Adjuncts United: A New National Adjunct Union. (Coming Soon?)

leskoBy P.D. Lesko

Keith Hoeller and I have known each other for many years. Like me, Keith advocates for part-time faculty. In my case, I do it nationally. Keith has been going toe-to-toe with the Washington Federation of Teachers for years. The Washington Federation of Teachers (an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers) represents him and 8,000 other adjuncts who teach in colleges and universities in Washington State. Keith and I agree wholeheartedly that the WFT has represented the state’s part-timers badly. This may sound harsh, but the truth is that the WFT has looked after the best interests of its full-time faculty members first and best for much too long. The result has been that contracts negotiated at affiliate colleges and universities have, literally, worked against the part-time faculty interests while rewarding full-time faculty with larger overall raises, and benefits. Contracts negotiated by WFT affiliates now allow full-timers to teach 200-300 percent of their full-time loads before adjunct faculty are assigned courses. InsideHigherEd.com reported:

In “The Overload Debate” (Community College Journal, Fall, 2010), Jack Longmate points out how the AFT/NEA unions and the community colleges in Washington State have bargained contracts that severely limit adjunct teaching, while at the same time allowing tenure-stream faculty first choice to teach overloads as high as 200 to 300 percent of full time. Throughout the state system, even beginning tenure-track faculty have the right to “bump” adjunct faculty and take their courses, while adjunct faculty do not have the right to bump anyone, no matter how long they have taught. Longmate concludes that “a visitor from Mars looking at the differing treatment of full-time tenured faculty and part-time contingent faculty … might conclude that discrimination is rampant in the U.S. higher education workplace.”

These faculty are represented by the same union, the same affiliate, the same local. This is not equal representation.

Evidently, not too long ago someone sent along an anonymous message to the Adj-L Listserv. This is an email listserv group comprised of adjunct faculty and (mostly) allies. The sender suggested that it was time to form a national union for adjunct faculty. The individual or individuals set up a web site for those interested in pursuing this goal.

Well, yes. It’s well past time to form a national union for adjunct faculty. The days for the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and the American Association of University Professors to represent the nation’s 700,000 faculty off the tenure-track is over. The current President of the AAUP, Dr. Cary Nelson, infuriated part-time faculty within his own union by appointing tenure-line faculty member, Marc Bousquet, as the co-chair of the union’s Adjunct Committee. Keith Holler resigned from the Committee in protest. Bousquet’s appointment was a slap in the face of every one of the AAUP’s 5,000 part-time faculty members, none of whom were chosen to co-chair the committee devoted to their own professional interests.

My main concern is that those behind the latest push for an adjunct union feel so insecure that they are forming a critical mass of interested individuals anonymously. Frankly, and perhaps I am not as optimistic as I should be, but I just don’t believe an anonymous individual or individuals will attract 10,000 adjuncts interested in a union just for faculty off the tenure-track. As I tell my sons, work doesn’t just come to you. Anyone who wants to start something new, particularly a new national faculty union, is going to have to form the union, then go out and approach already-organized part-time faculty locals, as well as those not yet organized.

Furthermore, gathering a list of 10,000 email addresses is little than a list of 10,000 individuals willing to give an email address. The number of people who will commit to doing something, anything, will be miniscule, alas. The hard fact is that 9,990 of the 10,000 individuals will want someone else to do something about their poor, exploitative working conditions. A national union requires a cadre of people with very specific skills who are willing to run a national union.

At InsideHigherEd.com, 25 people posted comments to Keith’s latest essay about the most recent stab at forming a national faculty union just for adjuncts. I was one of those who commented. My comment, however, was not posted by the site’s editors for some unexplained reason (I suppose the comment was a bit too blunt for their tastes). So, I’m posting it here, for you to read:

Many years ago, I launched an association for adjunct faculty called the National Adjunct Faculty Guild. I deliberately chose not to launch a union, because, well, there were already three higher education unions. Now, we can count the UAW and SEIU among those who have jumped into the fray to organize adjuncts.

