The faculty union's contract with the City University of New York has a provision designed to prevent part-time instructors from being given a full-time teaching load. These adjuncts are allowed to teach only nine credits a semester at any one college in CUNY (typically three courses) and one other course at a second CUNY college. If a department head wants to offer an adjunct any additional work, say a section at a third college or a fourth section at the primary college, the union must approve a waiver. And until recently, the union has generally done so.
But the union has announced plans to stop giving waivers except in emergency situations, which is what the union says the waivers were designed for. The union sees this move as one that will protect adjuncts and promote the creation of more tenure-track jobs. But many adjuncts who have been able to add courses based on the waivers in the past, or who want that option in the future, are angry. They say the union is taking away their income and will accomplish nothing except the hiring of more adjuncts.
Both union leaders and adjunct leaders say they share the same goal: better treatment of part-timers and more full-time positions. But the sharply differing views on the union's policy suggest that the strategy of capping adjunct workloads -- a tactic used not just by the CUNY faculty union, but in other states as well -- may not leave part-timers feeling the solidarity of their full-time colleagues.
"It does not help the union to callously tell those already on the bottom to take the lumps, grit their teeth and somehow find a way to get by. Nor can those who are barely getting by with waivers just find other jobs, especially in the present economic crisis," says a statement issued this week  by CUNY Contingents Unite, an adjunct group.
The Professional Staff Congress is the union for all CUNY faculty members -- tenure-track and adjunct. Leaders of the union, an affiliate of the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers, regularly speak out about the treatment of non-tenure-track faculty members and demand that higher education leaders do more on their behalf. Barbara Bowen, president of the union, said she has heard and understands the frustrations of adjuncts who want the waivers.
"We are aware, I feel it very acutely that when you stop a labor abuse, you have to pay special attention to your own members who have something to lose by stopping that abuse," she said. "Somebody who had been teaching four courses and getting a waiver could have come to count on that income. That is a blow to the individual and there's no denying that."
But she said that ending the waivers was necessary. She said that they have grown from a handful to as many as 600 (there are 9,000 CUNY adjuncts). She acknowledged that many department chairs requesting waivers had "a good instinct" of wanting to offer more work to adjuncts who were already part of their programs and had successful teaching experience.
But she said that the growing practice was "an abuse" that needed to stop and that waivers were intended to be exceptional, not a regular part of staffing. Ending the waivers, she said, should motivate CUNY colleges to work with the union to create more full-time faculty jobs, with appropriate pay and benefits. And she said that the union was working to do just that.
Enforcing a contract provision is not merely an option, but "a responsibility" of the union to its members, Bowen said. And she said that this provision protects adjuncts by making sure they can't be given full-time duties with part-time pay.
The CUNY administration has not entered the dispute between some of the union's adjuncts and its leadership. But one official did object to the use of the term "abuse" to describe the process of seeking waivers. "That's both erroneous and a mischaracterization," the official said, because the waiver process was "part of the contract," so CUNY was doing exactly what the contract required, just as the union was within its rights "to take a harder line" on waivers, as it is now doing. The official also noted that CUNY has increased the number of full-time faculty positions dramatically in the last decade, from 5,594 in 1999 to 7,186 in 2009, a 28 percent jump.
To many adjuncts, the issue isn't the contract, but the very idea that anyone would limit their ability to add sections. A typical course pays between $3,000 and $3,500, so an adjunct teaching the maximum four courses a semester (at two colleges, for two semesters) might earn $28,000 (on the high side) and maybe a little more in the summer. At those levels, an additional $7,000 in income a year (or more) would hardly make an adjunct wealthy, but could represent a significant increase in earnings.
Others have noted that they can only teach four courses a semester by teaching one of them at a second CUNY college, and need a waiver to teach four at a single college -- which many find preferable as they can minimize commuting time and become more involved in the college.
Shirley Frank, who is an adjunct at the New York City College of Technology and at York College, has been teaching at CUNY for 11 years, and she has received waivers in the past. "We need the extra course financially," she said. "We don't get paid enough. Why should they limit us from getting the extra pay for teaching another class?"
Frank also questioned both the idea behind making people work at two colleges to get up to four sections a semester, and the idea that blocking waivers will create more tenure-track jobs. "Who are we kidding?" she said. "Spreading out the work" over two campuses doesn't make her any less of a part-timer, but adds to her travel time. And she said she is fairly certain that if she and her part-time colleagues are forced to turn down more sections, "they are just going to hire more adjuncts."
Sándor John, who teaches at Hunter College and the School for Professional Studies, said that he thinks "the cap was conceived of as a means of making management less reliant on grossly underpaid contingent labor." But he said that "despite that intention," it hasn't worked. He said that what the controversy shows is the need not to rely on caps, but to "make an assault against the whole two-tier system" of differential salaries between full-time and part-time faculty members.
Holly Clarke, an adjunct at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice for 20 years, called the union's decision to block waivers "ill-conceived" and said "they are cutting off the income of adjuncts who are poorly paid." The result, she predicted, will be "that they will get additional adjuncts" who will be teaching fewer courses at more institutions.
Several adjuncts said that they expected the shift to force them to seek adjunct jobs at non-CUNY colleges in New York City to maintain their incomes, but that this would involve still more commuting time as they move from campus to campus.
The logic behind the cap at CUNY -- that it could force colleges to create more full-time slots -- has been tried elsewhere, also producing frustrations. In California,  a law barring part-time faculty members from teaching more than 60 percent of a full load at community colleges was changed in 2008 to raise the limit to 67 percent. (Because of the way many courses are counted in that state, the old maximum forced someone wanting to work full time to find jobs at three community colleges, while the shift made it possible for such individuals to work at two colleges.)
Maria Maisto, board president of the New Faculty Majority, a new national adjunct group, said that the issue of caps is a concern at many colleges and universities. "We strongly disagree that adjuncts are served by imposing limits on the number of hours they can work, and we strongly object to decisions about contingent faculty being made without consulting contingent faculty, either within colleges and universities or within unions," she said.
As Maisto's comment suggests, the anger at CUNY is not just about the union's policy but also about the process by which it decided on its strategy. Adjuncts who are critical of the shift in thinking say they never had a chance to tell the union why they like waivers. And many adjuncts noted that in a union meeting and in a union publication, union leaders have compared the issue of the caps to child labor laws. Comparing adjuncts to children was called "patronizing," among other terms. These adjuncts noted that -- even if union leaders disagree with their decisions -- they are adults capable making a choice on whether teaching another section is in their interests. One adjunct who asked not to be identified said that "it is infantilizing to pretend that this is like a 7-year-old in the coal mines."
Bowen, the union president, said that there was "some consultation" prior to the policy shift, but she added that "I think we could have done better with consultation." She said, however, that "the position that the union enforces the contract is not a position that requires consultation. That doesn't represent a change in policy. There was no choice on this issue. It is critical to stop an abuse of a contract by management."
And Bowen said that the union was committed to helping all of the adjuncts affected even while using the cap issue to advocate for a shift in the overall use of adjuncts. "One can push very hard for long-term change and still have commitment to addressing the needs of those affected in the short term," she said.