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Four things you should know about the adjunct faculty labor movement

School administrators must understand and address the issues at play
University Business, September 2016

At least 35 private colleges and universities have seen their adjunct faculty unionize between the 2013-2014 and the 2015-2016 academic years. Over that same period, unions prevailed in 39 of 44 National Labor Relations Board elections, according to NLRB Election Reports for closed cases with elections held between September 19, 2013, and April 22, 2016. In other words, unions won a stunning 88 percent of elections to represent adjunct faculty members (while the union win rate for all elections is approximately 20 percent lower). At some schools, unions have secured double-digit percentage pay increases for these adjuncts and some job stability for positions that most institutions have long regarded as truly and necessarily contingent.  

For institutions that recognize these developments as an opportunity to re-examine the roles and responsibilities of adjunct faculty, it is imperative that top school administrators understand the issues at play in the adjunct faculty labor movement and address them now. This article discusses four main issues that should be considered before, during, and after any adjunct faculty unionizing campaign.  

Today’s Adjuncts

The explosion in the adjunct faculty ranks over the last 50 years has been widely reported. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) reports that non-tenure-track positions of all types (part-time and full-time) now account for 76 percent of all instructional staff appointments in American higher education. (AAUP, “Background Facts on Contingent Faculty.” Available at http://www.aaup.org/issues/contingency/background-facts.)  

The numbers, however, are not the only thing that has changed: the typical profile of today’s adjunct faculty is markedly different than in the past. Instead of a practitioner working full-time in the field or a retired faculty member who teaches one or two courses at a time, adjuncts often have terminal degrees and want to be full-time faculty. Many cobble together a living by taking assignments, without full benefits, from several institutions. These are the individuals who are driving the movement for union representation, initiating organizing drives, and turning out when it comes time for an election. They publicly question whether the institution is living up to its mission when it hires large numbers of faculty to teach for low wages with no benefits or job security.  

The more traditional types of adjuncts, those employed full-time in another capacity or who have retired from their regular positions, tend not to get involved in organizing campaigns, although sometimes they express support for the arguments raised by the group seeking full-time employment.

In order to anticipate potential areas of concern and strengthen the institution’s relationship with its adjuncts, each institution should understand the demographics and professional motivations of its adjunct faculty.  Colleges and universities may want to develop a multi-tiered approach to addressing divergent workplace interests among the adjunct ranks. Institutions may also want to consider adjunct demographics to tailor their communications to the different adjunct constituencies.  

Inclusion in Academic Community

Adjunct faculty dissatisfaction often is rooted in a perception that they are undervalued. Colleges and universities can improve adjunct faculty morale (and decrease the likelihood of a successful organizing campaign) by taking relatively cost-effective measures to increase adjunct engagement.

Unions often assert that adjuncts are treated as invisible or disposable members of the academic community. They point to such factors as lack of office space, limited access to printers and computers, and exclusion from department and other faculty meetings. There can be some truth to these accusations: many administrators would agree that colleges and universities can do more to make adjuncts feel appreciated.  

If these issues exist at an institution, institutions can expect them to be raised in an organizing drive or during adjunct faculty union negotiations. In many instances, unions have emphasized a perceived lack of inclusion and access to resources to criticize colleges and universities for failing to live up to their mission. Unions may even target students and parents in public relations efforts, stirring up doubt about the quality of education the institution provides and the value students receive for their tuition.  

What can an institution do in this case? First, understand the nature and scope of the problem. Are there simple measures to show the adjunct faculty members are valued before an organizing campaign begins? For example, a college or university might provide adequate space for adjunct faculty to hold office hours, keep adjuncts’ email addresses active year-round even though they teach only every fall or spring, and give adjunct faculty members library access during terms when they are not teaching. While the institution may not get much credit for providing this type of support, these relatively minor matters can become issues in union organizing campaigns if they are not addressed.  

More fundamentally, what roles do adjuncts play in shared governance? This is often an issue in organizing drives, with adjunct faculty seeking greater involvement, even comparable to that extended to tenured and tenure-track faculty. With the growing ranks of full- and part-time non-tenure track faculty, this will become an increasingly pressing subject.  

