The Adjuncts' Mandate

The recent reports on academic labor by the American Federation of Teachers and Modern Language Association are great news. The great news is not the information the reports present. They offer little that is new or heartening. Instead, they echo what most adjuncts and many academic labor activists already know: Exploitation of contingent academic laborers is growing in scale.

January 5, 2009

The recent reports on academic labor by the American Federation of Teachers and Modern Language Association are great news. The great news is not the information the reports present. They offer little that is new or heartening. Instead, they echo what most adjuncts and many academic labor activists already know: Exploitation of contingent academic laborers is growing in scale. Activists, organizers, and administrators can and will jockey over exact percentages in pay difference, whether or not graduate student labor counts as just-in-time labor, and the precise impact adjunct exploitation has upon pay rates, tenure, and the quality of learning at colleges and universities. Exact percentages are important, but they are not vital. Most essential -- the larger picture -- is that more adjuncts are being hired, exploited, and abused at more community colleges and universities around the United States than ever before. The great news is the presence, timing, and potential application of these reports.

The presence of adjuncts in the news, good or bad, is a good thing. It is a relief to finally see that our working conditions and low pay are being acknowledged and considered in larger and more public fora. If any significant political, economic, or social change is going to take place, adjuncts must reach beyond the walls of higher education. Coverage of our experience and our working conditions in the mainstream press is a critical step. In the aftermath of these reports, adjunct-themed stories have been published in many college newspapers, in blogs, and in prominent publications such as USA Today. This is quite the change. It represents a chance for adjuncts to assert a consistent place in the educational and labor news.

The timing of these reports creates a window of opportunity for adjuncts and their allies to concentrate public attention on contingent academic laborers. Adjuncts and allies can take this initial wave of publicity and, backed by data, work to establish relationships with other constituent groups: labor, students, parents, the tax paying public, and government officials to name a few. Publicity opens the conversational door; data provide discussion points and builds bridges. These relationships will be vital if adjuncts want to maximize the benefits of the Bush administration’s exodus and, hopefully, a removal of their aggressively pro-corporate members on the National Labor Relations Board. With a potential shift in the Supreme Court, not to mention the incredible engagement of the public in the campaign for change, all this represents a greater level of potential for change and progress in adjuncts’ working conditions than we have probably seen in the past 20 years. A shift in the Supreme Court may open up windows to effectively challenge the anti-union “Right to Work” laws in many states as well as the overall trend to silence and disempower workers’ right to organize freely and without fear of retaliation in their workplaces.

In order to actively and powerfully affect this kind of change, it is important that further in-depth discussions, advocacy, and public relations regarding adjunct labor conditions not perpetuate or mirror the ways in which these reports were conducted, constructed, or researched. Both reports, like many efforts by concerned tenure-track faculty to help adjuncts, are well intentioned, but they were written from the perspective of professionals who are not adjuncts. Thus, while they are able to study and report on us as objects, they can not and have not described or made tangible several important factors in the lives of adjuncts: fear and respect. Excluding or not placing a priority on these elements indicates a lack of understanding by the researchers on just how important and visceral they are in the lives of adjuncts. Instead of discussing adjuncts as objects, parties working to change the adjunct labor situation need adjuncts up front, and center, to do the talking. Yes, we need tenured specialists, highly skilled researchers, and eloquent union organizers with us -- but we need them behind us. We need them as allies and supporters because our cause has the moral high ground; we have Ethos; we are the right horse to back. Since adjuncts are the issue, adjuncts must speak to and address the issue. We should not have other people speaking for or about us or attempt to correct things for our benefit. Adjuncts need to lead these efforts instead of being led by them.

To generate change, adjuncts need to alter one basic condition. Adjuncts need to become more involved with their own destiny. Until adjuncts speak up for themselves, nobody else can or will take care of their interests. Others may attempt to solve our problems for us, but that is like receiving medical care without telling the doctor what your symptoms are and withholding any lifestyle changes or accidents you may have recently experienced. Adjuncts must lead their own labor reform movement. We need our own national movement separate from the AAUP, AFT, and NEA. Once we organize and form our own structure, we can forge coalitions with them as our allies. While there have been instances where the unions have helped out adjuncts, an overwhelming sentiment among activist adjuncts is that, at best, we are not a major priority. At worst, we are ignored and simply sources of income for the union. Either way, a national adjuncts’ union offers the chance for adjuncts to steer their own course, direct their own future, and accept full responsibility for the outcome.

Many will claim that adjuncts cannot lead because adjuncts are powerless. Some will say the unions silence our voices. Others will point out that many academic senates do not allow adjuncts to be members. Many more will bemoan the lack of the public’s interest. Still others will complain that the intimidation applied by some unethical administrators operating rogue is too much to challenge or face down. Of course these concerns matter. While these concerns matter in substance, they are all the same thing: an excuse to justify non-engagement in the adjunct labor reform movement. To feel powerless is one thing, but to silently and quietly submit without even making an effort not only defiles the humanitarian spirit we are supposed to promote in higher education, it also insults and sabotages efforts by other adjuncts to achieve change.

Adjuncts can lead. We are the single largest constituency educating Americans in higher education today. The AFT states that we account for teaching 49 percent of undergraduate public colleges courses. Add in graduate teaching assistants, and we teach between roughly 60 to 80 percent of those courses. We educate the majority of college undergraduates in America and yet we are perceived as not bright enough to organize our own union, to advance our own agendas, or to determine our own academic and labor futures. This strikes me as foolish, and it certainly fulfills the dreams and aspirations of some unethical individual administrators who regard adjuncts merely as just-in-time labor to maximize their fiscal growth, personal power, and annual raises. As both reports imply, the just-in-time labor force will continue to grow if the current administrative profit-centered ethos has its way.

