June 3, 2018; Chronicle of Higher Education

To put it mildly, these are not good times for the US labor movement. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the US unionization rate in 2017 was 10.7 percent, tied for 2016 as a record post-World War II low, with an even lower private sector rate of 6.5 percent. Among full-time workers, unionization is slightly higher (11.8 percent), but only 5.7 percent of part-time workers are unionized. Yet adjunct faculty—the majority of whom work part-time—are bucking this trend, report Kristen Edwards and Kim Tolley in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Edwards and Tolley both teach at Notre Dame De Namur University, a Catholic college in the San Francisco Bay Area.

To date, more than 54,000 faculty on 60 campuses have organized with the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU through its “Faculty Forward” initiative. Edwards and Tolley add that, “A 2016 study in the Journal of Collective Bargaining in the Academy reported that 20 new faculty unions were certified in the first three quarters of 2016, with nearly two-thirds representing both full- and part-time adjunct faculty members, about a quarter representing part-timers, and about a tenth representing full-timers.”

This year has brought added union victories. “In March,” Edwards and Tolley note, “adjuncts voted to unionize at the University of South Florida, and in April adjuncts at Nazareth College filed a petition to hold a union election. At the University of Pittsburgh, at Elmhurst College, and elsewhere, adjuncts are currently fighting for the right to organize a union on their campuses.”

Organizing is also taking place among graduate student instructors (teaching assistants) and researchers (research assistants). “Over roughly the past year and a half, graduate student workers from at least 14 different institutions have also voted to unionize,” write Edwards and Tolley. This spring, Harvard University agreed to negotiate with its graduate student union. Other campuses where graduate student employees have voted for unionization include Columbia, Yale, Boston College, the University of Chicago, and Loyola of Chicago.

The impact of unionization on adjust faculty has been significant. Edwards and Tolley note that, “Adjunct faculty won salary increases at every institution we looked at.”

Edwards and Tolley add that, “A 2018 survey by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources shows that U.S. faculty members this year are earning only 1.7 percent more than last year…[but] unionized faculty have negotiated steady increases that are significantly higher, and some of the steepest gains have come from unions formed within the last few years.”

The gains have indeed been impressive, albeit starting from a low base. Edwards and Tolley note that,

At Washington University in St. Louis, adjuncts won a 26-percent increase over the subsequent four years; Boston University adjuncts won pay raises of between 29 percent and 68 percent over the three-year period covered by their contract; in California, Mills College adjuncts gained a wage scale that rewards seniority, with raises ranging from 1.75 percent to 60 percent.

Benefits have also increased. Edwards and Tolley write that, “Eighty-nine percent of the contracts we examined include provisions allowing part-time faculty to receive health insurance. At Northeastern University, adjuncts who work 30 hours or more per week won health-insurance plans, and part-time faculty gained the right to participate in the university’s basic retirement plan after two years of service. Lecturers in the California State University system who teach at least half time for four consecutive quarters or three consecutive semesters receive health-care benefits and participate in the university’s voluntary retirement program.”

Nearly all (97 percent) of the collective-bargaining agreements examined also increased job security for contingent faculty. For example, some union locals have negotiated payments to faculty if classes are canceled. Edwards and Tolley note that at their own campus, adjunct faculty will now receive a modest $250 if a course is canceled and no alternative is provided.

Also, nearly all contracts (94 percent) have provisions that increase access to staff training. For example, at “Montgomery College in Maryland, part-time faculty members negotiated a new contract that included a professional-development benefit of $900 per instructor.”

Despite these gains, some goals—such as parity in salary and benefits with tenure-line faculty, meaningful participation in shared governance, and halting the increasing overreliance on gig labor—remain mostly elusive so far. That said, adjunct family at one school, Dominican University of California, did win a contract that led to adjunct salaries that are 80 percent of the salary of a tenure-track assistant or associate professor.

The stakes are high. Edwards and Tolley note that “the purpose of higher education has been to develop skilled, thoughtful citizens capable of contributing in meaningful ways to society. This purpose will never be realized with a professoriate composed predominantly of instructors who work without the protection of real academic freedom, and have no role in shared governance, no job security, no benefits, low wages, and no real hope of ever finding a full-time position.”—Steve Dubb