Why Colleges Should Pay Attention to Strikes by Their Most Precarious...

column | Affordability

Why Colleges Should Pay Attention to Strikes by Their Most Precarious Teachers

By Robert Ubell (Columnist)     Jun 16, 2023

Why Colleges Should Pay Attention to Strikes by Their Most Precarious Teachers

There’s a news story in higher ed that’s not getting enough attention. The nation’s adjuncts are rising up.

Just a few weeks ago at Rutgers University, for instance, adjuncts, grad students and others held a five-day strike over unequal treatment compared to other academic employees. In the end, after a year of contract negotiations, they won a big jump in pay and benefits.

Similar scenes are playing out across the country. This year alone, adjunct faculty on 12 campuses went on strike, and in many cases winning pay gains and other concessions.

“We broke through the temporary status of contingent higher ed employment under a framework that offers some semblance of job security,” said Amy Higer, a lecturer at Rutgers’ Newark School of Arts and Sciences and president of PTLFC-AAUP-AFT, unions representing part-time employees. In the new agreement, part-time faculty who teach two years or more are now entitled to a year’s appointment. Adjuncts won a 40 percent pay hike, as well as binding arbitration and other advances.

“Our labor is our power,” Higer told me recently. “We didn't know we’d be forced to go on strike, but we had to get a fair contract.”

I’m seeing this up close at New York University, where I am vice dean emeritus. After a threatened strike, part-time faculty also won decisive gains in compensation and benefits in a six-year contract negotiated by the NYU Adjuncts Union and ACT-UAW.

“Contingent academic labor has become a pillar of the neoliberal university, and this agreement goes a long way toward raising standards for precarious academic workers everywhere,” declared union president Zoe Carey. Under the new agreement, adjunct pay jumps from $6,200 for a four-credit course to $10,400, with increases scaled up over the next four years. In a first, the university will contribute to health care, retirement and other benefits.

Across higher ed, it wasn’t always this way. In the 1960’s, adjuncts taught only about a quarter of college classes. Since then, the percentage of adjunct faculty has mushroomed to occupy the vast majority of instructors on many campuses, a deeply troubling dependency on precarious academic workers.

Online, the adjunct load is even greater. At two of the country’s biggest colleges — Western Governors and Southern New Hampshire, each with more than 100,000 students — there are no full-time faculty. Every virtual class is taught by contingent instructors.

Growth in Faculty Union Membership

To understand these recent labor battles at colleges, let’s step back and look at the bigger picture.

With the deindustrialization of the American economy, the nation's factories fled to low-wage countries in Asia, Latin America and elsewhere. And with the decline in manufacturing in the U.S., union membership nosedived in parallel. In the heat of the American assembly line in the 1950’s, union employment peaked, compising a third of the private-sector workforce. But in today’s service economy, union membership has shrunk to merely six percent. In sharp contrast, faculty union membership is on an upward swing, with a fifth of part-time instructors unionized.

Source: National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions

In the last decades, industrial unions, representing low-wage staff on campuses across the country — such as the Service Employees International Union, United Auto Workers and United Steel Workers — recognized the similar plight of part-time, non-tenure faculty. Adjunct demands were not often treated with the same urgency by traditional academic organizations, such as the American Association of University Professors, National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, who mostly represented tenured and tenure-track faculty. Adjuncts were looking for more strident champions.

“There has been a degree of alienation between tenure and non-tenure faculty,” says William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions. “Non-tenure faculty are looking for respect for their work as well as improved salaries and benefits. They feel that they’re better off dealing with unions that represent low-wage workers.”

But the recent union success at Rutgers may be a sign of a shift. “We merged Rutgers’ AAUP-AFT union with our part-time faculty union,” Rutgers adjunct union president Higer told me. “We are at the same bargaining table with full-time faculty. Rutgers’ full-time faculty have been extraordinary in helping pull-up contingent faculty.”

Why are so many adjuncts mobilizing now? Adjuncts’ already precarious situation has worsened in the wake of the pandemic and continuing inflation. So adjunct and other faculty unions have ramped up demands for economic justice.

Of course, not all part-time faculty are in the same fix. Some are professionals who work full-time in industry, and who teach in fulfilling side hustles, as I did several years ago at The New School.

But a recent survey of contingent faculty reveals the more uncertain situation most adjuncts find themselves in. A third of respondents earn less than $25,000 a year, falling below federal poverty guidelines for a family of four. Fewer than half receive university-provided health insurance, with nearly 20 percent on Medicaid.

These alarming economic facts for most in adjunct life are in addition to their day-to-day struggles. Without job security, many don’t know if they will be teaching as late as a month before class starts. Most are not compensated for academic work performed outside their classroom. Few are given funds for professional development, administrative support or even an office.

In a stinging irony, many tenured faculty teach courses on equity and social justice, where students learn about oppression engendered by privilege. Yet just down the hall, someone else with the same level of education is teaching a similar course for vastly less pay and with little or no benefits.

It’s part of a growing inequality in our society, as Kim Tolley and Kristen Edwards point out in their book “Professors in the Gig Economy,” noting that “many employment sectors are divided between a large precariat and a small, highly paid elite.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s inspiring to see that adjuncts are increasingly joining picket lines to improve their scandalous conditions.

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