August 03, 2003

Weekly IA Award

This week's Invisible Adjunct Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence (No Cash, Just Glory) goes to sappho for an insightful caution against adjunct unionization (comments to Adjunct Unionization):

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.

Well said, sappho. This is a tricky topic, and it's difficult to raise these concerns without fear of lending support to those who oppose a better deal for adjunct faculty. But while I certainly believe that unionized adjuncts would receive better pay and perhaps some benefits, and while I am certainly not prepared to argue against adjunct unionization, I think sappho has pointed to a major weakness of separate unions.

As I said in the original entry, the danger, as I see it, is that separate unions for adjunct faculty would formalize and confer legitimacy on the existence of a permanent academic underclass. Indeed, though university administrations generally (or I suppose, universally) oppose adjunct unionization, in the long term unionization might actually help them in their cost-cutting goal of reducing faculty to near-penury: that is, it might enable them to convert even more full-time positions into part-time contracts while at the same time neutralizing criticism of adjunctification ("our part-timers are treated very well, they have collective bargaining rights"). This is not an argument for the status quo, but rather an argument for the involvement of full-time faculty in the improvement of conditions for all faculty.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at August 3, 2003 05:00 PM

Federal labor law basically makes it impossible for the employer to fire or replace the unionized workers in their particular roles. But this by itself doesn't necessarily imply a large increase in bargaining power for the workers. For two reasons, unionized adjuncts would likely have little bargaining power:

1. Unionized workers have their greatest bargaining power when the employer has huge investments in physical capital used by the workers -- as in the steel industry and auto industries. Then, under labor law, the employer can't abandon the workers without effectively abandoning the physical capital. But there is no physical capital used by adjuncts.

2. Adjunct is not a dramatically different position than tt faculty or graduate student instructor. So, there are close non-union substitutes available to universities.

3. The considerable turnover among adjuncts means that even if an adjunct union did somehow gain bargaining power, universities could wait them out and let adjunct positions expire.

Posted by: Paul Jaminet at August 3, 2003 06:39 PM

So, then, in regard to sappho's point, to obtain bargaining power the union would have to contain all teachers. But if the tt faculty were really willing to collaborate with the adjuncts in such a way, there would be no problem for adjuncts now. The current system came about precisely to serve the tenured faculty. The all-teachers union would be contrary to the interests of the tenured.

Posted by: Paul Jaminet at August 3, 2003 06:59 PM

There's an additional difficulty that some full-time faculty, engaging in the historical management/labor class dispute, refuse association with any union: to be a member of a union, they suggest, would be to indicate that they somehow lack control over their 'labor' and would put them on the same level as workers in the abovementioned steel and auto industries. From what I've seen, however, this is a prejudice primarily affecting only faculty members of a certain age.

Posted by: Mike at August 3, 2003 09:04 PM

A couple of things:

1. I don't know where the idea came from that "Federal labor law basically makes it impossible for the employer to fire or replace the unionized workers in their particular roles". Taint so. As a journeyman union electrician, I can testify that the "employment at will" doctrine remains in full force and effect under both federal and state employment laws. Unless the labor agreement provides otherwise, the rule remains the same in either case - an employment relationship may be terminated at any time by either party for "good reason, bad reason, or not reason at all".

2. I would think that the industrial union model (e.g., the UAW or USWA) is inappropriate as applied to educators. A better model is the craft union model (electricians, pipefitters, plumbers, etc.). The reason for the difference is this: the most important thing that a craft worker brings to his job is his knowledge and experience, whereas the most important thing an industrial worker brings is his ability to bring bargaining power to bear through unity of action with his fellow employees. In other words, an autoworker is fungible (roughly, "interchangeable")with respect to any other competitor for his job, because he lacks skills requiring a large and long investment in acquiring an education directly applicable to his job, which is the case with skilled craft workers.

3. The analogy has been made that tenured faculty stand roughly in relation to tt and adjunct faculty as do journeymen to their apprentices. The analogy doesn't stand. Apprentices are receiving on-the-job education from their journeymen pursuant to an apprenticeship agreement between the union and the employer. Can the same claim be made with respect to tenured faculty and tt/adjuncts? You folks know better about this than I do, but I suspect that the answer is "no". A better analogy might be that tenured faculty are a "permanent" or staff workers, whereas tt/adjunct are casually employed. This distinction is commonly made and widely accepted among craft workers, which results in separate unions representing the two. Having worked both as a staff electrician at an electrical utility and as a construction electrician (represented by different unions in each case), I can testify that the casually-employed construction electricians earn a higher hourly rate than do the permanently-employed utility electricians, but suffer more frequent bouts of unemployment. Indeed, I think the higher rate of pay for construction electricians is due principally to the uncertainty of income over their careers with respect to utility electricians. However, you shouldn't overlook the value of a union-administered hiring hall arrangement as a bargaining tool, to the extent that it serves as the employer's sole source of qualified workers.

Question: supposing that tt/adjuncts were to adopt the craft union model of unionism to some extent or other, and secure higher compensation than tenured faculty but also the concomitantly uncertain tenure, would they be particularly desirous of being in the same union as tenured faculty?

Posted by: Bill Richards at August 4, 2003 02:21 AM

From reading the newspapers, it is technically illegal to fire workers for union organizing activity. 'Technically', because even if proven, the only penalty is that the employer has to make up lost wages. And that's after several years of legal struggles. For practical purposes, workers can be fired for organizing.

Once unionized, workers can't be fired, but striking workers can be permanently replaced. If the strike ends, they can apply to be rehired, but they go to the end of the waiting list.

Again, this is what I've gathered from reading the news; consult a real lawyer when in need.

Posted by: Barry at August 4, 2003 09:22 AM

Here's a totally random thought... would teachers' unions make common cause with adjuncts?

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at August 5, 2003 09:56 AM

Dorothea, here at my institution, the professors' union made common cause with the TA union's attempt to unionize the contingent instructors for the institution's for-profit adult-education wing. Furthermore, all the campus unions (5 total, I think) have taken concerted action in the past to support or oppose various policies that affected them in varying degrees. So I'd say that some ft/tt faculty do recognize and support causes other than their own, and that this might extend to opposing the systematic exploitation of adjunct labor -- but, then again, I think I'm lucky to be at a fairly enlightened institution, in a department that by policy uses no adjunct labor. At the place where I got my Master's degree, TAs who had finished their degrees fought like dogs over a tiny yearly handful of adjunct slots.

Posted by: Mike at August 5, 2003 10:20 AM

I don't mean TA unions. I mean K-12 teachers' unions.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at August 5, 2003 12:49 PM