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?