Advocates for Adjunct Instructors Think Broadly in Search for Allies

November 18, 2013

As advocates for contingent faculty members gathered here over the weekend for a forum on how to improve that population's working conditions, they seemed in agreement that they needed to look well beyond their colleges' faculties for support for their efforts. The people they characterized as their best allies were not tenure-track colleagues but students, tuition-paying parents, and hourly workers who perform tasks such as serving cafeteria food or mopping hallway floors.

David Wilder, a part-time lecturer in art history at John Carroll University and co-chairman of the Ohio Part-Time Faculty Association's organizing committee, said he in fact cringes when he hears adjunct instructors complain that their college's janitors make more money than they do. "The janitor is going to be more our ally than some of the professors," he said.

Wayne Langley, who has helped unionize nonacademic college employees as director of the higher-education division of SEIU Local 615, which covers Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, said "there is a strong argument for a commonality of interests" of all college employees.

The overall mood of the forum, held at the national headquarters of the Service Employees International Union, was upbeat as a result of gains by advocates for contingent faculty members over the past year.

Among recent victories, the low wages and poor working conditions of adjunct instructors have been getting much more attention nationally. Campus Equity Week, an event staged late last month and early this month to draw attention to adjuncts' conditions, organized by the New Faculty Majority, drew heavy news-media coverage of events held on more than 110 campuses in more than half of the states, including several states historically hostile to organized labor, such as Alabama and Texas.

Among the labor unions seeking to organize adjuncts, the SEIU has made major inroads with a strategy of unionizing adjunct faculty members throughout entire metropolitan areas to bring colleges under labor-market pressures to treat adjuncts better.

In the Washington, D.C., area, where its efforts are farthest along, adjunct instructors have formed unions at American University, George Washington University, Georgetown University, and Maryland's Montgomery College, and are in the midst of similar organizing efforts at Howard University and the University of the District of Columbia.

In the Boston area, adjuncts have formed a union at Tufts University, narrowly voted against unionizing at Bentley University, and have unionization drives under way at Lesley University and Northeastern Universities. In the Los Angeles area, such drives are well under way at Whittier College and the University of La Verne.

Malini Cadambi Daniel, director of SEIU's national higher-education campaign, said the union's previous efforts to unionize health-care workers and janitors throughout metropolitan areas produced much better outcomes for such workers than organization efforts focused on individual institutions.

"If we don't approach it in this way, we are just playing Whac-A-Mole," she said.

Finding Friends

The irony of college instructors' finding a home in a union that mainly represents low-wage workers was not lost on those in attendance. In welcoming the crowd, Merle Cuttita, president of SEIU Local 500, which represents workers in Washington, D.C., and Maryland, said, "You are a very intimidating group to me. I am just a plain union gal."

Nevertheless, the adjunct faculty advocates here voiced far more solidarity with workers who earned similarly low wages than with tenured faculty members who shared their high education levels.

Joseph J. Fahey, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College and chairman of Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice, was especially blunt, denouncing many full-time faculty members at his institution as "gutless wonders who sit in their little fiefdoms and ignore the needs of adjunct faculty members" rather than aiding their efforts to unionize. A regional office of the National Labor Relations Board has rejected that college's argument that it should be allowed to bar its adjuncts' unionization on religious grounds, but the college has appealed that decision.

Seth Kahn, a professor of English at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, pushed back against such harsh rhetoric, arguing that tenured faculty members "are still a set of allies who are worth cultivating" because many "feel exploited too." But several others on hand spoke of tenure-track faculty members who showed little sympathy or respect for the adjuncts who work alongside them.

Micheline Murphy, who helped to organize adjuncts at Pacific Lutheran University, in Tacoma, Wash., on behalf of SEIU Local 925, said some tenure-track faculty members there have supported adjuncts vocally, but others appear to believe that adjuncts who wish to unionize are "substandard in some fashion" or "too lazy to go through the process of tenure."

Jane Harty, a senior lecturer in music at Pacific Lutheran, which has appealed a regional National Labor Relations Board ruling giving adjuncts there the right to vote on unionizing, said many full-time faculty members there expressed fears that their own pay would have to be cut if adjuncts were paid better.

Maria C. Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national advocacy group for instructors off the tenure track, said her efforts to form an advocacy organization for part-time faculty members in Ohio initially got a cold shoulder from the unions that represent tenure-track faculty members in that state. The Ohio Part-Time Faculty Association nonetheless came into being in January, and the unions that initially showed little interest in it heavily attended a summit it held last month.

"Now that they see how serious we are, we are starting to build relationships with them," she said.

Students as Allies

Some national student organizations, by contrast, have been nothing but enthusiastic in their support of efforts to improve adjuncts' working conditions. United Students Against Sweatshops, for example, has helped get students at several Washington, D.C., colleges behind efforts to unionize adjunct faculty members and recently established new chapters in the Los Angeles area to support similar efforts there.

"We believe deeply that this is an issue of quality higher education," said K.B. Brower, an organizer for the student group.

In a presentation on Sunday, Ann Kottner, an adjunct professor of English at New Jersey City University, called students "our most natural allies." When she tells those in her classes how little adjunct faculty members are paid, she said, "they are furious because they start to think: Where is my tuition money going?"