July 28, 2003

Adjunct Unionization

A reader has asked me to post an entry on adjunct unionization. As said reader and I agreed, whenever I post about unionization/collective action at this weblog, reader response is underwhelming at best. Nevertheless, in the interests of responding to this particular reader (while at the same time possibly boring or alienating many other readers), I've decided to float another entry on adjunct unionization.

The most basic questions: How to start? Where to begin?

The more complex question: Is it worth it? Which question is two-pronged: First, given the very real possibility of reprisals, is it even worth the risk that an individual must take? But second, and more broadly, is adjunct unionization even worth the enormous effort it must take as a collective action? Might it not help to formalize and legitimize the permanent existence of an underclass -- ameliorating the conditions under which they work, to be sure, but sending the signal to university adminstators that adjunctification can happily continue apace, though with some minimal restrictions on the degree and intensity of exploitation?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at July 28, 2003 09:42 PM

If unionized adjuncts had more benefits, they would be more expensive. It seems possible that the reduced cost advantage of adjuncts would affect administrative behavior more than the formalization of a belief they seem to hold, already, with ease.

I can imagine some grounds for unionization making adjunctification seem Bad to everyday people, and other grounds making adjuncts seem Bad. Depends on whether you sound as though you're claiming lily-handed entitlements, or the security to do a difficult job for the children of the nation.

Posted by: clew at July 28, 2003 10:55 PM

put it this way:
do you want any rights?

the employers are sure as heck organized.
*every* worker with corporate employment
needs collective bargaining rights:
otherwise the entire negotiation consists
in "take it or leave it". moreover,
the side with all the bargaining power
is unlikely to stick to any "obligations"
they've agreed to if it's inconvenient.

*obviously* no college will make any corrections
to the adjunct situation -- or any other! --
simply because it's the right thing to do.
it's just not in their nature: "morality"
and suchlike concepts, when they have
weight at all, weigh only on individuals.
corporations -- and unions, too, of course --
think only in terms of strategies and tactics.

everywhere else in the erstwhile "free west"
this stuff is taken for granted -- and workers
are much more powerful.
want democracy? organize!

Posted by: vlorbik at July 29, 2003 10:32 AM

Interesting question, and clew, if I understand your answer correctly, you're suggesting that the unionization of adjuncts may make non-adjunct hires seem comparatively more appealing, and thereby help remedy the adjunctification trend?

IA, I was a non-unionized teaching assistant where I got my Masters degree, and where there was talk (and much fear) about forming a TA/adjunct union; I'm unionized here where I'm getting my PhD. I can't say enough good things about unions. We're not talking "lily-handed entitlements," we're talking making sure you at least get paid for the course planning you did if the university cancels your course at the last minute. The union here acts in concert with other campus unions, including a faculty union, and I think that's the best hope to counter the phenomenon you're worried about.

Clew's comments re how to construct union demands seem also important; I think about most of the stuff the union here has done (dental! We've got dental!), and there's some degree of disconnect from the very basic job issues an adjunct might be interested in -- my department doesn't use adjuncts, but TAs do work for the university's for-profit summer education programs, where instructors just won a struggle to unionize. Obviously, TAs and adjuncts are very different academic critters with very different interests. To respond to your most basic questions, then: what would an adjunct union demand? Better working conditions? Or elimination of the need for its own existence?

Posted by: Mike at July 29, 2003 10:36 AM

Mike's questions are mine. If you want better working conditions, unions are totally the way to go.

If you want tenure-track employment expanded, a union is not going to help you, because doing so would be cannibalizing its own membership -- tenure-trackers will no longer belong to the union; in fact, they may have joined The Enemy.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at July 29, 2003 11:20 AM

Unless one anticipates a surge in TT employment,
that last factor shouldn't weigh heavily upon
adjunct minds.

Posted by: Barry at July 29, 2003 12:20 PM

Another voice in favor of unions here. They can get out of hand and need to be watched constantly, but there's no substitute if workers are to have any sort of security in an increasingly hard world.

Posted by: language hat at July 29, 2003 12:23 PM

I think it to be a fairly straight forward proposition that unionized adjuncts, lobbying for increased pay and health benefits, would effectively make adjunctification a less financially appealing tactic. But to what end, one may ask. I don't have a clear answer. I do feel, though, that it would NOT lead to a conversion of adjunct and non-tenure-track lines into tenure lines. In all liklihood it would lead to a non-tenure track faculty population, which is fine by me. Personally, I would trade the possibility of tenure (i.e., a lifetime sinecure) for a negotiated salary and health and retirement benefits.

