Higher education’s adjunct professor crisis is well known by now: Struggling per-course instructors are teaching the majority of college courses for minimum wage, with little stability and few benefits. Adjuncts at many campuses see unionization as the answer to their troubles, and thousands have voted to unionize over the past several years. Duke University’s 6-to-1 adjunct union win was announced March 18. Tufts University’s adjunct union collective bargaining agreement, negotiated in fall 2014, has served as the gold standard; adjuncts now earn a minimum of $7,300 per course and become eligible for one-year contracts starting in 2017.
But despite these and other individual gains, unionizing adjuncts has done nothing to meaningfully change the contingency nature of adjunct employment.
Recovering adjunct professor here, with eight years as a higher-ed contingent worker. Between the low pay and semester-to-semester uncertainties, conditions that are outward manifestations of an entire university system that’s broken, I couldn’t make it work. Adjuncts are admirably trying to improve their circumstances and continue to rally behind unionization efforts. However, this system of adjuncts carrying higher education on their backs needs a complete overhaul, and it will take more than the incremental improvements that union organizing can achieve.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), also the force behind the Fight for 15 movement, has mobilized adjuncts in such spots as Washington, Boston and Los Angeles. During this past semester alone, according to the SEIU, adjuncts at 11 schools have ratified or agreed on union contracts. While there have been short-term gains, the deeper we become entrenched in adjunct unions, the more we are locked in an educational structure that shortchanges students by skimping on teaching.
Adjuncts comprise the biggest chunk of those teaching at the college level. The Education Department’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System shows that the ranks of adjunct professors, those teaching technically part time and paid per course, increased from 25 percent of the higher-ed teaching workforce in 1975 to 41 percent in 2011.
Only one-quarter of those teaching at the college level have job security — those on the tenure track. The other three-quarters are either part-time per-course adjuncts or the full-time non-tenure trackers (35 percent), who have lower salaries than tenure-trackers and no long-term contracts.
Pay increases usually top the unionizing agenda. Since adjuncts nationwide average per-course pay of $2,700, with some paid as little as $1,000, any raise is an improvement. Adjuncts at the College of St. Rose in Albany recently negotiated a union agreement with administration after a year of collective bargaining. Many adjuncts have spent hours they can’t spare devoted to this admirable effort and are excited about the pay bump. A closer look, though, shows they’ve won an increase from $2,400 to $3,225 per course, over three years. Even with this bump, teaching eight classes per year (more than many full-timers teach) would equal a grand total of $25,800, which is close to minimum living wage in Albany if you’re single but far from it for those with families.
Two weeks ago at Boston University, one of the places I taught, adjuncts voted on a union contract. Terms stipulate minimum per-course adjunct pay of $5,100 this fall. Those above the minimum will see increases of 2.5 percent in 2016 and 2 percent in 2017 and 2018; if I were still teaching there, my per-course pay would increase by a mere $150 in the fall.
The disruption and distraction of constant job-hunting aren’t disappearing with union contracts either. Living semester-to-semester left me in a continuous panicked state, in an endless search for classes across departments and universities. The verbiage in BU’s tentative agreement allows for semester, multi-semester (one-course minimum, two semesters in a row) and recurring appointments (one-course minimum, two or more years). It also states that “part-time faculty members shall be notified of open non tenure-track salaried positions,” as if this and the multi-tiered appointments will provide permanence.
Union contracts just can’t make schools hire adjuncts full time. At St. Rose, adjuncts teaching for two consecutive years will get one-year contracts. This type of improvement is of little help to a former colleague of mine, an adjunct of 10 years who teaches on three campuses — the best he could hope for now under similar terms is to bounce from two-year contract to two-year contract. Though unions are asking for longer adjunct teaching contracts, school administrators have claimed that since contract length isn’t a mandatory subject of bargaining, they don’t have to address the request. And that’s exactly how administrators have responded at such places as the state university system in Pennsylvania.
The university system has gone the way of Walmart, profiting from the continued manipulation of the lowest rung. However, these customers aren’t shopping for $2 T-shirts but for an education. You can give that lowest rung more pay and say it’s better than nothing, but a 50 percent raise on low pay still equals low pay, and one-year contracts don’t provide stability. These conditions affect the courses that college students and their parents pay huge bucks for, thanks to astronomical tuition rates now averaging $35,000. For one of the courses I taught last spring, the school collected $105,000 in student tuition — more than 16 times what I was paid to teach said class.
Over the past few years, full-time non-tenure track professors also have started organizing efforts, voting to unionize at Tufts last year and notching a big win at Boston University on April 8. So now you’ve got three disparate groups in the teaching hierarchy: tenured and tenure-track, full-time non-tenure track, and part-time adjuncts, each with its own agenda. And it’s not like tenured and tenure-track faculty have it easy, either. In fact, on May 12, the faculty union at the City University of New York (CUNY) announced that it had voted to authorize a strike, after six years with no pay raise and five years without a contract. Ninety-two percent of the 10,000 filling out ballots voted yes, meaning that faculty will strike in the fall if a mediator does not reach a deal with the administration.
Non-tenure-track faculty at the University of Illinois went on strike at the end of April, and other adjuncts at places like Northeastern University threatened to strike earlier this year. Adjunct protests took place on several campuses on April 14 and 15. I respect those speaking up against university administrations when administrators have so little respect for them, and their union wins are certainly moral victories. However, the cracked framework of the college system persists even after these protests end and union contracts are ratified, and administrators continue to fill adjunct spots with little difficulty. When the University of Missouri football team went on strike last fall, people paid attention and the president was ousted. Football players aren’t dispensable, as adjunct professors seem to be.
Organizing adjuncts “gets you a seat at the table,” as a number of labor organizers have said to me.
They’re right, but it seems as if it’s a seat at the wrong table.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Service Employees International Union as the Service Employees Industrial Union.