Some Union Members Are More Equal Than Others

June 12, 2011

Do tenure-track and adjunct faculty belong in the same union? A 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled that tenure-track faculty are "managerial employees" and not entitled to unions in the private sector. But in public-sector unions, tenured professors are often combined with contingent faculty, who are certainly not "managerial." Tenure-stream faculty supervise the adjuncts, determining workload, interviewing, hiring, evaluating, and deciding whether to rehire them. Gregory Saltzman observed in the National Education Association's "2000 Almanac of Higher Education" that combined units may not be ideal because of the "conflicts of interests between these two groups."

In fact, the unequal treatment of professors by their unions has come to resemble the plot of George Orwell's dystopian novel Animal Farm.

In Unionization in the Academy, Judith Wagner DeCew summarizes the conclusions of a study conducted by Gary Rhoades in his 1998 book, Managed Professionals: Unionized Faculty and Restructuring Academic Labor, this way: "Rhoades concluded from his analysis of 183 faculty union contracts that these documents do not often protect, but actually further marginalize, part-time faculty. ... Consequently, the national unions may claim to be advocating for part-time faculty, but the contracts do not show that they have made much progress."

That is no small problem, considering that the "contingent" faculty, which includes graduate students and adjuncts, now totals 75 percent of all faculty members and numbers one million. With such impressive numbers, why haven't adjuncts risen up and simply taken over their unions? A chief reason is the culture of submission that results from the lack of job security and a well-founded fear of retaliation by the full-time faculty whose decisions control their employment—the precise reasons that federal law long ago outlawed "employer dominated" unions in the private sector.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Washington state, where part-time faculty members at community colleges have been forced into the same unions with full-time faculty members in state affiliates of the National Education Association or the American Federation of Teachers. At all 34 community and technical colleges, these unions have bargained completely separate but unequal wages, job security, and working conditions for their 3,800 full-timers and 9,700 part-timers.

This two-tiered system has been in place for several generations, and many, including union leaders and adjuncts themselves, have become socialized into the dominance of tenured faculty. Whenever you treat one class better than another, there is a false assumption that the upper class is somehow more deserving than the lower class.

But this justification for subordination is shattered when one considers higher-education-union settings where equity is the norm, such as Vancouver Community College and other institutions represented by the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of British Columbia. At Vancouver Community College, all faculty, whether full- or part-time, whether probationary or permanent, are paid according to the same 11-step salary schedule. Seniority, not full- or part-time status, is the primary determinant in workload assignment, and all faculty accrue seniority.

Also in place at Vancouver is "regularization," whereby after teaching for a defined period at 50 percent of full time with satisfactory assessment, a probationary faculty member is promoted to regular, permanent status. In short, there are equal pay and equal work and a genuine community of interests within the faculty unions.

This is far from the case of the Washington affiliates of the NEA and AFT, which have gotten tenure written into state law after three years of full-time teaching, but regularly negotiate contracts that limit adjuncts' workloads to less than full time (preventing adjuncts from qualifying for tenure). These same contracts allow full-time faculty to voluntarily teach overtime (known as "overloading"), thereby taking courses and income away from the adjuncts and abusing tenured faculty members'managerial status. According to Washington statistics, the incidence of overloads has increased by 30 percent over the last five years.

Late last December, one of us, Jack Longmate, an adjunct at Olympic College, wrote an op-ed in a local newspaper that asked the Legislature to restrict this discriminatory practice. Several of the full-timers insisted he resign as elected secretary of the union, and then passed a resolution publicly censuring him for testifying as an individual (not as a union officer) against a union-supported bill he believed discriminated against adjuncts. In April, Longmate filed a complaint with Dennis Van Roekel, president of the NEA, alleging denial of fair representation and a host of other abuses. Van Roekel replied with a letter dismissing the complaint.

Public-sector unions that ignore the concerns of their members—or condone the practice of allowing one class of union members to displace the jobs of another—violate the duty of fair representation. Much like Animal Farm, the unions begin by promising that all members are equal, yet end by declaring that some (tenure-track) members are more equal than other (nontenure-track) members.

With public unions now under scrutiny, it is time for faculty unions to accept the moral and ethical imperative to reckon with the needs and the voice of contingent faculty. No longer should faculty unions simply absorb adjuncts into their ranks without explicitly addressing the conflicts of interest that exist between the tenure-track and nontenure-track professors. The unions must restructure to ensure that the separate needs of the adjunct faculty are no longer suppressed by those on the tenure track. After all, how are the adjunct faculty ever to gain equality on their campuses when they are denied it by their own unions?

If faculty unions in the United States will not provide equal treatment for the 75 percent of professors who are non-tenure-track, they may find themselves competing among themselves for the other 25 percent, and facing a one-million-member-strong contingent union. If the contingent faculty cannot find equal treatment within the faculty unions, they will certainly look to other organizations to provide the equality they need and deserve.

Keith Hoeller is a co-founder of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association. Jack Longmate has been an adjunct instructor at Olympic College since 1992.