Union Matters

May 13, 2004

Who should represent the hundreds of thousands of adjunct faculty members on our nation's college campuses?

Certainly, adjuncts represent themselves when they negotiate with their hiring departments. But while a few individuals may be able to work the system to their advantage, the vast majority of us have little clout with large organizations, which tend to be unwilling to bend established rules on salaries and benefits for a single temporary employee.

As a longtime adjunct in Washington state, whenever I've been offered teaching jobs, I have found the only thing I can negotiate is whether the college gives me credit for past experience and places me on a higher salary scale, and sometimes not even that.

Perils of Organizing

Statistics show that workers who belong to unions earn higher salaries and better benefits than workers who do not. For adjuncts, the question becomes: Should we then join existing unions or form new ones?

Unfortunately that question has no easy answer.

That's partly because retaliation and loss of employment are still very real in America, especially for workers who have no job security to begin with. I have known adjuncts who have lost their jobs as a result of union activism. I know a woman who was appointed as the adjunct faculty representative by her union, and promptly starting organizing part-timers and setting up rallies. She quickly found herself out of a job, and her union unwilling to help her regain it. Adjuncts should be aware of the risks they are taking.

Another problem for many part-timers is that we're already represented by powerful national teaching unions, yet our contracts -- negotiated by those unions -- look like the contracts of overseas factory workers. Indeed, Washington State Sen. Ken Jacobsen has repeatedly likened the state's community-college system to "a chain of academic sweatshops."

Despite those conditions, my state has actually been one of the leaders in recent gains made on behalf of adjuncts. Since 1996, the Legislature has appropriated $30-million to increase the pay of part-timers and passed a law requiring that we receive sick leave on a par with the full-timers. Two class-action lawsuits initiated by members of my group, the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association, have been settled out of court, resulting in an award of $12-million for denial of retirement benefits in one case and $11-million for denial of health-care benefits in the other.

In Washington, faculty members at the state's 34 two-year colleges belong either to the American Federation of Teachers or the National Education Association. Yet part-time faculty contracts look miserable in comparison to contracts for full-time faculty members on those campuses. Adjuncts teaching a full-time load still earn only 56 percent of a full-time salary; the majority of adjuncts still do not receive any retirement or health-care benefits; part-timers have no job security at all, let alone tenure; and most receive no annual raises to reward them for their years of experience.

Conflicts With Full-Timers

Part-time instructors outnumber the full-time professors at Washington's community colleges by a ratio of three to one. So you might think, since you have the numbers, why don't you simply take over the unions?

First, there is the fact that taking over the unions would mean a political battle with the full-time faculty members who hire, evaluate, and rehire us. They are our bosses.

Second, it is very hard to convince part-timers to join unions when those unions appear to be working primarily for the full-time faculty members. The unions have tried to recruit adjuncts but appear to have given up. Their latest tactic is to negotiate an "agency shop" with the college administration, whereby adjuncts would have little choice but to join the unions. They would be given the "option" of joining the union, in which case they would at least have voting rights, or paying a fee, nearly equivalent to union dues, to have the union represent them.

The case of Doug Collins is illustrative of how some local unions treat adjuncts who become active. Doug was one of the few adjuncts to serve on an executive board of a faculty union in our state. He was the elected secretary of the Seattle Community College Federation of Teachers (an AFT affiliate). In 2003 the majority of the executive board preferred a bill that would have put in place automatic annual raises (called increments) for faculty members. However, almost all of the money in the bill was for raises for full-time professors. Doug, however, supported a different bill by Senator Jacobsen that would have provided equal increments for all full- and part-timers.

How was Doug rewarded for trying to include the part-timers? He was subjected to a recall vote by the union leadership, and the union members voted to remove him from office.

Why then don't we adjuncts switch unions? The AFL-CIO has a noncompete agreement, meaning that no group within the organization will raid another group's membership. And the Washington Education Association (an affiliate of the NEA) and the Washington Federation of Teachers (an AFT affiliate) have a similar noncompete agreement. Antitrust legislation has not hit the union movement.

It is true that all three of the major faculty unions (AFT, NEA, and AAUP) have now issued strong policy statements about adjunct faculty members. But I see little effort on the part of the nationals to enforce their own policies among the local affiliates. As a result, most of the faculty-union chapters have come nowhere near implementing the official policies of their own national organizations with regard to adjuncts.

Separate Representation

I am convinced that adjuncts must join unions in order to make any headway in academe. But I am equally convinced that we must represent ourselves, either within these unions, or else in separate groups. We cannot go on having the full-time faculty members -- however well-meaning -- represent us, since there is clearly a conflict of interest in having our supervisors run our unions. No amount of talk of "solidarity" can overcome this.

Adjuncts must have the fundamental right to elect their own officers, negotiate their own contracts, and set their own legislative agendas; whether this occurs within the current unions or within separate unions should be up to the part-time faculty members as well.

Until that day comes, adjuncts have several options. First, even if there is no union on your campus, anyone can join the American Association of University Professors, whose dues for adjunct instructors are small. The AAUP has been a leader in fighting for academic freedom, something which most adjuncts do not have.

Second, the part-timers can form their own groups, if not outright unions. In your own groups you can work with part-timers committed to the cause and set your own agenda. In doing so, you may very well push the established unions further than they might otherwise wish to go on an issue.

Third, you can join an existing union, or else form a new one. For reasons I have mentioned above, I prefer separate bargaining units for adjuncts and full-timers. But any union will give you a new forum and will empower you in the long run.

With only 38 percent of the faculty nationwide now holding tenured or tenure-track positions, it is clear that the strategy of the major unions -- circling the wagons around existing tenured positions while ignoring the rise of the adjuncts -- has been unsuccessful.

It is time for a new strategy.

Keith Hoeller, a part-time faculty member who teaches in the Washington State community-college system, is a founder of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association and a member of the AAUP's national committee on "contingent faculty and the profession."