A National Voice for Adjuncts?

Several adjunct faculty, including Keith Hoeller, Ross Borden, Gregory Zobel and Deborah Lewis, have announced the launch of the National Coalition for Adjunct Equity. Ross Borden was quoted as saying, “The new organization ‘is not a substitute’ for the unions.” The group members stressed that the National Coalition for Adjunct Faculty will not engage in collective bargaining. Just what the group will do is still being discussed.

I spoke with Keith Hoeller many weeks ago about the National Adjunct Faculty Guild, which I founded in 1994. I told Keith that despite everything the Guild offered to its members, professional development opportunities, a conference, national discounts, access to health insurance, etc…I decided to fold it for one reason. People called, wrote and told me at conferences over and again that what they were looking for was a union to represent part-time faculty. Shortly after I formed the NAFG, I got a call from the then-Vice President of Higher Education at the American Federation of Teachers. Over lunch, the man gently, then with increasing bluntness, suggested I was taking a major step toward forming a national union for part-time faculty. I was absolutely flabbergasted. I had gone to Washington, DC to see if there was any way the AFT and NAFG could work together. There was definitely synergy between NAFG and the three education unions, and at the time AFT represented 40,000 part-time faculty, a little over 10 percent of the nation’s part-timers. Ok. Next.

The truth was, at that time, the thought to form a national union hadn’t entered my mind. My logic was, in 1994—when those off the tenure-track were still the minority of college faculty—that forming a professional association that encouraged adjuncts and spoke out on their behalf was the best route to bettering their working conditions. Time has proven me wrong. Over and over again.

Today, some 17 years later, the number of faculty off the tenure-track has skyrocketed to 700,000 individuals, out of the 1.3 million faculty employed in higher education. Pay, as the recent MLA study on adjuncts in the humanities suggested, has stagnated. The national average per course pay is less than $2,800 per course. The number of part-time faculty who’ve been organized by the three national education unions is less than 10 percent of the total number of faculty off the tenure track now. The percentage of unionized temporary faculty has actually fallen over the past 17 years. 

In California and Washington state, where the AFT state affiliates secured so-called equity pay for part-timers, tens of millions of dollars of the money has been funneled to full-time faculty teaching overload courses. Today, the three national education unions are all behind the AFT’s FACE program that aims to build the ranks of the full-time faculty who belong to the unions, and offers part-time faculty little tangible help, hope or reward. FACE has dashed any hope I had left in the national education unions that the leadership of those organizations actually cared about the people in those part-time teaching jobs. FACE is primarily about falling union revenues, and money, not about what’s going to help ameliorate the pay and working conditions of  the nation’s 700,000 faculty off the tenure track, or improve the quality of instruction offered to the 13,000,000 undergraduates whom they teach.  

In my discussions with Keith Hoeller about NAFG, I was frank about the failings of the NAFG. 

Perhaps it’s the way the reporter chose to report on the new National Coalition for Adjunct Equity (a working name), but I was disappointed to see those people head down the path they’ve chosen. The article about the launch of the group outlined no national, political or pedagogical agenda for the NCAE, nor even listed the names and affiliations of all of the founding members. The group is set to be formed on Sunday, February 22nd.  The name is a “working” title. In short, the big roll out looked much like a stalled-out car being pushed out center stage at the North American Auto Show. There’s a group of non-tenured faculty who have formed a National Coalition to speak out on behalf of the nation’s 700,000 non-tenured faculty. 

As much respect as I have for all of the men and one woman (or so it seems from the article) who formed this group, I feel compelled to say to that the time for the Lorax has long passed. There’s a National Coalition of Adjunct Equity who’ve announced they’re speaking for trees, but the trees are being (and have been for the last 20 years) slashed and burned at an astounding rate. No amount of “speaking” is going to stop the slashing and burning. No National Coalition without a well thought-out national agenda, political agenda, fundraising savvy, and enough mendacity to do something shocking and bold is ever going to change the lot of our country’s non-tenured faculty. 

These are good-intentioned, brave and valiant people. Make no mistake. They’re also terribly naive about politics and public perception. 

What is needed is an organization to substitute for the national education unions. It was needed when I launched the National Adjunct Faculty Guild and attracted thousands of members. I don’t regret much in my life, but I do regret not picking up on the actual meaning and significance of the nervousness of the AFT Vice President sitting across from me at lunch that summer afternoon in Washington, DC those many years ago. I regret not having formed a national labor union for the nation’s then-400,000 non-tenured faculty. It was a lost opportunity to change the face of higher education forever, much like Samuel Gompers changed the face of labor history. If such high-minded ideals don’t appeal to you, think about this: Right now, the AFT has just over 835,000 members, and the group earned $200,000,000 dollars last  year. The President of the AFT is paid close to $400,000 per year. How much did you earn last year? Slightly less than $400K. Yeah, me too.

My guess is that a national labor union just for faculty off the tenure-track would rival the AFT and NEA in power, money and political clout in a relatively short time—perhaps 10-15 years. Such a union would create sweeping change in higher education as faculty off the tenure-track systematically wielded the power created by their own national labor union. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Creating such a national union would be gritty, ugly and messy as the AFT, NEA and AAUP tried to slit the proverbial throat of the group. It would be demanding, tough work, but adjuncts would flock to such a union, particularly if the union were run by a founding group truly committed to a sweeping agenda of change, as opposed to personal gain. Because believe me, a small national union with just 20,000 members who paid just 1.5 percent of gross pay in dues could generate millions annually in revenues. Resisting the the path of leadership that has created education unions (NEA/AFT/SEIU) at which it pays more to work for the union than to be represented by the union would be very difficult indeed.

Of course, I send to the founders of the National Coalition for Adjunct Equity all my best wishes. I will watch with interest and hope as they move forward with their efforts to speak out on behalf of the nation’s part-time faculty. 

I will also urge them to put up a web page, and make sure writers who cover their group always include contact information.

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