I Can Help With That. Maybe.

I participate in a city-wide politics email listserv in the town where I live. Recently, a woman posted a detailed message about what the group should do to reach a larger audience so as to stop preaching to the choir, as it were. The last three words of her email were classic: 

“I’m not volunteering.”

To me, her lack of leadership ability stood out for all to see.  

At our house, when we want to tease each other about not taking responsibility for a task, we say with a chipper smile, “I can help with that.” Translation: “I ain’t gonna bust my chops by taking charge, but if you’ll take charge, then I can help with that. Maybe.” The “I can help with that,” syndrome is all too common. No one wants to lead anything, but if a leader—strong, true and charismatic—steps forward to lead the troops, well, there are lots of people who can “help with that.” Maybe.

Does this hew and cry sound familiar? “Adjuncts need to have a nation-wide strike!!!” 

How about this one?  “Adjuncts need a national union!!!” (Exclamation points are always included in these battle cries of the Adjunct Republic.)

Both of these statements are true. What I can’t fathom, though, is from which corner of the world the Mahatma will arise to lead our nation’s 700,000 non-tenured faculty to independence and self-determination. AAUP’s Marc Bousquet, a full-time faculty member, frequently urges adjuncts in his blog to lead their own movement. Oddly, when the AAUP President appointed co-chairs of the union’s Committee on Part-time Faculty, he appointed Bousquet, who accepted the position. So not only must the Mahatma arise spontaneously, the Mahatma can’t even catch a break and get appointed a co-chair.

Do you realize what it would take to launch a national union for adjunct faculty? Four IRS forms and a set of bylaws. The IRS has a web site, and you can get EIN (http://www.irs.gov/businesses/small/article/0,,id=98350,00.html) and TIN (http://www.irs.gov/businesses/small/international/article/0,,id=96696,00.html) numbers by phone. Forming and launching a national union wouldn’t be difficult. However, at the moment, there are several hundred thousand temporary faculty moaning, wringing their hands, and muttering “I can help with that.”  When one remembers that among these part-time faculty there are hundreds if not thousands with graduate degrees in labor relations, and who teach other people about advocacy and organizing, the situation begins to resemble opera buffa. I can imagine Carlo Goldoni penning the music to the comedic opera “Adjuncts Need a National Union!!!”

Make no mistake: the Mahatma who steps up will find himself in a cat fight with the AFT, NEA and perhaps the AAUP, but when the dust settles, the adjunct union will grow, and eventually rake in the same hundreds of millions in union dues from affiliates that the NEA, SEIU and AFT bring in each year. Such a national adjunct union will change the face of higher education, as the union’s affiliates play tug o’ war with tenure-line and tenured faculty union affiliates for more equitable division of teaching duties, money, benefits and professional development funds.

Today’s national higher education union leaders could help adjuncts within their unions break away and form a national union. Good idea, huh? It’s not mine. In Ontario, Canada, OPSEU’s President Smokey Thomas did just that for 10,500 part-timers. He and his OPSEU members formed and financed OPSEUCAT, currently led by part-timer Roger Courvette. Union leaders at NEA, AFT and even the AAUP could easily help a group of part-timers form a national union. AFT, NEA and AAUP could even allow part-time affiliates that wished to do so to migrate to the new union.  

I had hoped the recent formation of the New Faculty Majority was the first step toward a national union for adjuncts, and then I read that the founders did not intend the group to replace existing unions, or engage in collective bargaining. The group’s initial launch, without a name, formalized agenda or clear focus, signals a long and arduous road to be traversed before any advocacy—adjunct or otherwise—may be expected.  

Will the Mahatma arise? Yes, but I believe the person will come from outside of higher education. The Mahatma will not be any of the usual suspects, whose published essays and blog postings we read with relish and which cause us to post comments sprinkled liberally with exclamation points. When the Mahatma comes, will the hundreds of thousands of faculty who are currently under-employed in non-tenured positions “help with that?”


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