What I don't understand is why union oraganization has been so absent thus far. Is it that the deals struck with admins on behalf of grad. students have red-lined the adjunct population? If so, then the grad. student negotiators acted stupidly because just wait, they're going to be adjuncts by the end of next week. And I don't understand why adjuncts themselves have been so lackluster in getting things started. What are we waiting for?

Posted by: Chris at July 29, 2003 04:55 PM

I think the problem, Chris, is in the very definition of contingent labor. Grad students have had some luck in unionizing because they're in the same place for 2, 3, 5, however many years, and their departments -- if they're willing to provide a tuition waiver and a stipend -- have a literal investment in keeping that grad student there. I think grad students may also sometimes have better luck getting faculty allies and/or "guardians" from work-related static.

For adjuncts, on the other hand, I imagine the scenario is much more like: Hey, we'll give you a call if we can use you next semester. What, you're a troublemaker? Well, they're just two intro sections, we can get somebody else to do it.

Posted by: Mike at July 29, 2003 05:46 PM

Mike, Yeah, I see your point, and I'd add that expelling/firing all the grad. students would, in this day and age, not be the most media savy thing to do. But, I wonder what would happen if ALL the adjuncts at a particular institution were to strike or take some other form of interruptive action. Could they get away with firing all of them? Perhaps, but not without some serious explaining to do, and also some serious extra-duty to pull to fill in all those classes.

But this is just a fantasy, I guess ...

Posted by: Chris at July 29, 2003 07:09 PM

Public Agenda has the results of an interesting research project (free reg req'd) -- focusing on K-12, but still worthwhile -- about "What teachers think about unionization, tenure, and other matters."

Posted by: Mike at July 30, 2003 09:28 AM

I'm not an economist, so don't know whether the studies discussed recently at volokh.com are valid. But, if they are correct, they indicate that unions don't have much of an effect on wages. They do, apparently, have an effect on benefits. (Scan through the recent entries for "unions" and follow the links to read the studies themselves.)

Posted by: Random Reader at July 30, 2003 12:23 PM

I've read some of them, RR. The usual figure cited is 2% additional in academics for a unionized faculty.

Could anyone explain to me how you see the organization of an adjuncts union to operate? What currently existing union do you model it after, or is there some new model we haven't used yet? I'm curious, because I don't see how this works.

Posted by: kb at July 30, 2003 01:30 PM

(Pinging pulledoutofmyhat.com repeatedly)

It seems to me, as a friendly nonacademic, that it would be more politically feasible to organize for benefits than to organize for more tenure. Practically everyone in the States thinks of health & other safety-net benefits as a proper, if endangered, reward for skilled work. But job security is vanishing for most people, so tenure, on the contrary, is likely to cause resentful mutterings. (And a good PR dept. hired by a public university could do a lot w/resentful mutterings, of course. Your Tax Dollars, etc etc.)

Seems to me that one of the artificial things done to the adjunct market is splitting up workload between institutions, so no single institution has to pay fulltimer benefits. So, to extend what Chris said, you would really want all the adjuncts in one city - or just one wide field in one city - to strike at once, possibly with the demand that benefits kick in depending on total teaching load at all accredited institutions, costs to be divided by the institutions depending on how much teaching they get.

Arguing "and this is better for the students" as well as "this is basic fairness" would be ever so useful. There is the risk that "the people" would decide that all courses might as well be taught by adjunct faculty, since you've been teaching so well so far.

