Unions Confront the Fault Lines Between Adjuncts and Full-Timers

Some look beyond the big unions for real improvement in working conditions

David Vitoff, Illinois Education Association—NEA

At Southern Illinois U. at Carbondale, adjuncts and full-time faculty march together, even though they have separate unions. They've joined a coalition with other employees, including graduate assistants.
November 20, 2011

The largest organizers of college faculty unions—the American Association of University Professors, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association—have made big strides in recruiting adjunct instructors and helping them gain representation through collective bargaining.

But the three groups have a long way to go before their membership and their leadership reflect the dominant role that adjunct instructors play in the higher-education work force, a Chronicle survey of the organizations reveals. Such instructors now account for about two-thirds of all faculty members employed by public and private colleges.

Moreover, leading advocates for adjunct faculty members say recent disputes between their representatives and those of tenure-track faculty members betray fault lines in the academic-labor movement, and leave them questioning how much they can count on the AAUP, AFT, and NEA to promote adjuncts' interests.

Despite making serious efforts to solicit input from adjunct instructors, the three groups have alienated such members in their approach to some issues, mainly related to colleges' apportionment of teaching work, in which adjunct and tenured faculty often see themselves as competitors rather than allies.

Adjunct faculty continue to confront "a whole bunch of questions" dealing with how best to organize, says Richard J. Boris, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions. Among the decisions facing those who wish to have collective-bargaining rights, he says, are whether to form unions solely for adjuncts or to join the same unions as tenure-track faculty, and how to ensure they have a sufficient voice in unions that represent both.

Complicating such decisions, Mr. Boris says, is the realization that "there is no template that works everywhere" in higher education because circumstances differ so much from one campus to the next. Even aggressive, successful advocacy for adjuncts can sometimes do little to satisfy them, he says, because their working conditions are so poor to begin with that major gains on their behalf often do little to close the gaps between them and their tenure-track peers. Adjuncts typically earn about $2,700 per course and work without benefits or job protections, according to AAUP data.

At least some activists on behalf of adjunct instructors believe that they need to look beyond the AAUP, AFT, and NEA if they want to bring about real improvement in their working conditions. Keith Hoeller, a Seattle-based adjunct instructor of philosophy who in 1997 helped establish the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association out of frustration with his efforts to get the AFT and NEA more focused on adjuncts' needs, argues: "All three of the major unions are run by, and for, the benefit of tenure-track faculty."

Catching Up

In an effort to gauge how well the three unions are serving college instructors who are off the tenure track, The Chronicle surveyed the organizations about their efforts to enlist and represent adjuncts; graduate teaching or research assistants; and postdoctoral researchers and fellows. Three other labor unions that have made significant efforts to organize non-tenure-track faculty—the Communications Workers of America, the Service Employees International Union, and the United Auto Workers—were also asked to provide data on their unionization efforts.

Although none of the education associations systematically track how many of their members are adjunct instructors, all offered estimates showing that they had made progress in their efforts to reach out to that population. About 30 to 40 percent of the college instructors in NEA bargaining units, and more than 40 percent of those in AFT bargaining units, are employed on a contingent basis, with solid majorities of the adjuncts in both unions on contracts to work part time. Although AAUP membership statistics do not distinguish between tenure-track and non-tenure-track members, the association has made some effort to track the number of part-time faculty members in its ranks, and estimates that they account for well over a tenth of both its overall membership and the total membership of its collective-bargaining units.

Adjuncts continue to be underrepresented in the three organizations in comparison with their prevalence in the higher-education work force. But unions can have difficulty recruiting the significant share of adjunct instructors who have other careers and do not rely heavily on their income from teaching. Often, tenure-track and adjunct faculty members with heavy teaching loads do not wish to extend union representation to that population anyway, a reality reflected in many bargaining units' requirements that adjuncts teach a specified minimum number of courses to qualify for membership.

All things considered, the statistics from the AAUP, AFT, and NEA suggest that all three have made substantial progress in recent years in recruiting that share of the contingent work force with serious bread-and-butter concerns.

"Contingent faculty have been a substantial percentage of the faculty for decades, and it is only in the last 10 years—and in many ways less—that unions have actually come up with national strategies for dealing with this," says Joe T. Berry, an independent labor educator and the author of Reclaiming the Ivory Tower, a 2005 organizing handbook for adjuncts.

"It is to their credit that this has finally happened," Mr. Berry says. But, he adds, "They are late to the game."

Divide or Conquer?

Advocates for adjunct faculty point to several recent union disputes as evidence that the concerns of tenured and tenure-track faculty continue to trump those of people employed on a contingent basis. Especially disconcerting for many was the national NEA leadership's refusal last spring to intervene to keep its affiliate at Olympic College, in Washington state, from ousting Jack Longmate from its secretary position.