Studies are nice; they provide us with the data to support what we already know: adjuncts are exploited, and our numbers are growing. Position papers are also valuable as they provide us with expertly worded texts to publish and share with our colleagues. Opinion pieces like this one are useful as well in that they give us a chance to voice our opinions, to create dialog, to discuss options, and to potentially rally some forces. All of these are nice, but being nice does not mean anything gets done. The Conference on College Composition and Communication issued the Wyoming Resolution in 1986. It is a great piece of writing and it maintains a solid ethical position, yet, in spite of it, composition as a field continues to rank near the top in terms of numbers of adjuncts exploited. It has been over two decades and the problem has increased significantly, not declined. Words minus action equates to zero usefulness.

The adjunct labor issue, which threatens tenure, corrupts the humanitarian educational ethos, emboldens corporatization of research and philosophy, and is just plain wrong. We need action, and it needs to start with adjuncts. Locally, we need to form networks of communication, support, and trust with adjuncts, staff, and full-time faculty. This lays the groundwork for larger actions, it establishes a pool of potential collaborators, and it works to eliminate fear and feeling disrespected while building a support structure. Nationally, we need our own organization. Hopefully, we will be able to organize under the auspices of a powerful national union. Between the local and the national level, we need to organize, connect, and orchestrate as many effective events as we can to build solidarity, to increase the confidence and empowerment of individual adjunct activists, and to establish effective alliances with our colleagues in the AFT, AAUP, and NEA. When adjuncts take action speak up, they need the support from their allies in labor, in their departments, on staff, and even -- gasp! -- in administration. Meaningful action is rarely silent, behind the scenes support. Statements such as, “I really feel for you,” or “I know what it’s like,” do little more than placate the speaker’s conscience; they often indicate the speaker intends to do nothing more than “feel” for the adjuncts in an oft-condescending or paternalistic fashion. Useful action is up front, in public, and accountable. Action gets things done—and simply authoring another position statement is rarely useful. Adjuncts are a bright group, their allies are bright -- they can get the position statement taken care of as they organize and network.

I welcome further studies on adjuncts. Studies bring publicity, and each piece of publicity is another moment adjuncts and allies can work to educate the public about our working conditions and the public’s learning and teaching conditions. I welcome studies, because they provide me with an endless array of data which supports what adjuncts have known for decades: we are the largest and most silent labor force in higher education and our numbers our growing. Our potential power is mind-numbing; studies remind me of that power. I welcome studies, because they offer validation in the eyes of the public that, yes indeed, adjuncts are worthy of attention. I even welcome the bad press based on misinterpretations of the studies. Bad press provides adjuncts and allies opportunities to address issues, further discussions, engage the public, and dispel misunderstandings. If ignorance of adjuncts remains private and is not discussed, little will change. Events, such as the publication of these reports, the firing of adjuncts, and the looming educational budget crisis are all opportunities for adjuncts and allies to speak up, address these very real issues, and to seek public engagement.

Much of the public appears to want change. The election of Barack Obama signals a shift in the country’s hopes and political tenor. This change offers organized and motivated adjuncts an opportunity to raise their working conditions and their students’ learning conditions to an ethical position. This, however, requires action. The best proposal in this direction was recently made by Joe Berry to the board of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Laborers (COCAL). A copy of this was recently posted to the Contingent Academics Mailing List. There are two critical points to this proposal. First, Berry identifies now as the time of great potential for change:

The results of the election, and the campaign that succeeded in electing Barack Obama, present us in the contingent faculty movement, as part of the broader faculty union movement, the larger labor movement, and the labor and progressive movement generally, with a window of opportunity that we should not let slip by. The activism that the Obama campaign sparked was not just a campaign for Obama but represented a hope for the reality of change sweeping the land. It is over 20 years since anything like this level of hopefulness for change has been out there in the mainstream.

Few of us who voted for Obama doubt this. Secondly, Berry clearly summarizes adjuncts’ current strategic positioning:

We are not in a particularly strategic physical place in the economy, like truckers or long shore workers, with their great power to influence massive profits directly by their actions. However, we are in a very strategic political place in the society, since we can speak to millions of students, their parents and the rest of society who look to academics for informed opinions on public issues. The state of higher ed, its financing and accessibility, the need for truly universal health care, the need to stop the conversion of good permanent jobs into temporary bad jobs, are all example of public issues we can speak to with credibility, if we are organized. If we are bold now, we can organize our colleagues and, in doing so, speak on behalf of more than just ourselves, just as the workers at Republic Windows did. There is a great desire out there for someone to stand up on behalf of regular working people and we can be a uniquely situated part of that.

With Obama’s election, and with these reports supporting our assertions, now is the time to act. These reports herald the potential for a new era in contingent academic labor’s history, an era where we help shape our labor conditions, our teaching conditions, our students’ learning conditions, and the research and publications which are written about us. As teachers, it is our inherent responsibility -- our Ethos -- to demonstrate personal accountability, social conscience, and humanitarian values to our students. Actively and assertively reforming adjunct labor conditions—in or outside of the national movement Berry proposes -- is the best shot we have to retake the universities and colleges, to reinstall Ethos not Capital as boss, and to live the values we espouse as a profession.


Gregory Zobel is an adjunct at College of the Redwoods, in California. This January, in between teaching gigs, he starts his first term in Texas Tech University’s Technical Communication & Rhetoric Ph.D. program and his training in Tae Kwan Do. With all of his spare time, he edits the Adjunct Advice blog for Bedford/St. Martin's and writes his adjunct memoirs.


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