The Union Advantage for Contingent Faculty

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By GREGORY N. HEIRES
Over a 30-year career, union representation can mean an additional compensation of at least $1 million for a full-time professor at public regional universities, according to a recent study.

The study is good news for adjuncts and other professors around the country who are fighting for union recognition.
Increasingly, instructors at private and public higher-education institutions see unions as an answer to a lack of benefits, dismal pay and the disappearance of tenure-track positions.

Nationwide, the faculty and graduate students at nearly 70 colleges and universities have voted to unionize in the past three years, according To William A. Herbert, executive director the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College in New York City.

The positive findings about union representation at regional public schools come from a paper by Stephen G. Katsinas, Johnson A. Ogun and Nathaniel J. Bray of the Education Policy Center at The University of Alabama.

The “presence of collective bargaining matters,” the paper says.

In 2011, the latest year for which data on salary and benefits at the 390 regional universities in the United States is available, full-time faculty covered by collective bargaining agreements at those institutions received $17,000 more in total monetary compensation than non-union instructors. Unionized instructors earn anywhere from 5 percent to 50 percent more than their non-union counterparts, according to the study.

The benefit of unionization is evident at Tufts University, where part-time lecturers voted to unionize in 2014.

At the private university, instructors of romance languages saw their pay increase 40 percent after unionizing. Adjuncts are now covered by one- to three-year contracts, depending on their experience. They are paid at least$ 7,300 per course. Adjuncts with eight years of experience receive $8,760 per course.

Colleges and universities began using contingent instructors as a way to reduce costs during the economic downturn in the 1970s. The number of full-time faculty plummeted by 77 percent from 1971 to 2011, according to the Dept. of Education.

Today, as many as 1 million adjuncts work at colleges and universities nationwide.

More than 50 percent of the faculty in the country is part-time instructors or adjuncts, according to The American Prospect. Adjuncts teach about a third of the classes at community colleges and about a fourth of the classes at research universities, according to a Coalition on the Academic Workforce study.

Years ago, most of the faculty represented by unions were full-time professors on tenure track.

Today, with the growth of part-time faculty, 90,000 of the American Federation of Teachers’ 215,000 members employed in higher education are contingent workers, a group that includes faculty in non-tenure track positions, part-timers, graduate students and post-doctoral students. The union represents 100,000 full-time instructors on tenure track.

The Service Employees International Union is carrying out a nationwide organizing campaign of higher education instructors called Faculty Forward. The project has an ambitious goal of signing up hundreds of thousands of adjuncts.

Clearly, the union message resonates with contingent faculty.

The Faculty Forward campaign has succeeded in 38 of the 41 representation votes held since the organizing effort began in 2013. All told, SEIU has organized around 25,000 contingent faculty in recent years.

The appeal of unions to adjuncts isn’t surprising.

The disappearances of stable unionized blue-collar jobs and the growth of precarious, low-wage service work are probably the most frequently cited examples of how the 21st century economy isn’t working for most Americans.

But the plight of adjuncts shows how professional workers are also victims of four decades of declining and stagnant wages and increasing inequality. Nearly a quarter of adjuncts receive some form of public assistance, such as food stamps or Medicaid, according to a study by the University of California at Berkeley.

Many adjuncts earn poverty-level wages. They are among the millions of workers whose compensation falls below $30,000 a year.

Adjuncts typically earn about $2,700 per course. That amounts to about $22,000 a year for four courses per semester. Once class preparation, meetings with students and grading are considered, adjuncts say their pay probably works out to less than $15 an hour.
The SEIU campaign’s long-term goal is help adjuncts receive a guaranteed a minimum compensation of $15,000 with benefits for each course they teach.

A lofty goal?

In November 2012, when fast-food workers in New York City launched their campaign to be paid $15 an hour and win union representation, many analysts—including progressives—described it as an unrealistic, pie-in-the-sky hope.

Well, this year, New York State and California have adopted $15 an hour minimum wage plans.

Why not $15,000 a course for contingent faculty?

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