Adjunct instructors at colleges around the nation plan on Wednesday to stage events designed to call attention to their low pay and poor working conditions. On Tuesday, The Chronicle interviewed Ellen Schrecker, a professor of history at Yeshiva University who has extensively researched academic labor and the broader labor movement, to get her assessment of adjuncts’ hopes of bringing about change. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Q. Wednesday is being called "National Adjunct Walkout Day," but nearly all of the activities planned do not actually involve anyone walking off their job. Instead, they focus on gaining support for adjunct instructors through information tables, posters, leaflets, meetings with lawmakers, and speeches and demonstrations on campuses. At the University of California at Santa Cruz, there is going to be a fake religious pilgrimage to a patron saint of adjuncts, "Saint Precaria." Are such tactics likely to give the adjunct-organizing movement much traction? Would adjuncts be better off just walking off their jobs?
A. This is absolutely a brilliant tactic because what adjuncts need to do is inform the general public, especially their own students, about their situation and the precarity … of their employment, and how it is impacting the education of most students, especially undergraduates, in a very negative way. The problem that adjuncts face in organizing, in improving their working conditions, is simply the utter unawareness on the part of the general public about their situation. Students don’t know how terrible their working conditions are.
Q. What do you think it will take for adjuncts to win major improvements in their working conditions?
A. Years of organizing, years of education, and—as the American public is becoming increasingly aware of economic inequality—plugging in their situation through the broader social and economic problems that we are all facing.
Q. Are there tactics or developments out there that you see as especially promising?
A. The most useful thing at the moment is this massive campaign of educating the public and especially the students about the reality of who is teaching them—the reality of people who have to go on food stamps to feed their families … who are teaching them, who probably don’t even have offices where they can be met after class to go over their work. … Even until very recently, full-time tenured faculty members did not know how bad off the adjuncts on their campuses were.
Q. How do today’s adjuncts compare to other groups of workers who have organized in the past in terms of their working conditions and their ripeness for organization? In other words, if you look at auto workers, coal miners, schoolteachers, how do adjuncts fit into that picture?
A. In different ways. The one group of workers whose employment structure was similar to adjuncts were longshoremen who had workplaces but didn’t have guaranteed work and every day would go down to the docks and "shape up" to get employment. That is very much the way adjuncts are. They don’t have an ongoing relationship with the employer and are called on at the last minute. What the longshoremen did was organize on a citywide basis, on a portwide basis, and I think that is the most promising structure for adjuncts at this point: working and organizing on a metropolitan basis.
Q. How do adjuncts compare to other types of workers in terms of their ability to push back against their employers and present any sort of united front?
A. Well, nobody is doing very well these days. We are living in a seriously anti-union environment that is particularly vicious with regard to education. Teachers unions have been demonized over the past few years by conservative politicians and not defended very strongly by the rest of us, and I think that makes it hard, of course, for adjuncts to organize. But I think things are beginning to change. There is a sense that these kinds of conditions make it impossible for American colleges and universities to offer a decent education.
Q. Is there as much public support for the unionization of a group of workers like adjuncts as there might have been in the past?
A. At the moment, no, because there is so little public support for unions. I mean, this is a serious problem, and it is one that I think is going to require not so much all this talk about how we have to get our message out there but also things like … enlisting our students as our allies. I have always felt that, if I were an adjunct, what I would do is at the top of my syllabus every year or semester would be, "This course is taught by Professor Ellen Schrecker, who has a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university and is making $3,000 for teaching this course, and has no benefits and no office." I see no reason not to put that at the top of your syllabus.
Q. Do you see adjuncts as being helped by being pulled into faculty unions dominated by tenure-track faculty members, or are the two faculty groups too much in competition to offer much help to each other?
A. It’s beginning to change. Certainly there was a period where faculty members were so status-conscious, as it were, that they looked down on adjuncts. I think there is a realization that the adjunctification, the casualization, if you will, of higher education is hurting everybody in the business. Full-time faculty members are being stretched very thin because there are so few of them and they still have to do all of the sorts of housekeeping administrative tasks that much larger faculties once did.
Q. The Service Employees International Union’s adjunct-organizing campaign recently set a goal of securing adjuncts $15,000 per course in pay and benefits—several times what most earn now. Do you see setting such a high goal as likely to inspire activism and change, or to leave adjuncts discouraged, or administrations digging in their heels?
A. It is clearly an aspirational goal, but why not? The thing is, the more adjuncts gain, the more college and university administrators are beginning to think about improving their jobs, turning them into full-time jobs, which of course is what is beginning to happen. … Full-time, non-tenure-track faculty members, clearly they are better off than adjuncts, they are making more money, they get benefits. Pushing as hard as the adjuncts can, as hard as the SEIU can, for this pie in the sky, people are going to get more pie on the earth.
Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at email@example.com.