The Troubles with Organizing Adjuncts

For the last year-and-a-half, I’ve been working as an adjunct at a Local Liberal Arts College (LLAC).  The department is great, the students are by and large wonderful to work with, and I love being my own boss for all intents and purposes.  But there are problems.  The pay is low (I’d make more as a TA at my grad institution) and I don’t get health insurance (which I would get as a TA).  I figured that there are probably other adjuncts who have similar frustrations, and so back in the fall, I sweet-talked the Dean’s secretary into giving me a list of all the adjuncts on campus.  I put together an e-mail list, called up a pub to set aside a few tables, and had a get-together in September.  My intentions from the beginning were to see about organizing the adjuncts into a union.  I’ve had some very good union experiences (at my MA institution) and some decent union experiences (at PhD school).  Moreover, I am well convinced that unions are indeed the way to go in a situation where the workers are basically expendable.  And that’s the case for adjuncts: we’re basically temp workers, a dime a dozen–you can’t spit without hitting a history PhD who is desperate for a job.  But together we could have some serious bargaining power, as LLAC, like other schools, has increasingly come to depend on temp workers–about a third of the faculty are adjuncts.  Together, we could shut the motherfucker down [says the tough-talking pseudo-radical].

Many of the people who came to the adjunct meetings were sympathetic, and sometimes enthusiastic, about a union drive.  But a few–and one dude in particular–were averse, if not hostile, to the idea.  And more than that: no one was coming to the meetings.  There are 100+ adjunct on the list, but no more than eight people would show up.  A few more would e-mail with apologies about schedule conflicts, etc., but the fact remained that people weren’t involved.  Hardly a positive indicator for union potential.  Overall, it seemed that the adjuncts were either too busy, too apathetic, or too satisfied to start the revolution.

So a change in strategy was necessary.  I’m putting off the revolution for now, and instead following a suggestion offered by another adjunct: sitting down with the university and talking it over.  A few other adjuncts and I met with representatives from the Dean’s office and proper faculty, and we’re pressing for a committee to be established to (a) come to terms with the scope of the University’s dependence on adjuncts; (b) investigate the concerns and hopes expressed by adjuncts; and (c) assess the current relationship between the university, departments, and adjuncts and see whether it might be changed for the better.

In the words of Anna Louise Strong (voice for the Seattle General Strike of 1919), “we are starting on a road that leads – NO ONE KNOWS WHERE!”  Except back off on the capital letters and exclamation mark.  I think this committee will come up with some recommendations, probably draft some policies and procedures, and hopefully clear up some things about how the university relates to its adjuncts.  Hell, maybe we’ll even get a salary ladder and health care.  But our comrades in Indiana have had less luck with that, and I have a feeling that when it becomes clear that what the adjuncts want will cost the university money, we’re going to have trouble.  At that point, the ambivalent adjuncts are going to have to make some decisions about what they want and how they can get it.  Maybe then they’ll show up to the damned meetings.

2 thoughts on “The Troubles with Organizing Adjuncts

  1. I guess I don’t understand why adjuncts don’t belong in the same union as that of regular professors. In effect, adjuncts are the scab labor used to exploit those regular professors, so it is in the interest of all kinds of educators to stand together, no?

    • You’re sooooo right, Richard. And if the profs at the school had a union, I’d sign up yesterday. But professors seem inclined to think of themselves as irreplaceable (and therefore not vulnerable to scab labor) or, more often, as being apart from “normal” work–they are people of the gown, beholden only to truth, not such material concerns as job security and health insurance. Unions are all well and good for the commoners, but in the Ivory Tower, such things are not necessary.
      Until the endowment crashes and the administration goes hunting for cheap labor among the hundreds of unemployed PhDs, of course.

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