Mr. Longmate is an adjunct instructor at the college who has complained that tenured faculty are being allowed to earn overtime pay by teaching excessive courseloads, cutting into the classes available for adjuncts. He angered officials of his union last winter by speaking out against state legislation that would have given pay increases to full-time, but not part-time, community-college instructors. Union officials accused him of undercutting their efforts to improve the lives of faculty members.

"Every place where I have seen adjunct faculty rise up and ask for equality, the union leaders have retaliated against them," says Mr. Hoeller, of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association.

Similar tensions over adjunct instructors' loss of work to tenured faculty who taught extra courses for additional pay flared up last year at Madison Area Technical College, in Wisconsin, where restrictions on public employees' collective-bargaining rights adopted by state lawmakers this year appear to have rendered the debate moot.

Some advocates for adjunct faculty members argue that a central goal of the education unions—pressuring colleges to convert more adjunct positions into tenure-track jobs—actually poses a threat to adjunct instructors, because, they predict, at least one or two will lose work for every full-time position created.

Many union leaders argue, however, that their fight to push colleges to create tenure-track jobs greatly helps adjuncts, and not just because it offers them the prospect of full-time employment. Unions leaders say one of their key strategies for pressuring colleges to hire more tenure-track faculty is improving the pay and benefits of adjuncts enough that hiring them is no longer a cheap option.

The AAUP generally discourages adjunct faculty from forming separate bargaining units, but the AFT and NEA let local organizers decide whether any bargaining units they form will be separate or will include both contingent and tenure-track faculty members. In some states, the organizers of unions have gone both ways. In Illinois, for example, the organizers of a new union at the University of Illinois at Chicago are fighting the administration in court over the right to organize a mixed unit, based on the organizers' belief that both categories of faculty do much of the same work.

At Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, however, the leaders of separate unions for adjunct and tenure-track faculty believe they have been able to present a united front to the administration by joining an advocacy coalition with other employee unions, including the one representing graduate assistants.

Some advocates for adjunct faculty are impatient enough with the unions to contemplate forming a national union solely for adjuncts. But doing so would be a mistake, argues Marc Bousquet, an associate professor of English at Santa Clara University and a Chronicle blogger who has served as co-chairman of the AAUP's committee on contingent faculty. "They are radically underestimating the amount of work involved," he says. And, he adds, "they are missing the biggest opportunity, which is hijacking the leadership of the existing unions," a task he describes as "incredibly easy for a determined group of faculty activists."

Outside Pressure

In recent years, the AAUP, AFT, and NEA have issued statements advocating better conditions for adjuncts and the creation of additional tenure-track jobs. They have also adopted plans for advocating on behalf of adjuncts and recruiting more into their ranks. Both the AFT and NEA let their collective-bargaining units charge adjuncts lower dues than tenured and tenure-track faculty members.

"Our whole goal is to change the numbers," says Sandra Schroeder, head of the AFT's council in charge of higher-education policy.

The other labor unions that have reached out to adjuncts have helped swell the ranks of those represented in collective bargaining. Among them, the Service Employees International Union has brought well over 14,000 adjuncts into collective-bargaining units, mainly in California, Maryland, North Carolina, and several New England states. The United Auto Workers has unionized more than 3,000 adjuncts in Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont. And the Communications Workers of America has unionized more than 350 adjuncts, mainly at community colleges in Northern California.

Mr. Bousquet says the adjunct-organizing efforts of unions from other industries have "had a tremendously positive impact on the big three," by forcing them to undergo "a real wake up" to the concerns of contingent instructors to compete for their membership.

Some nonunion advocacy groups for adjuncts, such as the New Faculty Majority, a national organization established in 2009, and the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, an international organization formed in the late 1990s, have similarly been credited with putting the education unions under pressure to better tend to the needs of non-tenure-track college faculty.

Some of the obstacles to organizing adjuncts and assimilating them into unions' leadership are logistical. As one AFT document notes, adjuncts often have such a temporary and tenuous connection with their colleges that they can be difficult to contact and spur to union involvement.

Maria C. Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, says many adjuncts worry about losing teaching contracts in retaliation for activism. "Many would like to be involved in their unions," she says, "but they are afraid to."

Partly as a result of such obstacles to their union activism, contingent faculty remain seriously underrepresented in state and national leadership positions in the AAUP, AFT, and NEA, and in the top posts of bargaining units that represent a mix of faculty types.