It is worth the effort to take stock of the current role that adjuncts play in shared governance, and then decide whether the institution would be willing to consider a more robust governance role for adjunct faculty. If so, what is the best way to start this conversation, and what is the right forum? Are adjunct faculty members participating adequately, for example, in curriculum development at the program or departmental level? Should they be included in faculty search committees? How will it inform the analysis if only some adjunct faculty (e.g., those seeking to teach full-time) want to participate more in shared governance?  

Why wait for an organizing campaign or contract negotiations to address these issues? With the increase in adjunct faculty numbers, most colleges and universities will need to decide how best to integrate adjunct faculty into the academic community. An organizing campaign or collective bargaining probably will not be the best format for meaningfully contemplating the issues.  Further, independent of potential unionization, the institution, its adjunct faculty, and its students could benefit from identifying and addressing areas for improving the integration of adjunct faculty into the academic community in ways that fit the institution’s culture, traditions and needs.  

Institutions should bear in mind; however, that tenure-line faculty, students, and alumni, among others, likely will become involved in any discussion on the appropriate role of adjunct faculty, particularly with respect to shared governance. Preparing a communication strategy for each of these constituencies ahead of having the discussion would go a long way toward making this a meaningful exercise.

Job Stability

Many administrators do not have comprehensive data on how their institutions use adjunct faculty (for example, which courses and how often each adjunct faculty member has taught over the prior several years). This may not be an easy task. Many institutions do not capture this data in a single system, and will need to run queries across multiple systems. The percentage of adjunct faculty who teach the same course from one year to the next often exceeds any initial estimate.  

Understanding adjunct faculty teaching patterns is important because many union contracts for adjunct faculty require schools to provide adjunct faculty with “good faith consideration” when assigning courses. These provisions establish a framework in which adjunct faculty can acquire “tenure light” job security (absent poor performance, major changes in course offerings, program changes, or reduced enrollment).  

A review of data from the last several years may help institutions determine whether additional full-time tenure-track or non-tenure track faculty positions could cover the load currently taught by part-time adjunct faculty, and what that might mean for students. The desired balance between tenure-line, full-time and adjunct faculty at an institution, both as to the number of faculty in each category and the number of credit hours taught, is another important topic of discussion. This balance may vary from school to school or department to department, and accreditors may want to weigh in, as well.

Compensation and Benefits

Generally, demands for better compensation and benefits can be addressed by providing regular cost-of-living increases in pay and educating adjunct faculty on the benefits that already are available to them. Unions often claim that “rich” institutions are paying adjunct faculty poverty wages. They also have issued white papers using publicly available data to support this argument. (See Adjunct Action, “The High Cost of Adjunct Living: St. Louis.” Available at http://seiufacultyforward.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/18851-White-pap....) However, most stakeholders and adjunct faculty understand that adjunct positions are contingent in nature and never were intended to provide the equivalent of full-time pay, regardless of how many courses an adjunct faculty member cobbles together at one or more institutions.  

Unions and adjuncts often argue that adjuncts should be paid the pro rata equivalent of the salary paid to a full-time non-tenure track faculty member. Schools often respond that other faculty ranks are expected to engage in research and service. Unions generally counter by pointing out that adjuncts are paid at a lower rate than full-time faculty hired exclusively to teach. If this is the case, the institution should be prepared to articulate its reasons for paying different rates for seemingly similar work.

Before union organizing begins, consider whether it is time to increase adjunct faculty compensation or whether a better alternative would be to create more full-time non-tenure track positions while reducing the institution’s reliance on adjuncts other than those who are practitioners employed full-time in the field.  

Now What?

Labor unions and others are bringing the issues discussed above to the forefront of our thinking about American higher education. Unions in particular are framing the issue as the “corporatization” of American higher education and claiming that schools have abandoned their mission in favor of focusing on rankings and new buildings. Of course, this is part of a larger national debate about higher education. However, administrators should not see the adjunct labor movement as a simple referendum on whether union representation of adjuncts is right or wrong for the academy. Rather, they should take this opportunity to reflect on the role of adjuncts and what can and should be done to alter that role.  

One thing is for sure: the world has changed, and adjunct faculty organizing is here to stay. There will come a time when nearly every institution will have to answer the questions raised in this article, whether forced to do so by a union or on their own.  

—Michael R. Bertoncini and Thomas Dorer are principals at Jackson Lewis P.C.

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