Adjunct instructors achieved a significant victory within the National Education Association last week as the union's Representative Assembly overwhelmingly voted to urge the U.S. Department of Labor to help secure unemployment benefits for contingent faculty who lack jobs.
In the long term, the Assembly's vote offers adjunct faculty members hope of much more easily collecting unemployment benefits during periods when they are not teaching and their prospects for future work remain uncertain.
In the short term, the vote represents a major win for adjuncts in their struggle to gain more visibility in the nation's largest teachers union, where they make up a small fraction of the Assembly and the overall membership.
The measure, passed by the Assembly at the union's annual meeting here last week, calls for the NEA to collaborate with its Contingent Faculty Caucus to askthe Labor Department to issue a letter clarifying that contingent faculty members who are out of work lack "reasonable assurance" of being employed by their colleges in the future. The measure calls for the Contingent Faculty Caucus to suggest language for the Labor Department to use in the letter, which the NEA and adjuncts want the department to issue as an advisory connected with the agency's unemployment-insurance program.
Contingent faculty members, who generally work on contracts covering a semester or an academic year, often have difficulty receiving unemployment benefits, especially during the summer months, because the colleges that had employed them say there is a chance they will be rehired. Advocates for adjunct faculty members argue that federal unemployment-insurance guidelines, written to keep full-time professors and schoolteachers from exploiting the system, fail to take into account the uncertainty of continued employment for adjuncts, who may see prospective jobs disappear at the last minute due to lower-than-expected class enrollments and other factors outside their control.
Adjunct faculty members in the National Education Association formed the Contingent Faculty Caucus three years ago partly in hopes that such an organized body might have better luck than individual faculty members in getting the national union to take up issues of importance to adjuncts.
Although the caucus accounted for only about 30 of the roughly 8,000 delegates at this year's Assembly, the measure drew no significant resistance and passed overwhelmingly in a voice vote. The measure had been endorsed by the National Council for Higher Education, which represents members who work at colleges and sets the NEA's higher-education agenda.