Even With Unions, Adjuncts Are Rarely Protected From Last-Minute Job Losses

April 21, 2015

The movement to unionize adjunct instructors has yet to protect most of them from taking big financial hits from last-minute class cancellations, according to new study based on an analysis of contract provisions.

Just one in four union contracts covering adjunct instructors includes any sort of provision ensuring them some payment when a course assignment is canceled, the study found. Where such provisions are in place, for the most part, they let colleges cancel adjuncts’ classes with little notice and for a broad range of reasons, says a paper summarizing the study’s findings. Most ensure adjunct instructors reimbursements of only a few hundred dollars for the canceled work — a pittance considering the time some may have already spent on class planning.

The provisions say "a great deal about the structure of employment for adjunct faculty in the new academy," the paper argues. Such faculty members, it says, "are in a position of preparing classes just in case they are held, thereby providing unpaid labor."

The provisions also offer insight into the stratification of academic labor and tensions between full-time and part-time faculty members, in part because some contracts let full-timers who need additional classes "bump" part-timers out of class assignments, the paper says.

Gary Rhoades, director of the University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, conducted the study by analyzing a national database of faculty unions’ collective-bargaining agreements maintained by the National Education Association. He also took into account several contracts negotiated by the Service Employees International Union too recently to be part of the NEA’s collection, which broadly covers contracts organized by any faculty union.

He presented his findings on Monday at the annual conference of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, held at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

At a conference session held later in the day, James D. Moran III, provost of the University of South Dakota, called colleges’ treatment of adjuncts whose classes are canceled "a respect issue that we, as institutions, need to do a lot better at."

An ‘Insulting’ Offer

Mr. Rhoades focused on 240 contracts in the NEA database that covered collective-bargaining units consisting of either adjuncts alone or adjuncts and other categories of faculty members. Of those contracts, just 61 had clauses dealing with the cancellation of class assignments given to part-timers.

Adjunct instructors appeared to fare better on that front if their union represented part-timers alone: About 42 percent of the contracts negotiated by bargaining units solely for part-timers, but just 20 percent of contracts covering a combination of faculty categories, had clauses dealing with the cancellation of adjunct instructors’ classes.

Among Mr. Rhoades’s findings, his paper says, is that where such provisions exist, "notice of cancellation is also quite limited, not uncommonly days before and sometimes the day of, or a few days after, classes start." The provisions gave managers "broad discretion in canceling classes in terms of the rationales provided, and the specificity of those rationales." Their most commonly cited rationale was "low" or "insufficient" enrollment, with the numerical threshold never being specifically defined.

Although most of the contracts with provisions dealing with adjuncts offered them some payment for canceled classes, few such payments exceeded a few hundred dollars. One contract offered adjuncts only an hour’s pay in the event of a cancellation, an amount Mr. Rhoades called "insulting," especially considering how much time the instructor might have spent planning.

Mr. Rhoades took a much more positive view of contracts that the SEIU recently negotiated with four private colleges — American University, Georgetown University, and George Washington University, all in Washington, D.C., and Tufts University, just outside Boston — as part of its campaign to organize adjunct faculty members throughout entire metropolitan regions.

Those agreements offered part-time faculty members some due process, access to contracts of longer duration than a semester, and much more substantial payments for canceled courses than found in contracts elsewhere. Tufts, for example, offers adjunct instructors at least $750 per canceled course.

Mr. Rhoades’s paper acknowledges that the four universities "are all quite well resourced." Nevertheless, it says, their contract provisions dealing with canceled classes "make for good benchmarks for other locals and institutions."

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.