Samuel Hoffman / The Journal Gazette / AP

Unions can fix the crisis facing adjunct professors

Unionization will end teacher exploitation and restore the quality of education without new laws or onerous regulation

February 4, 2015 2:00AM ET

Higher education is facing a crisis that is shortchanging students: the exploitation of adjunct labor.

Colleges and universities across the U.S. have come to rely on adjunct instructors to teach introductory surveys and basic courses such as college writing and English as a foreign language. Adjunct professors are often underpaid and overburdened — leading some instructors to go on food stamps, live without health care or even become homeless. It may seem difficult to imagine a once venerated teaching profession being so devalued. Yet research shows that overreliance on adjunct labor is not only hurting the faculty but also undermining the university’s primary mission of educating students.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution that can safeguard high educational standards and reverse the ill treatment of adjuncts: unions. Unionizing is a straightforward path to preserving the quality of higher educational and ending the exploitation of adjuncts.

On campuses in Boston, Chicago, Connecticut and Los Angeles, efforts are underway to organize unions for adjuncts and graduate student assistants, who labor under many of the same unsustainable working conditions. Adjunct professors are also joining with students and parents to create a national advocacy group called the New Faculty Majority.

“If I were looking for a good job that lets me build some security for my family, I’d join a union,” President Barack Obama said on Labor Day to a union audience in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker has proposed budget cuts to higher education and urged professors to “work harder.” Unions are typically associated more with factory workers than with college professors, but universities and colleges are workplaces too. Unionization will limit the exploitation of adjuncts without requiring new legislation or onerous regulation by merely mandating universities to respect their employees’ rights.

The broken job of adjuncting

Parents spend life savings to send their kids to college so that the next generation can be educated and get a decent shot at the American dream. But increasingly, students are not getting the kind of attention that faculty members with office hours and secure job status are able to give. Instead, the bulk of teaching is being shifted onto contingent workers who, despite their desire to teach subjects they love, must scramble to provide even the basics for their students, including comments on papers and letters of recommendation.

Once upon a time, adjuncts — professors who are hired to teach courses on short-term contracts — were hired as a backup for the tenured faculty. Since they do not have ongoing research commitments, adjuncts were available to teach the courses that tenured professors could not. But this backup system became a way for deans to cut corners. Today adjuncts are the go-to labor force in higher education, constituting 76.4 percent of U.S. faculties. 

Erecting additional buildings on campus doesn’t contribute to better educational outcomes. Instead, universities should lead by example as employers – and respect their employees’ right to freely associate and form unions.

To be clear, adjuncts are doing a heroic job of making the best of a bad situation. But the adverse working conditions in place do not allow them fully to share their love of teaching with students.

Adjunct professors have earned their doctorates. Many have published books and have an impressive body of scholarly work and speak multiple languages; many also receive stellar course evaluations. Yet thousands of adjuncts are expected to live on tiny stipends. (The national average per course is $3,000). A full load of four courses per semester yields an annual salary of $24,000. Last year Mary-Faith Cerasoli, a New York–based adjunct, told The New York Times that she often found herself “sleeping in her car, showering at college athletic centers and applying for food stamps and other government benefits.”

Cerasoli’s case is hardly unique. Last year PBS reported on similar cases of adjuncts being forced to shuttle among multiple colleges to teach single courses throughout the week, including cases of professors working through illnesses. Mary Margaret Vojtko, who taught French at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University for 25 years, died, destitute, of a heart attack in 2012 without ever having been offered health insurance. Her annual income was about $10,000.

Adjuncts often must prepare to teach without offices or even desks of their own. They are unable to hold office hours or assist students outside class. And their need to work multiple jobs often prevents them from attending networking events such as evening lectures and workshops. University of Southern California researcher Adrianna Kezar says the lack of support for adjuncts translates into poorer educational outcomes for students. Her data show that the more classes a student takes from adjuncts, the more likely that he or she will drop out.

The right to unionize

Being able to decide with your coworkers whether you would like a union is not a luxury; it is a right. U.S. labor law guarantees the workers right to organize. As researchers at the advocacy group The Delphi Project have found, amid pressure from labor unions, some colleges and universities are beginning to address the conditions of their adjuncts. For example, the American Federation of Teachers recently negotiated a contract for adjuncts and lecturers in the University of California system. This resulted in meaningful improvements in adjuncts’ pay and working conditions. Lecturers in the university system now make an average of $10,000 per course, as opposed to the national average of about $3,000, according to a Delphi Project report.

Graduate assistants are also forming unions at various institutions. Over the past two decades, universities have come to rely on graduate assistants for everything from grading exams for tenured faculties to teaching entire courses. In 2014 the graduate students at Columbia University unionized, with some students telling The New Yorker that they are finally starting to receive their paychecks on time.

Some universities have said that unions are not appropriate for adjuncts whose work is mainly intellectual. This argument was refuted by University of Chicago’s Stanley Fish, a former opponent of collective bargaining for adjuncts, who wrote about his change of heart on the subject in a 2011 an op-ed in The New York Times. “We are all Badgers now,” he wrote, referring to Walker’s attacks on public sector unions. Fish recanted his earlier anti-union stance, adding that opposition to unions for adjuncts and graduate employees could open the door to erosion of the rights and working conditions of tenured faculty. He warned about “a further entrenchment of the interests that … monopolize wealth and power and … create a world in which any of us can be dismissed in the name of achieving a ‘more flexible workforce,’ that is, a workforce that has no choice but to accept whatever its masters deign to offer.”

Yet universities appear to be trying to create a more quiescent workforce rather than respecting their adjuncts’ rights to organize. For example, in 2013, Northeastern University hired a notorious union-busting law firm to run an anti-union campaign against adjuncts who tried to organize. As is typical of corporate-style employer behavior, Northeastern sent a letter to adjuncts in 2013 urging them to stay away from union organizers. While intimidation and firing of union activists are illegal, studies have shown that the lax enforcement of these laws means that colleges and universities can get away with using such tactics. Fortunately, the Northeastern adjuncts’ fought back, and in May 2014 the university’s 961 adjuncts voted to join a union.

Advocacy groups such as New Faculty Majority need public support to change the narrative and expose the mistreatments of adjuncts. Erecting additional buildings on campus doesn’t contribute to better educational outcomes. Instead, universities should lead by example as employers — and respect their employees’ right to associate and form unions.

Amy B. Dean is a fellow of the Century Foundation and a principal of ABD Ventures, a consulting firm that works to develop innovative strategies for organizations devoted to social change. She is a co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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