Adjuncts at the Barricades

The labor market for college professors has long been distorted. Tenure is a major factor; another is the presence of a massive labor supply glut, in the form of too many aspiring faculty members for too few full-time jobs. In some ways, the faculty labor market now resembles the market for sports or entertainment performers: so desirable are jobs at the top level in such endeavors that many people aspire to reach such heights without attaining them, often struggling in poverty for years.

As is to be expected when such gluts occur, academic employers take advantage of the situation by replacing highly paid, hard-to-fire tenured professors with poorly paid, part-time, and temporary adjunct professors. Tenure-track faculty, who once dominated the profession, have fallen to only 24 percent of all new faculty appointments, according to the American Association of University Professors.

An adjunct’s existence can be grim. While tenured professors often teach a couple of classes at a time for eight months of the year in exchange for six-figure salaries and freedom to pursue their intellectual interests the rest of the time, part-time adjunct professors are paid a national average of $2,900 per course, for as many courses as they can get or handle.

Adjuncts known as “road warriors” work long hours teaching at (and commuting between) two or three colleges just to make ends meet, with no benefits. Many others can’t make a living from postsecondary teaching alone and rely on assistance from the government or their families.

In such an atmosphere, unionization might seem like an appealing solution to many adjuncts. But the cure is worse than the disease.

Unionization is merely treating a symptom rather than a cause. There is no defying the hard, cold reality of market forces: the supply of people who are seeking work as professors is much greater than the demand. If universities “exploit” adjuncts, they do so because it is a willing exploitation on the part of the exploited. The academic life is a freely made choice; nobody pursues a Ph.D. in the humanities, arts, or social sciences because they have no other options in life.

Rather than rushing headlong to correct the effects of distorting influences in the labor market, such as tenure and excessive supply, by adding further distortions, such as unionization, it may be best to look at the problems’ original sources. Unfortunately, such a common sense approach that looks at academia’s fundamental operations and incentives will hardly gain much support in today’s academic and political climates. Instead, the unionization of non-tenured faculty is likely to become much more common in the near-future.

This is especially true since some aggressive blue-collar unions have joined the faculty-organizing arena, which was once the exclusive province of the major educational associations. The American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the AAUP currently have more than 90 percent of all faculty union members. But the United Auto Workers, Communications Workers of America, and, especially, the Service Workers International Union have entered the race to organize adjunct faculty.

Unionization by adjuncts is hardly new; many already have the option of belonging to the same unions as their tenured counterparts. Currently, non-tenured teachers make up more than 40 percent of college faculty union members in the AFT, more than 30 percent in NEA, and more than 10 percent in the AAUP. And, according to Inside Higher Ed, “more than half” of the California State University system’s 24,000 California Faculty Association (an AAUP affiliate) members are adjuncts. 

But the relationship between tenured and non-tenured faculty is an uneasy one at best. Their interests are often not aligned; it is in tenured professors’ interests to keep the spoils of the Ivory Tower limited to as small a pool as possible, whereas non-tenured seek to extend the rewards of college teaching as broadly as possible. Especially important is the new development that a majority of professors are now off the tenure track; if treated as equal voting members, they could overwhelm their tenured counterparts. Indeed, that is a tactic for adjunct professors to use to gain power that is recommended by Marc Bousquet, co-chairman of an AAUP committee on contingent faculty.

If that comes to pass, tenured professors could expect to see their interests, such as keeping their own teaching workloads low and salaries high, take a backseat to adjuncts’ demands for benefits, secure employment, and livable salaries. As such, they are hesitant to extend full voting rights to adjuncts within their unions, often permitting each adjunct only a fraction of a vote. For example, it was only in April that the Massachusetts Community College Council, an NEA affiliate that represents instructors at 15 community colleges, permitted its part-time members a full vote instead of the one-fourth vote they were historically allowed.

That decision to give adjuncts a full vote might have been prompted to fend off aggressive organizing efforts in Massachusetts by the SEIU.

The Service Employees International Union’s drive to unionize non-tenured faculty, called “Adjunct Action,” has already signed up over 15,000 adjunct members nationwide. (The UAW has roughly 3,000, while the CWA still has less than 1,000.) In Washington, D.C., where the a major drive by the SIEU concluded in May with 600 adjuncts at Georgetown University joining SEIU Local 500, over 75 percent of all adjuncts are now in collective bargaining units.

With the nation’s capital in tow, the SEIU has set its sights on the college-intensive Boston area. In April, they held an organizing conference for over 100 representatives from 20 area colleges—adjuncts at several schools are already moving forward with union drives.

Many of the current trends are likely to continue. Tenured faculty will continue to demand high pay for low teaching loads, even though doing so gives administrators an incentive to reduce their ranks. And schools will not discourage the overproduction of Ph.D.s; because they benefit from the glut, they will continue to encourage it. Students are often fed a vision of great promise by their tenured mentors—who just happen to need said students to fill their graduate classes and to serve as research and teaching assistants. Graduate assistants teaching entry-level courses enable professors to teach less and focus on their research more. (There is also a drive to unionize graduate students.)

Once they graduate, unless they are gifted or lucky enough to land a full-time position, they become extremely vulnerable to administrators looking to cut costs if they try to continue teaching as a full-time occupation. Many schools are now reducing adjuncts’ teaching loads (or simply demanding that they do the same work in fewer hours) in order to ensure that they work less than 30 hours. This is because the Affordable Health Care Act mandates that all employers must provide health care for employees who work more than 30 hours; the schools are deliberately avoiding the costs of benefits for adjuncts with substantial workloads.

Such moves on the part of university administrators play into the hands of union activists. But the effects of increased unionization may wreak havoc during a period when the academy is under financial pressure from many sources. Adjuncts are in demand mainly because they are low-cost options for schools seeking to avoid hiring expensive tenure-track professors. Unionization will only perpetuate the labor market problem—the higher wages and benefits of adjuncts will cause schools to look for cuts elsewhere.

Whenever this sort of pressure is put upon an organization, management seeks alternatives: cheapening their product or service, suspending the least profitable operations, moving to a different location, or automating labor functions. Most of these moves reduce employment as well; for instance, higher education is already experimenting heavily with pedagogical innovations such as online education that will likely do just that.

The solution is not to protect academic workers from the market, but to encourage students to leave the academic cocoon and become part of the productive economy instead. Higher education was never meant to be a cradle-to-the-grave existence for a large swath of the population, as some perceive it to be today. Labor activists’ claims of adjunct exploitation are moot; there is a great difference between true oppression and bad individual career choices. One of the great hallmarks of a free society is that, if your current path is inadequate, you can choose another—that should be the logical conclusion for many struggling adjuncts.

As Don Draper’s mother-in-law Marie tells her daughter Megan on the TV show “Madmen” after she quit a promising career in advertising to pursue an unpromising career as an actress, “not every little girl gets to do what they want; the world can’t support that many ballerinas.”

A better solution to the academic labor problem is to refocus higher education on education instead of research. This would help end the overproduction of Ph.D.s Eventually, as the pipeline leading from graduate assistant to “road warrior” diminishes, the supply of academics would come to approximate the demand for their services—and the potential for exploitation would end.