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Adjunct Faculty of America, Unite!

The number of low-paid adjunct faculty positions in higher education are exploding and now these largely female workers are fighting to unionize.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Youth for a United World

 

Victoria Baldassano, an English instructor at Montgomery College and the mother of a child with disabilities, thought turning to teaching from her previous career as a journalist would offer more stable pay and a better career path. But in the nearly eight years she’s been working at the community college, she hasn’t seen much improvement in the long hours, the inadequate office space and the poor salary—she told me she made $26,000 last year teaching a couple of classes and picking up extra work doing disability tutoring.

“I don’t make much more than I would working at Starbucks,” she said on a break from grading papers. “This is the hardest part-time job I’ve ever had.” Recently the president of the SEIU Local 500 at Montgomery College, she and her fellow part-time faculty workers are beginning to organize for better pay and working conditions.

Baldassano and her colleagues are part of a burgeoning effort to demand more from colleges and universities. A recent analysis conducted by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce found that the pay for adjunct faculty lagged far behind that of their tenured peers, averaging just $21,600 while tenure-track positions averaged $66,000 a year.

“We were really shocked. We didn’t realize how much more they made,” Baldassano said when she saw the pay difference at Montgomery College. So in 2007, she and a few other part-time faculty members gathered to talk about organizing. At first, the administration told them forming a union was illegal, but Baldassano and her colleagues persevered. In 2008 Montgomery College voted to join SEIU Local 500. Though Baldassano notes that “our office space hasn’t improved much,” the college’s new president, DeRionne P. Pollard, who took over in 2010, has been “much friendlier” to part-time faculty. Now, Baldassano said, “We have a vote and a voice.”

The union has also organized others in the Washington, DC, area: George Washington University, American University and, just this spring, Georgetown University voted by a three-to-one margin to join the union, too.

The presence of adjuncts—or, as they prefer to be called, “contingent faculty,” whose employment is based on contract—is nothing new. In the early 1980s, about 20 percent of courses were taught by non–tenure track faculty. As colleges and universities looked for ways to reduce salary costs as the number of students attending college ballooned, the number of courses taught by adjunct faculty increased. By 1998, about 43 percent of courses were taught by these non-tenured faculty.

Recent analysis from the American Association of University Professors found that that while only 30.2 percent of faculty positions were part-time in 1975, by 2005, part-time positions made up fully 48 percent of the academic workforce. Today, some labor groups estimate adjunct faculty hold up to 75 percent of higher education positions.

Baldassano is emblematic of the population of adjunct faculty at colleges and universities around the country in one key aspect: She’s a woman. Though she couldn’t name an exact percentage at Montgomery, she noted, “There are a disproportionate number of women.”

Though the very nature of contingent work means the composition of this workforce is constantly changing, there have been various efforts to take a kind of census of adjunct faculty. It’s one of the reasons contingent faculty has been a difficult group to organize until now. “Honestly, one of the biggest barriers is the nature of teaching as an adjunct. Each adjunct usually has to put together a living by teaching at multiple institutions,” said Christopher Honey, communications director at SEIU Local 500. He noted that “there have been a lot of women leaders” at unions in the area, particularly female faculty members under 40.

 
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