Of the three, only the NEA has a policy calling for adjuncts to be proportionally represented in leadership positions. But its annual state and national assemblies are so dominated by elementary- and secondary-school educators that its members from higher education can feel their voices are drowned out. Frustrated with the trouble they have had in getting the NEA's national representative assembly to act on their top priorities, such as lobbying for changes in federal law to make it easier for adjuncts to collect unemployment during the summer, several adjuncts two years ago formed a Contingent Faculty Caucus of the NEA's representative assembly. The caucus now has about 50 members—a drop in the bucket in an assembly with roughly 9,000 delegates, but enough, its leaders hope, to attract others, and eventually steer the association to more aggressively advocate on their behalf.

The caucus's chair, Judy A. Olson, a lecturer in English at California State University at Los Angeles, says many of the schoolteachers in the NEA "imagine everything is cushier in higher ed," until they are made aware of the conditions under which adjunct faculty members work.

Both the AAUP and AFT have set up special committees on adjuncts, generally with high levels of representation among adjunct instructors, to advise their leadership. Mayra Besosa, a lecturer at California State University at San Marcos and the chairwoman of the AAUP's Committee on Contingency and the Profession, says she prefers that the association not set aside some share of national or state leadership positions for adjuncts because it would be counter to the principle of treating all members equally.

Adjuncts will have trouble electing their own to leadership positions if the election process is stacked against them, however. And, although all three unions' national offices say such elections should be guided by the principle of "one person, one vote," some state and local affiliates have behaved as if they never got the memo.

Until this year, for example, the Massachusetts Community College Council, an NEA affiliate that represents instructors at 15 two-year colleges and has a membership in which part-time faculty outnumber full-timers by more than two to one, gave part-timers only one-fourth of a vote in union elections. After years of debate, its members finally voted in April to abandon that practice and give part-timers a full vote in future elections.

Non-tenure-track instructors are a growing constituency within the three major education organizations that unionize college faculties. The three groups differ significantly in how they organize and accommodate adjunct faculty members, graduate research and teaching assistants, and postdoctoral fellows:
  American Association of University Professors American Federation of Teachers National Education Association
Total membership* About 46,800 About 1.5 million About 3.2 million
Members in collective-bargaining units at colleges About 34,000 About 195,000 About 209,000
Adjunct membership The AAUP lacks data for the share of its membership consisting of full-time adjuncts. It estimates that part-time adjunct instructors account for well over a tenth of its overall membership and of its membership in collective-bargaining units. Just over 40 percent of college instructors in AFT collective-bargaining units work are adjuncts, with roughly one-fourth contracted to work full time and three-fourths part time. Of college instructors in NEA collective-bargaining units, 30 to 40 percent are adjuncts. More than a third of adjunct faculty in the units are on contracts calling for them to work full time.
Graduate students and postdocs Graduate assistants account for about 3 percent of overall membership and about 4 percent of AAUP members in unions. About 13 percent of members of collective-bargaining units at colleges are graduate assistants or postdoctoral employees. About 5 percent of members of collective-bargaining units at colleges are graduate assistants. The union’s national office was unable to provide a count of its membership among postdoctoral employees.
Adjunct representation in assemblies Any active member, regardless of employment status, is eligible to serve as a delegate at national meetings of the association or its Collective Bargaining Congress. The AFT does not set aside delegate seats at its biennial convention based on employment status. Many local affiliates represent only college instructors who are off the tenure track, and they elect delegates to seats apportioned based on the affiliates’ size. The NEA’s bylaws call for state and local affiliates that include different types of college instructors—both on and off the tenure track—to provide for proportionate representation, by employment status, in selecting national delegates.
Special committees on adjuncts Two standing committees, appointed by the group’s president, focus on college instructors who are off the tenure track. The Committee on Contingency and the Profession was established to improve the work conditions of contingent faculty members and reverse the trend toward part-time and non-tenure-track appointments to faculty positions. The Committee on Graduate and Professional Students deals with such students broadly, tackling issues such as protecting the collective-bargaining rights of those employed by their institutions. Two advisory committees offer input to group leaders from college instructors who are off the tenure track. Its Part time/Adjunct Faculty Advisory Committee is made up of 10 part-time faculty members who are officers of unions representing those in their position. Its Full time Nontenure Track Advisory Committee is made up of seven full time, contingent faculty members who are officers of local unions that count such instructors among their members. The AFT also sponsors an Alliance of Graduate Employee Locals, which represents all AFT affiliates representing graduate and postdoctoral employees of higher-education institutions. Has not established any committees devoted to college instructors off the tenure track. The bylaws of its National Council for Higher Education, which represents members who work at colleges and sets its higher-education agenda, call for an adjunct faculty member to occupy at least one of the seats on its executive committee if none are elected to any of the council’s executive offices.
*Because many individual faculty members and collective-bargaining units are affiliated with more than one union, membership figures overlap to some degree.
Sources: American Association of University Professors, American Federation of Teachers, and National Education Association