Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Thoughts on Adjunct Unions
According to IHE, adjuncts at Pace University in New York City had their bargaining unit certified three years ago, but are still without a contract. The union is accusing the university of foot-dragging, and the university is claiming that 'first' contracts are harder than subsequent contracts. I find both sides' claims credible.
As I've mentioned before, my stand on faculty unions is somewhat off-the-beaten-path. I have no problem with unions bargaining wage rages, benefits (ranging from health insurance to parking), overall workloads (credits of teaching, minimum office hours), cost-of-living adjustments, and certain basic procedures and deadlines. (Candidates for tenure must receive word by December 1, or whatever.) These all strike me as reasonable.
I have a major problem with unions that wield the grievance hammer as a sort of retroactive veto on anything and everything a college tries to do, or that throws its weight behind defending indefensible conduct. And I have a huge moral issue with “two-tier” contracts, in which incumbent workers sell out the next generation to feather their own nests. (This has happened often enough in some settings that they're up to three- or four-tier contracts at this point. This, in the name of fairness to workers!)
I firmly believe that you can have a union or shared governance, but not both. You're either management or labor. Pick one. To my mind, a union that also wants to partake in management has lost sight of the concept of “conflict of interest.” Do they negotiate with themselves? The concept makes no sense, and is the result of a fundamental and egregious category error. I can accept either answer, but I can't accept both at the same time, or whichever one happens to be more convenient at the moment. Choose your side, and accept its implications. No cherry-picking.
In the case of adjuncts, I think it's pretty clear that the really basic stuff – salaries, benefits, office space, etc. -- needs addressing. Given my pedagogical bias that, all else being equal, it's better to go with more full-time faculty, I see an adjunct union actually making my argument easier. If the pay gap between full-timers and adjuncts shrinks, then the cost appeal of adjuncts diminishes. I'd have an easier time getting replacement lines for retirees if the cost savings from adjuncts were less dramatic. In a perverse way, an adjunct union could sow the seeds of its own destruction.
In the meantime, though, I can foresee an inevitable conflict. If adjunct compensation (including benefits) increases substantially, that money has to come from somewhere. Given that most enrollment-driven colleges are running fairly close to the bone as it is, it's going to have to come in part from the full-time faculty. Short of unimaginable tuition increases, or magic infusions of money from the cash fairy, there is no way around this simple truth. We've managed to fund fairly generous raises and benefits for the unionized full-timers by being downright stingy with the adjuncts. Take that option away, and those generous raises will have to go away, too.
(Yes, the unions could, and hopefully would, mount public campaigns to increase public funding for higher ed. But I'm not holding my breath for the cash fairy.)
I can also foresee some very sticky issues arising with an adjunct union. Do longer-term adjuncts automatically get first dibs on courses? If so, how much time do they get to consider an offer? (In the last week or two before classes, there's always last-minute horse trading. Add 'mandatory waiting periods' to that, and I get a headache just thinking about it.) Do administrators who pick up classes on the side get adjunct union membership? (The mind reels.) Do adjuncts get first dibs on tenure-track jobs? (So much for open searches!) Adjuncts who teach at several colleges could wind up belonging to several different unions, each with its own rules, procedures, dues, and politics. Do they lose union membership if they take one-year gigs? I can foresee some crafty administrations coming up with new, intermediate ranks that are neither fish nor fowl, just to get around the inevitable union issues.
None of which is really my problem, I'll admit. My advice to the folks at Pace: keep the contract simple. Don't get into waiting periods, and dibs, and all that ancillary stuff that gunks up the works and makes even committed liberals like me wince at the word 'union.' Go for what you really need, and what's actually easiest to deliver: money. Save the other stuff for later.
Wise and worldly readers – what have you seen? What do you think?
Does this have broader implications for you? Are you against worker-run cooperatives or collectives, for example? Or is this sort of split necessary in the university setting only? Perhaps somewhere in between?
Personally, I'm attracted to the idea of union players having management roles on the basis of flattening the hierarchy, though certainly it can be a total disaster if done wrong.
As for the adjunct union question itself, I would love to see the adjuncts at my former school unionize. The grad students have a pretty strong union, but the adjuncts get dumped on: many departments only offer them one class per term as a matter of policy (the reason being that if that jumps to two, the uni is somehow obligated to offer partial benefits).
