Pittsburgh “Countering Contingency” Conference Offers Hope To Adjunct Activists

by Jack Longmate

Over the past twenty-five years, U.S. colleges and universities have substantially increased their reliance on part-time and adjunct faculty instruction… The working conditions of part-time faculty members vary widely, but in comparison to their full-time colleagues, the majority of part-time faculty members teach under emphatically substandard conditions. Part-time faculty members are far less likely to have offices or telephones or to receive remuneration for office hours…. Part-time (and adjunct, non- tenure-track) faculty members are far less likely to receive regular evaluation … or to have opportunities to interact with colleagues, serve on committees, participate in faculty governance, attend professional conferences, or engage in research.—Statement from the Conference on the Growing Use of Part-Time and Adjunct Faculty, September 26-28, 1997

The above statement was written in 1997, however it could been written today, over 15 years later.  The real question is whether it will be written 10 or even 20 years from now.

Not only is the dismal rate of progress for the contingent faculty demoralizing, so too is the lack of goals, much less consensus about those goals and strategy. The Pittsburgh “Countering Contingency” conference that took place April 5-7, 2013, may possibly hint at a new direction and encouragement for the contingent faculty movement.

The major universities in the area, including the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne, and even Penn State, are private.  Tenured professors at those institutions are barred from unionizing by the 1980 U.S. Supreme Court NLRB vs. Yeshiva decision, which found that tenured faculty are managerial employees.

photoOn the other hand, non-tenured faculty may organize and are doing so at Duquesne under the Pittsburgh-based United Steelworkers (USW).  While the Duquesne effort is still in its formative stages, the impression is that Duquesne adjuncts and the USW have a happy marriage.  USW President Leo Gerard has welcomed the adjuncts to the USW’s membership of 850,000, stating that the adjuncts “contribute to the diversity that makes the USW strong.”

A possible advantage of non-tenured faculty organizing with an established, mature union like the USW is the absence of a dominant tenured faculty agenda that might compromise adjunct priorities.  To illustrate this, in Washington State colleges, where full- and part-time college faculty are organized by NEA and AFT affiliates, both unions support a $9.4 million proposal to increase the number of tenured positions in our colleges.  This proposal, often presented as benefiting part-time faculty, does little to improve working conditions of the non-tenured majority.  In fact, adding more full-time positions reduces the number of non-tenured, adjunct jobs.  Part-time faculty advocates who oppose such a move are opposing their own union. An adjunct-only union, like the USW, may defend adjunct interests without compromise.

Not only has the USW agreed to organize adjuncts at Duquesne, it has broadened its organizing appealing to adjuncts within the greater Pittsburgh metro area.  Metro organizing strategies have been tried before—in the late 1990s, the AAUP in an under-resourced venture in Boston—and at present, as was reported at the Pittsburgh conference, in the Washington, D.C. area under SEIU’s David Rodich and Anne McLeer.  SEIU is also conducting an effort at private institutions in Washington State, Boston, and possibly Los Angeles.  These developments delight labor historian Joe Berry who defined the “Metro” organizing strategy in his 2006 Reclaiming the Ivory Tower.  

But more important than the organizational framework is the workplace vision.  In general, adjuncts, like the rest of U.S. higher education, have been socialized into the two-tiered system; adjuncts generally have so internalized subservience that the lack of equality seems the norm.  Naturally, when such a perspective dominates a union, including a part-time union, there’s little help for real progress.  But the USW, free from a tenured faculty constituency unlike the NEA or AFT, could introduce a new flavor into the mix.  Time will tell if the USW can deliver.

Pittsburgh adjuncts did not seem to harbor the fatalism that “hell would freeze over” before they might be able to achieve the kind of equality that exists for faculty in Vancouver, British Columbia.  In fact, several Pittsburgh adjuncts held up the Program for Change, the strategic plan based on the Vancouver model, where after a defined probationary period, a faculty member is able to presume that his/her job will continue like any other normal job might, with academic freedom protections, with seniority accrual and seniority rights, with a fair and transparent faculty evaluation system, eventually equal pay, to identify a few items.

The most poignant moment at the Pittsburgh conference was when an earnest adjunct asked for ideas about how to oppose full-time faculty overloads, explaining that overloads deprive him of  summer work.  From the floor was mentioned proposed AFT-supported legislation in California to limit full-time community college faculty workloads to no more than 150 percent of full-time, which is hardly limiting since any time full-time faculty who teach more than full-time, displace part-time faculty. At the same time, California part-timers are still limited to teaching no more than 67 percent of a full-time load. State legislation does not affect private universities.

The fact is there is no polite or diplomatic way to object to a system that allows powerful employees to take the jobs of weaker employees: overloads constitute a stark conflict of interest.  This is where a union that honors the duty of fair representation can and should do the talking.

Vancouver Community College has job security for its part-time faculty.  It’s no coincidence, however, that its full-time faculty are prohibited from teaching overloads.  Here’s hoping that the Vancouver Model can take hold in Pittsburgh.

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