Posted by: clew at July 30, 2003 03:12 PM

Columbia College in Chicago has an adjunct union. Check out the college's webpage at www.colum.edu. I worked there as an adjunct for one semester. Basically you teach one semester at a lower rate first (and it was a piddly amount, something like $1,000 per 3 cr. hour course), then you are required to join the union. Dues are about 120 bucks, if I remember correctly. Once you join, then your rate increases depending on the number of hours you log. That's great if you've been in the college for 3+ years. The downside is that an adjunct cannot teach more than 9 semester hours at a time, so you are kept in a low-wage cycle. I think that the reason this was done was to prevent the practice of the college assigning a courseload to an adjunct up to just under the cut-off point between a part and full timer.
While I am a strong supporter of unions, I'm not sure how they play out in the part-time sector. Part time status changes everything. I would love to see fast food workers unionized, but most of them work part time hours. I would think that unless a union could stipulate that a certain percentage of workers had to be full time with benefits, then there would be nothing to prevent the ongoing overdependency on part time labor. What I witnessed happening at Columbia was an even stronger dependency on part-time teachers. I believe that their adjunct faculty outnumbers their fulltimers 2-1. Part of this is due to it being an arts and journalism college with many of their adjuncts employed full time outside of academe and teaching for an interest.
I guess the ultimate question is how to challenge the part time/full time quandry. If all that results is a permanent part-time underclass (and many of the medical benefits are not great for part-timers, they are way more expensive and eat a bigger chunk out of your budget than if you are full-time) then all a union does is soften the eventual blow. An adjunct union needs teeth or else it's useless.

Posted by: Cat at July 31, 2003 11:03 AM

A separate adjunct union (and for that matter separate TA unions) strike me as misunderstanding where unions get at least some of their power. In order to provide real benefits (and solidarity etc) adjuncts and TAs need to belong to the same union as full time faculty--unless/until tenured/tenure track faculty recognize that all members of the profession need to be represented, none of these three sectors will have real and adequate unionization.
The analogy is easiest to make between TAs and tenure/tenure track faculty, since there already exists the model of apprentice and journeyman members of unions.
But, for many reasons, unionizing faculty is difficult, and for some of the same reasons, if adjuncts unionize, they increase the separatation from the "real" members of the profession.

Posted by: sappho at July 31, 2003 11:46 AM

I'm not supposed to be here, but I couldn't resist peeking in at the comments. Sappho has expressed precisely my concern about adjunct unionization:

In order to provide real benefits (and solidarity etc) adjuncts and TAs need to belong to the same union as full time faculty--unless/until tenured/tenure track faculty recognize that all members of the profession need to be represented, none of these three sectors will have real and adequate unionization...if adjuncts unionize, they increase the separatation from the 'real' members of the profession.

I agree: I suspect adjunct unions could actually serve to strengthen the barriers between the two tiers and to help legitimize adjunctification.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 31, 2003 11:55 AM

IA and Sappho are absolutely right. I am a member (and until recently officer) of a faculty union of both full and part time members. The real power (i.e. the ability to fight without fear of reprisal, to invest the time) comes from the full-timers; the sheer membership numbers come from the adjuncts. The result has been increases in benefits and wages for adjuncts. I won't claim things are perfect or that a two-tier system doesn't exist even within the union itself, but I do not see how any of the gains we have achieved could have happened for an adjunct union on its own. They simply would not have had any leverage. Nor would many of them, I believe, have had the freedom from reprisal to commit to the process.

Adjuncts who work on campuses where full-time faculty unions exist need to lobby those unions for inclusion. Everyone benefits from the relationship.

Posted by: cindy at July 31, 2003 02:18 PM

To All Adjuncts:

In Valhalla, New York, about eighty-five unusual people are hired each semester to teach at Westchester Community College. Their classes meet from one to three times a week, from Monday to Saturday. The word professor sometimes appears before their names on rosters and course-assignment schedules.

They are unusual in two ways. First, because they form the welcoming committee, helping eager students learn to communicate in a strange, new language, English.

Second, Valhalla means heaven, but not for these ESL teachers. For the chill and stress that pervade its office, this program is unique.

This is about a vindictive and capricious administrator, Assistant Dean David Bernstein, the seemingly indifferent administration that backs him, especially college president Joseph N. Hankin, and ESL adjuncts who try to do their best in the classroom despite intolerable conditions.

As far as I know, Patrick Munroe and I are the first to challenge a college in arbitration over the wrongful termination of our jobs. (If I am wrong, please let me know. I would love to hear others have done the same.)

Our union has been woefully inadequate fighting our case. Though I have no direct knowledge, and they may be just as lazy anyway, if we had been tenured professors, our case may have been taken on with a lot more zeal.

Best on the peripatetic journey,
Phillip Fayon

Posted by: Phillip Fayon at August 8, 2003 04:07 PM

But how does one actually go about forming a union at a college for adjuncts?

Posted by: Tommy McDonell at September 23, 2003 09:41 PM