Union Efforts on Behalf of Adjuncts Meet Resistance Within Faculties’ Ranks

April 09, 2014

As part-time instructors at colleges seek to improve their working conditions through unionization, they often find that the people standing in the way of their efforts are not administrators but fellow faculty members, several union organizers and labor experts observed at a conference held here this week.

Tenure-track professors can be resistant to contract provisions that erode their power over faculty appointments or let contingent faculty members assume a bigger role in the shared governance of their institution.

The contingent faculty members that such labor-organizing efforts seek to help can themselves be deeply divided over the merits of unionization or what they hope to gain from it, according to several speakers at the annual conference of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions.

"I wish I could tell you that everything is rosy and perfect," but "I would be kidding if I suggested there were not tensions," said Phil Kugler, a special assistant for organizing to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Karen Thompson, a staff representative for the Rutgers University faculty union, arose in the audience of a panel discussion on Monday and spoke of finding it difficult to coax open support for unionization out of contingent faculty members who "enjoy passing" as tenured and do not want their lack of tenure and poor working conditions known to their colleagues and their students.

"Prestige is part of their pay," said Ms. Thompson, whose union is affiliated with the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers.

Tenure-track faculty members were hardly the only ones described by conference participants as opposed to the unionization of contingent faculty members. Several labor organizers described encountering substantial resistance from administrations that did not want to give up any of their control over such instructors’ working conditions, or from members of boards of trustees who come from corporate backgrounds and who oppose unions almost as a matter of principle.

But more than a few of the administrators at the conference characterized their relations with unions and their organizers as collegial and constructive. Among them, Lisa Krim, a senior adviser for faculty relations to Georgetown University’s president, John J. DeGioia, described her institution’s leadership as having no regrets about its decision to remain neutral when adjunct instructors voted to form a union last year.

"Taking a neutral position has actually served Georgetown very well," Ms. Krim said. In subsequent dealings with the newly formed union, she said, "we brought a whole lot of good faith to the table, which really helps a lot."

Diverse Bargaining Units

Several speakers at the conference said one of the biggest challenges in the contract negotiations of such unions can be coming up with an agreement that satisfies people who differ greatly in terms of why they are teaching classes.

Most of their bargaining units include professionals with jobs elsewhere who teach classes for a little extra income or nonmonetary rewards, people who hold other jobs at the college and similarly are not greatly concerned with their earnings from teaching, and people who are trying to make a living as adjunct instructors and having great difficulty doing so.

"The diversity of the unit itself creates difficulty at the bargaining table," said Nicholas DiGiovanni, a lawyer from the Boston firm of Morgan, Brown, & Joy who represents colleges in labor negotiations.

Even when such unions extract major concessions from college administrations, resistance from other, tenure-track faculty members can get in the way of such gains.

Mr. DiGiovanni described how at one college, which he did not name, the union for adjunct faculty members got the administration to contractually agree to give adjuncts a much greater role in shared governance, as long as tenure-track faculty members approved the change. Twenty years later, the college's tenure-track faculty members have yet to sign off on the change.

Richard W. Nettell, an assistant professor of English at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, said administrators there had shown a willingness to comply with a contract provision requiring them to make every effort to convert contingent faculty positions into tenure-track ones. But, he said, "these efforts are being thwarted by the faculty themselves," as tenure-track faculty members have resisted filling open positions with contingent faculty members rather than outside candidates of their own choosing.

The union there, the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, has responded mainly by "naming and shaming" the academic departments that have been slow to convert positions.

Strides in Organizing

Much of the gathering here, which ended on Tuesday, focused on the huge strides that labor unions have made in recent years in organizing part-time instructors and other faculty members who are off the tenure track. The conference program was far more heavily devoted to issues related to the unionization of contingent faculty members than it ever had been in the past.

Several sessions discussed the success of a campaign by the Service Employees International Union to organize part-time instructors throughout entire metropolitan areas, which has led to the unionization of nearly 70 percent of adjunct instructors working in Washington, D.C., and has succeeded in establishing adjunct unions at prominent research institutions such as Tufts University.

Malini Cadambi Daniel, director of the SEIU’s higher-education campaign, argued in a session on Monday that colleges generally "have reached a tipping point" where most of their instruction is being provided by contingent faculty members, many of whom are "struggling just to make ends meet" and are saddled with large student-loan debts. On many campuses where the SEIU has unionized other employees, such as food-service workers, she said, contingent faculty members are taking note that they do not fare as well as those other workers in term of pay and benefits.

In Washington, Ms. Daniel said, SEIU members see their union’s penetration of the adjunct labor market as "a remarkable opportunity" to advocate not just for such instructors but for improvements in the education of students. Even where the SEIU does not have adjunct unions, she said, its new online community, the Adjunct Action Network, is offering adjunct instructors guidance on how to improve conditions on their campus.

Mr. Kugler, of the AFT, said his union, in seeking to unionize adjunct instructors in and around Philadelphia, is first trying to organize them around issues other than the formation of collective-bargaining units. By offering them services such as professional development, or access to electronic syllabi, or advice on gaining access to health care, "we will see where clusters of interest develop" to lay the ground for later organizing efforts, he said.