Adjuncts Will Be Hurt By Friedrichs

Good Adjuncts:

One of the things that so plagues the adjunct nation is that all too often we either collectively sign on to, assent to, or simply ignore “opportunities,” or changes in policy that in the long run hurt us deeply.

What I’m about to talk about here is how you choose to negotiate the conditions of your employment, and what can either keep you from getting exploited, to what can guarantee that you have no control about the conditions of your work.

Presently, the US Supreme Court is hearing arguments regarding the case of Friedrichs versus the California Teaching Association, regarding the issue of agency fees. Though not all do, many teachers’ unions impose an agency fee on the people who are in a particular bargaining unit. In other words, whether you have officially signed on as a member of that union or not, you are required to pay union dues insomuch as they pay for the cost of collective bargaining, but not the union’s political activities. In fact, you can presently request that any portion of your dues directed towards political funds be refunded.

Friedrich’s position is that the union’s activities constitute what is called “impelled speech,” and that the union’s activities, even or especially when talking with admin about things like class caps, curriculum, equity, etc. are necessarily political, so that therefore, they should not have to pay. The unions’ argument is that, as collective bargaining and contract enforcement are often expensive activities, all workers who benefit from the union’s collective-bargaining agreement should pay for its costs.

Gleaning the court’s intent from the commentary of some of the Supreme Court Justices today, it is likely that the agency fee will be done away with.

To many full-timers, and perhaps moreso to adjuncts, this will seem like a blessing. “What, I don’t have to pay union fees? Why that’s great, I don’t make that much money. The union hasn’t done that much for me (or so they think). I can use that several hundred dollars a year.” For yet others, and I’m sure this really appeals to many adjuncts, the assumption is that the union only respects the specific interests of a very small group, and mostly those are full-timers if I’m in a “wall-to-wall” unit which includes both part and full-time employees. Not having to pay an agency fee will give me the power to force the union to meet my needs if they want my money.

Well let’s just take a look at those assumptions, and why buying will be seriously injurious to your working conditions.

First of all, collective bargaining is not a particularly simple process, especially when dealing with bargaining unit contracts that are over 100+ pages longs, loaded with legalese, and which must be negotiated with administrators who are not always forthcoming, correct, honest, or competent in discussing the finances. Most contracts will involve 100’s to 1000’s of employees working under a myriad of working conditions, with ever so slight changes to curriculum, labor laws, legislative initiatives handed down from on high, etc. The people who negotiate these contracts, are first and foremost, teachers themselves. This is time-consuming work that requires expertise, training, and experience. Be aware that admin., who often have considerable budgets to work with, will at times hire professional labor lawyers to negotiate on their behalf. Most teachers working a full-time equivalent load, whether adjunct or full-time, cannot do this work effectively unless they receive some amount of release time from work to take on these tasks. Less money coming in means the union can’t pay these people to do the extra work needed to negotiate a better contract.

There is another problem here that comes up when negotiating teams are not given release time—fewer people volunteer to do the work, meaning the talent pool for the negotiating team shrinks. What you will then get, at times, is the negotiating team member who, in the face of a tough negotiation (and who is perhaps thinking of becoming a future administrator), will settle a contract early, leaving on the table potential salary gains, benefits, or vital changes to work conditions. If your union, facing an administration which claims to be running a deficits, allows for your unit to take a several-percentage page decrease, an increase in class sizes, or increases unpaid non-instructional work demands, that several hundred dollars you just “saved” has been picked from your pocket and then some.

As for the claim that teachers unions often represent the specific interests of a few, there is some truth to this. Unions by and large represent its most active members, and particularly those who vote on the leadership, fill out negotiating surveys, come to meetings, participate in larger union activities, and vote on whether to ratify a contract or not. For the most part, because full-time employees usually work at one campus and are therefore more engaged with their on-site union than an adjunct teaching at multiple campuses and represented by multiple unions, they are more likely to have their interests and concerns heard by the one union they’re involved with. Ironically, on most, if not nearly all campuses where “wall-to-wall” unions exist, adjuncts represent the majority of members, but vote and participate in such small numbers that they do not effectively lead policy.

To address this problem, adjuncts simply need to vote and participate more, which takes needed time and energy, and will at times lead to frustration when others don’t see your way of thinking at first (welcome to being in a union). You can’t do this if you’re not a member, and it’s a lot easier to rationalize to oneself to become a member when you’re already paying fees for it.

The thing is, it’s always been pretty easy for an adjunct to talk himself /herself out of getting involved, but at what expense? Do you really want more of the same treatment?

As for those of you adjuncts who think this will force the unions to come to you begging for you to join, to some extent this will happen, but… Taking time to get people to sign up to become members takes time, and the time people like me spend seeking you out means time away from negotiations, handling grievances (which I’ll talk about a bit more later), planning events, talking to school board members and local politicians on our workers concerns, etc. By the way, in many cases, the loss of funding will also mean that union members will not be able to pay people to actually do membership drives, which when you’re trying to reach members who teach at offsite locations or at non-traditional times, like evenings or weekends, is often essential. This is turn means fewer dollars which means unions will accomplish less work.

There’s also a certain contingent of full-time membership that sadly, see promoting adjunct issues as a detriment to their achieving their own specific interests. They tend to see the union less as a union and more as a professional organization, and they think long and hard about the “I” in union, but not the “U”. While in the long run, weak unions may result in the loss of bargaining power, they might not be too worried about the problem in that they’re closer to the end of their career rather than the beginning. They’ll be all too happy to have you not participate.

So does no agency fee still sound like a good idea?

Well now let’s talk about grievance. So many people think unions are simply about negotiating salaries and benefits that they fail to realize that they are also engaged in protecting worker’s rights. Without a union or a contract to represent you, you can be asked to work under ANY working conditions insomuch as they don’t violate your civil rights or OSHA law, and you can be FIRED AT ANY TIME WITHOUT CAUSE. Now some people might say, “Hey, but if I’m not an official member and just an agency fee payer. I’m not protected directly by the union.”

It’s true that if you’re not a member that a union can choose not to represent you, but often the employee rights that you have are the result of past grievance actions taken up by the union whether you were a member or not. It’s one thing for the union to have a contract with management, but making sure that it’s properly enforced is the job of a grievance team. While negotiations groups will get a lot of recognition by union members, it’s often the grievance team that does the hardest, most unpleasant, and in many ways, the most important work. This is also where the work a union does can become most expensive.

Consider that is a grievance needs to go to arbitration, this means having to pay for an arbiter and union lawyers. Even a simple case over an adjunct getting rehire rights can run over 10,000 dollars in expenses. Without the money of agency fees, it becomes increasingly difficult for unions to fight these cases.

The thing that’s interesting about almost all grievance cases is that almost no employee knows, going into a job, that they’ll ever have to grieve their work conditions, and although a union may anticipate future grievances, it has no way to “plan” how much its grievances will cost. Here is where the funds of agency fees are perhaps most vital in supporting the cause of workers.

Chances are likely that the agency fee will fall, but that doesn’t mean you can’t join the union. What it does mean is that now, more than ever, you need to join the teacher’s union at your place of work. If you don’t have one, then you should contact a local teacher’s union about starting one.

You know the old cliché, “united we stand, divided we fall.” The fact of the matter is, it’s true. It’s time to unify and unionize good adjuncts.


Geoff Johnson
A “Good” Adjunct