At the community college level at least, shared governance is a myth. Management pays lip service to the idea, but if I were a cc president, I would never share the power to make decisions without sharing accountability. Why would I want to risk my job when faculty risk nothing?
As a union guy, I'd also put evaluation and tenure review entirely in the hands of administrators. I know what it's like when faculty-run tenure committees have tried to get rid of good teachers, and it's not pretty. It's sad to say, but it's often true that the flakier the tenured faculty member, the more critical and demanding s/he is when evaluating someone else.
At my SoCal cc, we have a wall-to-wall union that represents full- and part-timers. Adjunct faculty are represented on our union exec board, negotiating team, and representative council. Our goal over the past sixteen years (when I began to do union work) is to bring full- and part-time faculty closer together. During this time, full-time salaries have increased by 72% (top pay is now just into the six figure range), while starting pay for adjuncts has gone up by 88%, and top pay for adjuncts has increased by 96% (to just over $80/hour). I think these numbers show that we've been successful in balancing the interests of both groups.
About five years ago, the state provided extra money for part-timers only, so we created a separate part-time salary schedule. Adjunct faculty earn about $6/hour more than full-timers who are teaching overload classes. This was controversial, to say the least, but it was the right thing to do. Most full-time faculty were supportive because many of us had spent years working part-time.
We've created a re-hire system that gives preference to adjunct faculty who have been teaching for six semesters with satisfactory evaluations (and one of the things we learned when we did this is that many adjuncts were not being evaluated at all). It's not a strict seniority system, but it does prevent administrators from replacing long-time adjuncts--with good evaluations, of course--with someone fresh out of graduate school.
Adjunct faculty--with sufficient experience and good evaluations--get an automatic interview when a full-time job is open. This doesn't mean they get "first dibs" on a job, but they do get an interview. After all, if a part-timer is good enough to be rehired semester after semester after semester, then s/he should be good enough for consideration for a full-time job.
There's lots more I could say, but I'll finish up by noting that one of the things a strong local union does is to educate its members. Our adjunct faculty members understand that the union doesn't have a magic wand that's going to fix all the inequities in the cc system overnight. But, locally at least, we are making progress. Our full-time faculty members understand that one of the reasons we enjoy good salaries, health benefits, and all the rest is precisely because of the work adjunct faculty members do--for much, much less. All of us understand that by working together, we'll all be better off.
I don't know what I think of adjunct unions. I suspect that, like TA unions, the transient population will reduce its effectiveness [in some places into worthlessness].
But I do think this:
When will everyone in the Academy decide and resolve that, if a university [or several or most of them] must hire people for pennies on the dollar with spurious qualifications to perform the prominent function of the institution [thus, teach undergraduates at a college or university], when will everyone realize that perhaps the enterprise itself is flawed.
I've worked for departments where 50-60% of the courses were taught by adjuncts. I've also adjuncted for a department that hired me to teach several of its course classes (which were primarily taught by other adjuncts). I was paid barely enough to meet monthly expenses and had to literally BEG for work every semester (despite the high use of adjuncts every term).
The thought of having to do this for 3-5 more years in the hope I *might* get a tenure-track job led to make the decision to quit grad school and quit teaching altogether. The entire system is designed to set the adjuncts up for abuse...by the administration, the students, and the other faculty [yes, I experienced all three].
When will everyone realize the insanity must end? Even a year-long contract would provide a stability EVERYONE could count on. It's not as if the courses aren't being offered every term in most places....
Because contracts are negotiated at the state level, with the GOER and DOB playing major roles in the process, there's none of that conflict of interest you refer to. And because we've had good local leadership in both the chapter and governance, faculty have mostly been looking for ways to improve the campus with the administration, rather than treating them automatically as the enemy.
Still doesn't mean our adjuncts aren't exploited, underpaid, etc. Or that any major solutions are in sight, even with a Democratic governor....
PS: The other option is for adjunct faculty to insist upon pro bono arrangements from university and college employers. Pro bono contracts could at least provide for courtesy appointments to "Adjunct Professor" for those who donate their time and services to higher education.