Should You Join a Union?

April 14, 2004

The adjunct unionization efforts of the past decade have paid off at several American colleges and universities. Thousands of non-tenure-track faculty members today can choose to have their interests represented through collective bargaining. Granted, most adjuncts don't yet have this option, but more and more are getting it. So, if you stay in the adjunct game for a prolonged period of time -- and the evidence suggests that you will -- you might eventually be presented with the option of joining a union. Should you?

I've been asked several times in the past few years whether I would join a union. Mind you, there is no adjunct union -- or even a sizable adjunct union movement -- here in Houston, where I live and work, so the question is purely academic for me. I've thought about it a lot and discussed it with lots of adjunct colleagues over the dozen or more years I've been in this business.

Contrary to the "union or bust" perspective of most union organizers, my answer to that question always seems to be: It depends on the situation.

Every adjunct is in a particular situation distinct from that of other adjuncts, and joining a union may or may not benefit that particular situation. Generally speaking, most adjuncts are underpaid, receive little or no benefits, and have virtually no job security.

Some adjuncts struggle to make ends meet on their paltry pay from teaching. Some do other, more lucrative work as their "day" job and teach part time for fun and supplemental income. Others have spouses who carry the bulk of the family financial load, including providing health insurance. Still others, like myself, have managed to carve out sustainable adjunct careers by piecing together several part-time gigs that, taken together, provide modest income and some limited benefits.

There is no "one size fits all" description of the adjunct plight in this country. Therefore, in my view, neither a union -- nor any other "solution" to the adjunct "problem" -- is a sure-fire answer to the needs of every individual adjunct.

For those adjuncts who are on their own, without spousal support or other lucrative work, the union is probably the most attractive solution to a dire situation. Unions force employers to recognize and reward the contribution of the employees they depend upon the most, but pay the least. Many adjuncts, in areas that now have unions, didn't have offices, e-mail privileges, telephone access, paid office hours, or any standing whatsoever in their institutions before the unions came. Now, they do. Unions, simply by virtue of critical mass and collective bargaining, can accomplish gains for adjuncts that make a difference.

Generally speaking, adjuncts in unions have gained some increases in pay and benefits, and some significant increases in job stability via extended contracts and other measures. So if your personal situation would be definitively improved by such measures, then joining a union might be in your best interest.

Another factor to consider in making your decision is the lot of other adjuncts at your institution. While your personal situation may not be so dire, either because of spousal support or other work, your adjunct colleagues may not be so fortunate. You may consider starting, or joining, a union simply as a solidarity move in support of your colleagues. Critical mass is, well, critical for union success, and often it will require the participation of those individuals who don't necessarily need the benefits of the union for themselves. They participate simply because they know others very much need the benefits to be had and they want to support the cause.

Personally, I have often thought that that would be the primary reason I would join a union if the option is ever presented to me. I don't really need the financial benefits of unionization for myself; I have finagled through my own efforts all the perks that a union would most likely supply. But I would probably go ahead and join the union simply because I know so many other adjuncts in my area are not in my situation and could really use union support.

But even here I say "probably." Why am I not certain? Because I would have to assess whether a union would hurt my situation. Possible employer retaliation is always a concern when dealing with unionization. The labor movement in this country is replete with stories of employers who simply opt to hire nonunion employees when they feel their arms twisted by unions. While a university probably wouldn't or couldn't just immediately fire all of its unionized adjuncts, it might eventually phase them out and replace them with nonunion adjuncts.

The glut of Ph.D.'s in this country in so many disciplines -- one of the largest causal factors of the adjunct nation in the first place -- guarantees that institutions will have plenty of credentialed alternatives to the unionized. Unless every potential adjunct steadfastly refuses to cross a picket line and chooses instead to wait tables, design Web sites, or do temp work with their hard-earned, expensive doctorates, institutions could simply delete their union adjuncts from the employee rosters.

Institutions hire us instead of expensive full-time faculty members because it saves them money. If unionized adjuncts means an institution can't protect its bottom line, it could simply not hire as many adjuncts or find ways to hire more nonunionized ones. If I joined a union, how would I know that I would end up being one of the adjuncts who got to keep my job?

Personally, I might still take the risk and join the union just to do my part to shake up the academic establishment. (Notice I said "might.") This is all about money, for the institutions as well as for us adjuncts. We consider joining a union so as to make more money. Institutions hire us instead of full-timers to make more money.

Given those realities, adjuncts have to decide the question of whether to join a union on an individual -- case by case, institution by institution -- basis. Not all adjuncts are the same. Not all unions or institutions are the same. The bottom line, financially or otherwise, is that you have to look out for your own interests, even when considering whether to have a union to look out for them for you.

Jill Carroll, an adjunct lecturer in Texas, writes a column on adjunct life and work. She is author of a self-published book, How to Survive as an Adjunct Lecturer: An Entrepreneurial Strategy Manual. Her Web site is and her e-mail address is