said that locals there make the decisions on these matters, but that many have found a way to avoid the problem encountered by Longmate.
While colleges may drop adjuncts from lists of employees between semesters, unions don't have to, Smith said. "If an adjunct teaches in the fall and is unemployed and then is re-employed in the spring, they go on and off the roll with the college, but they don't necessarily go on and off the roll with the local," he said. "In the typical scenario, a local keeps the adjunct on the roll, and the local will pay $1 to keep the person on the list," using the token small sum as "a place holder" to keep union membership active. As a result, adjuncts between semesters "still have access to our publications and our member benefits," even if the college doesn't provide benefits.
"From a local standpoint, it's impractical to take members on and off. It's easier to keep everyone active," he said. While most colleges will deduct dues only once employment is verified for a semester, that doesn't need to be the basis of union local policies, he said. "There's a difference between being on the college's list of people who are going to have dues deductions and whether you are a member of AFT," he said.