by Mariah Quinn
“We said yes.”
That was the consensus of a group of over 100 adjunct professors after a day of panels and discussions about organizing contingent faculty in the Boston metro area to raise standards for their profession. The event was held at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston on Saturday, and served as the public kickoff for the Adjunct Action campaign to unionize contingent faculty across the Boston metro area.
The day, a mixture of presentations and free-flowing discussions, started with a panel entitled “Adjunctified: The Casual Academic Workforce.” Professor Gary Rhodes talked about the “ferment and hunger for representation and voice” amongst adjunct faculty, whom he described as “isolated, attenuated, and alienated.”
“Recognize these?” wrote one adjunct who tweeted Rhodes’ comments, as Rhodes told the story of one adjunct who said he “carried my office to work in a briefcase every day.”
During the same panel Maria Maisto, an adjunct professor and a founder of the New Faculty Majority, an organization that works to advance professional equity for contingent faculty, argued that student learning outcomes are inextricably linked to the conditions their professors work under. “Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions,” she said. If faculty working conditions continue to decline, both they and students suffer, she said.
The symposium, sponsored by Service Employees International Union, received significant press attention in advance of the event, including coverage on NPR’s All Things Considered, on Boston.com, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and on CBS Boston. SEIU represents 15,000 adjunct faculty nationally.
Attendees and panelist linked the problems facing contingent faculty, including low pay, lack of job security and little or no access to benefits, to the “corporatization” of higher education. There is an “increasing corporate mentality of educational institutions,” said one attendee. “The whole community is affected if we can not bring core education values back.”
Nationally, approximately 70 percent of instructional faculty are off the tenure track, with the number of part-time faculty increasing at three times the rate of full-time faculty members over the last 15 years. The average contingent faculty member makes approximately $2900 per course, according to the Adjunct Project, a crowdsourcing site founded by Joshua Boldt and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Most part-time professors do not have access health insurance through the educational institutions that employ them.
Statistics regarding part-time faculty are startling. In 2009 at American University (AU) in Washington, DC adjuncts made up about 50 percent of the faculty, yet their total salaries represented about 4 percent of the budget for instruction. Contingent faculty at AU voted to unionize with SEIU Local 500 in 2011 and are in the process of negotiating their first contract.
At the symposium Anne McLeer, director of strategy and research at SEIU Local 500 and a former adjunct professor at George Washington (GW), explained how the “metro” strategy worked in DC. Adjuncts from AU, GW, and Montgomery College have unionized into Local 500, and Georgetown part-time faculty are currently in the process of joining Local 500. With a metro strategy, citywide organizing will allow adjunct faculty to build the strength necessary to pressure universities to raise standards marketwide and avoid losing talent.
At George Washington University, the birthplace of the DC metro campaign, the contingent faculty now represented by SEIU Local 500 have negotiated three contracts, securing regular raises, greater job security, and access to professional development funds. Full details of that contract can be found here.
At GW, McLeer said, the movement started with some “crazy folks” in the English Department who worked to overcome institutional intransigence.
“The adjunct faculty struggle is a struggle to fight for the values of equality, security, and justice for all on our campuses,” Joseph Ramsey, a contingent lecturer at UMass Lowell told the crowd gathered at the symposium, urging them to come together to fight collectively.
Students from Tufts, Northeastern and Emerson attended the event in a show of support for hardworking adjunct faculty, who told stories of staying late and working well beyond the three course hours for which they are paid to write recommendations and provide guidance on papers and coursework.
Todd Ricker, the organizing director for the Adjunct Action, posed a question to the gathered adjuncts as they prepared to engage in discussions about the reasons to organize on their respective campuses. “Do you want things to change or do you want things to remain the same?” he asked. “Forming a union is easy,” he added, “but it’s not simple,” requiring patience, dedication and a willingness to face institutional resistance.
At the close of the symposium as adjuncts summed up their positions on organizing a union, the willingness was there. “Unite,” said one table. “Fight for respect,” said another. “We said yes,” said a third.
“The SEIU symposium is powerful,” tweeted one adjunct at the closing. “Contingent faculty of the world, unite.”