by Abel Macias
As 17 University of California academic workers were arrested for trespassing at the UC President’s Office in Sacramento on Dec. 5, I watched and wondered if community college adjunct faculty were paying attention and thinking about their own lives as inflation takes its toll on our wages and other labor issues make life difficult. As a longtime adjunct faculty at several colleges and universities in California, I know the pain of being underpaid, under appreciated and exploited just like the UC workers who were on strike for five weeks before reaching a tentative agreement with UC officials on Friday. Although there are many differences in the way we are taken advantage of, adjunct faculty in today’s community college are being used to keep the system functioning while facing many inequitable labor conditions. Despite the popular view that academic workers don’t deal with real labor issues, we see colleges and universities treating educators like gig workers, with no benefits, low pay and little job security. Below is my brief story to illustrate one example of the life of an adjunct worker.
I began my higher education career at a community college in 2005 immediately after graduating with a master’s degree in Mexican American studies from San José State University. It was an unexpected opportunity when a full-time faculty member went on a sabbatical and the school needed someone to fill in temporarily. I had no idea how the college employment system worked and where my journey would take me, I just saw a professional position in a line of work that I respected and admired. I didn’t know I would spend the next 17 years of my life working as an at-will temporary employee at various colleges and universities to piece together a living.
I saw it as an opportunity of a lifetime for someone who came from a humble family background and faced many challenges to get where I was in life. Taking a Chicano studies class in community college was a life-changing experience for me, and I am forever grateful for having the opportunity to learn about my own culture and Mexican American history.
Having the chance to teach in a discipline that had given me so much as a young person was an amazing way for my life to end up. I was going to be teaching young Mexican American students who were taking their first Chicano studies class much like I had when I was in their seats. I didn’t even think about how much money I was going to be paid or whether I would have health coverage or any other important benefits, I was just excited to be doing work in an area I was so passionate about.
I began with a strong willingness to learn as much as possible from my students. After only a few years of teaching, I started to learn things weren’t so great for people in my position. I mean I loved working with students and sharing my passion for Chicano history and culture, but my contributions weren’t being compensated fairly. I learned I wasn’t being paid at the same rate as full-time instructors, but I was doing the same work. It became clear that I was part of a class that was being taken advantage of by a system that was benefiting from my precarious employment status.
It turns out I’m not the only one — the vast majority of faculty who teach at community colleges in California are adjunct workers. According to the California Community College Chancellor’s Office, in fall 2021, adjuncts were 67 percent of the teaching staff or 37,137 faculty.
This is a large majority and a powerful force if we could unite behind a list of demands. Will we ever be brave enough to take direct action and pressure the chancellor’s office and elected officials to treat us fairly? As the majority, we must come to terms with the potential we have to make real demands on the current system. As the great Black abolitionist Frederick Douglas once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Hopefully community college adjunct faculty are paying close attention to the lesson UC academic workers have taught us. Why not build on this historic moment and show our solidarity while also raising awareness about the exploitation taking place at the largest educational system in the country?
I’m not sure how much longer I am willing to be exploited despite my commitment to students and higher education. Chicano history has taught me that the people will only put up with so much before they finally say “¡ya basta!/enough!” and demand better employment conditions.
First published in the San Diego Tribune.