Getting Adjunct Progress: Going Beyond the Local Part I: Local Limitations

This is the first in a series of entries looking at the needs and challenges of addressing the adjunct crisis beyond the immediacy of the local bargaining unit.

Adjunct activists, (and by the way, if you 1) have happened to read this, 2) are an adjunct/contingent teacher, and 3) want to be paid or simply treated like the academic that you are, guess what: you’re an activist, which means you’re responsible for sticking up for yourself. Welcome to the club.  I’m not sending you a card, but like your department chair, I will let you know that you’re “appreciated”) if it has not become already apparent, your local union is generally limited in the gains they can make for you. The main reasons for this are as follows:

It’s Not Their Main Concern. Yes, some “wall-to-wall” locals (units which include full-time tenure track faculty and adjunct/contingent faculty) act more on behalf of the full-time tenure track faculty, and sometimes at the expense of the adjunct/contingent faculty, by being, among other things, loathe to even small, incremental percentage increases for adjunct/contingent faculty as a path to pay equity, or pushing for adjunct/contingent health benefits, as well as paid office hours, professional development, departmental inclusion, shared governance, etc. At the same time, many wall-to-wall units are not necessarily this callous, but might perceive that if the full-time unit suffers it could impact the overall effectiveness of their local, if not it’s viability.  The often limited involvement to outright apathy of adjunct/contingent faculty in contrast to full-time faculty is the driver for this thinking. (In other words adjuncts, don’t be apathetic or uninvolved.)

They Lack Local Political Capital. Too many union faculty simply think that if a local concentrates singularly on internal solidarity that somehow they might prevail, falsely assuming that what happens regarding their working conditions only does so at the bargaining table. These people assume that somehow administrators are more moved by a committed faculty who 1) never hired them, 2) can’t fire them, 3) have forgotten that administrators are hired more to control than to empower them. Administrators, while often given varying degrees of free reign to manage their faculty, operate at the pleasure of Boards of Trustees or Governing Boards which are either locally elected, or appointed by politicians, usually at the state level.  In some cases, these administrators may be taking a hard line with faculty not of their own accord so much as at the behest of their Board.  To better control the local situation, the local needs to either have the ear of, or simply control, the board by getting faculty-friendly members on it.  Too few locals have PACs (Political Action Committees) which vet prospective board candidates, financially support the faculty-friendly ones, or better yet, search for, recruit, and groom them. And in those cases when board members are not elected or appointed, many locals lack governmental-relations committees that can meet with and influence the politicians who make the appointments.

They are Unable to Create Solidarity with Other Groups. On any campus, faculty play a crucial, if not the crucial role in what happens regarding student learning, but faculty are not alone. Besides administrators, there are para-professional office/support staff from IT, admissions officers, tutors, custodial and food service workers. Too often (and if it’s happening at all, it’s too often), faculty units will ignore the needs and concerns of these workers, whether these workers have unions of their own or not.  Imagine that the custodial or office/clerical units might just have an issue with faculty clamoring for cuts to these units in exchange for salary increases.  Add in that faculty often (though not always and especially not in the case of adjunct/contingent faculty) are paid better, enjoy greater benefits, and job security, and you can imagine that when local faculty members are engaging in a contract campaign, that their calls for fair faculty working conditions will fall on deaf ears.  Add further that there are often great disparities between faculty and staff in terms of class, race, and gender, and the problem become worse.  While it’s a problem that can be remedied, it’s one that takes time, and considerable empathy.

Working Conditions and Pay are more Controlled by Legislative Bodies and Statues than by Local Institutional Bodies. While many public institutions rely on a variety of sources for funding, the funding which faculty unions can most directly impact is the funding institutions receive from state or local government bodies. What this means is that unless there is a mandate at the state or local level for significant change in terms of educational funding, with an eye to improving faculty working conditions as a path to improving student learning, any local institution’s budget will have little room for change. As for standards regarding faculty working conditions, decisions made at the board or administrative level are often guided by statute. In the California Community College system, for example, a 67% load limit/district for adjunct/contingent faculty is set by State Ed Code. The only way to have this cap lifted is by getting the state legislature to do so.

They Lack Knowledge and Expertise. In addition to not being aware of any of the four afore-mentioned points, many locals and their officers 1) have limited knowledge of labor law, 2) fail to understand the negotiating process and what qualifies as a fair or unfair labor practice, and 3) have frequent leadership turnover or limited commitment by local faculty. Sometimes even change in local working conditions can be better achieved by local officers and bargaining units being exposed to what has been achieved elsewhere by other locals’ faculty bargaining units.

One way to addressing each of these problems involves working with other similarly-affiliated locals, or state and national umbrella organizations, but this is not without challenge as well, which I will address in my next post.

Geoff Johnson

A “Good” Adjunct

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