I had high hopes for Andy Stern’s SEIU, hopes that the SEIU would represent part-time faculty with the same hard-nosed aggressive tactics the union has used representing other workers in need in protection from exploitation. I’ve been disappointed as I’ve watched SEIU stand back while colleges dragged their legal feet for, literally, years, in order to try to avoid recognizing their SEIU affiliates. Of course, college presidents have a gloried track-record of doing the same thing to AFT, NEA and AAUP would-be adjunct affiliates.

These many years later, I understand precisely why a VP of Higher Education at AFT met with me shortly after I founded the association. There was a need for a national union to represent adjunct faculty then, when there were 300,000 adjuncts. There is a much greater need now, with 70 percent of college faculty off the tenure-track. We’ve had enough lip service, tea and sympathy from the national education unions to last several lifetimes.

I hope organizers will follow through and include ALL faculty off the tenure-track. I hope the organizers will realize that including all faculty off the tenure-track will expand the pool of potential members. Then, I hope those who organize this union go after every single NEA/AFT/AAUP/SEIU/AFT affiliate representing adjunct faculty (badly).

If this union is, actually, launched we will see one of the ugliest fights in higher education between those who have represented adjuncts grudgingly, and those who know that union representation shouldn’t be grudging. If an Adjunct Faculty Union reaches critical mass, nationally, and is aggressive in its negotiation and representation of the best interests of adjuncts, it will be the 800 pound gorilla at the bargaining table. At this point, at many institutions, uncooperative adjuncts could close a college indefinitely, and do incalculable damage financially. Full-time faculty (and their unions) might be looking at the end of their larger raises, better benefits, and perceived superiority.

I don’t have many regrets about the past twenty years I have spent advocating (sometimes a bit too vociferously) on behalf of faculty off the tenure-track. The one regret I do have is that I neglected to incorporate and launch a national union in 1995 instead of an association. Today, perhaps, 30,000-50,000 adjuncts would be represented by a union that would never launch national initiatives, such as FACE, that fritter away millions of dollars churning out propaganda that concludes part-time faculty need to be gotten rid of. The union would certainly not be led by a president (as is the AAUP) who promulgate myths about the inferiority of adjuncts disguised as intellectualism.

Whomever is behind this is frightened enough of repercussions that s/he feels the need to remain anonymous. This, to me, is the most chilling aspect of this latest chapter in the exploitation of faculty off the tenure-track. Whomever you are, feel free to contact me. I will do whatever I can to help you. It’s the least I can do.

About P.D. Lesko: P.D. Lesko is the Executive Editor of AdjunctNation.com. She has written about adjunct faculty issues for almost two decades.

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2 Comments
  1. Alicia Mitchell says

    Another approach to rid such discrimination in higher ed would be to educate adjuncts on the 98% chance that they will remain adjunct for the next ten years of their working lives and perhaps longer, without pay raises, benefits, and bonuses. One way to reach out to them is to send newsletters to each adjunct faculty member across the nation. As you know, the adjunct faculty member is paid $14,000 a year so they have little to no residual income to put forth as a union due. Also, many are retired teachers working to add on to their SS and any pension they may have, so I don’t think there will be much response from those.

    As you have addressed the issue, and the issue is real, those who are making the big bucks have kept their heads stuck in the sand pretending the issue is of no importance since it doesn’t affect them — so the next route to acquire money for the newsletters is via government grants. We need to set up an adjunct extension agency which informs adjuncts to their reality and becomes a liasion to adjuncts to find them other employment other than higher ed.

    It seems once someone lists their higher ed experience on a resume/vitae, no other employer wants to touch it. It is like the would be candidate has just priced him/herself out of a job once the higher ed experience is listed.

    I would like to discuss further ideas. So please contact me via email address at amwalkingtogether@gmail.com.

  2. Sam Johnson says

    Now that the website has been taken down….how do I get involved. I appreciate your skepticism, but I agree with whoever formed this group that anonymity is the only way to start. We live in a different world. More and more, a two income household is a requirement even to maintain one household. Low wages are simply not an option for many. I don’t want to be involved in union issues so much as I have to and so…could you please pass on my e-mail or any info you can give me about how to contact this group? Thanks.

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