“This is what a union has done for us, and this is what a union can do for you,” adjunct professor Michael O’Bryan said during a victory rally at Washington University, where adjunct professors just won their first-ever union contract securing improved wages and job security. – Labor Tribune photo
In recent years, even as college tuition costs balloon, many universities have still been making cuts in spending, particularly in states where education funding has been slashed to the bone. One area noticeably affected by tightening college budgets is faculty salaries. It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been on the job market lately: in recent years, American universities have drastically reduced their number of tenure-track faculty positions with benefits, instead relying more and more upon adjunct and lecturer positions, which are typically contingent (meaning temporary and insecure), part-time, and low-paying – with no benefits to speak of.
According to the American Association of University Professors, these types of positions continue to make up a bigger and bigger part of the academic workforce, with more than 50 percent of all faculty appointments currently classified as part-time (a figure that includes graduate student teachers). Yet despite the growing reliance on adjunct labor, wages for these positions remain almost unconscionably stagnant. And though cuts in government funding are a factor, the AAUP notes that many institutions simply choose not to prioritize livable wages and benefits for part-time faculty, instead investing more money in technology and facilities.
Due to the proliferation of these unstable, neglected positions, part-time adjuncts and lecturers have begun to organize in the past five years. But it’s been an uphill battle. One of the most widely reported on cases is that of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA, where adjunct faculty voted to form a union in 2012. The Duquesne group has been particularly resilient due to backing from the United Steelworkers of America – the largest industrial union in the country. But still, the university’s administration showed little willingness to recognize them, even in 2013 when the death of beloved 83-year-old adjunct Margaret Mary Vojtko, who had been living in extreme poverty despite 25 years of service in the school’s French department, brought nationwide attention to their fight.
In early April of this year, however, the Duquesne union finally received good news: According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, DC ruled that Duquesne University officials must recognize the adjunct union’s collective bargaining rights. The victory is a measured one, however – Duquesne’s president continues to argue that as a Catholic university, the school should be exempt from such requirements, though the NLRB determined that the school was not “sufficiently religious” to merit an exemption.
For their part, Duquesne faculty, students, and activists are hopeful that this decision can bring about real change. Just this week, they celebrated May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, with a solidarity rally on campus in support of the union, as well as greater student and faculty involvement in university decision-making. English Professor Stuart Kurland, who attended the rally to support his fellow instructors, spoke for many when he told the Duquesne Duke, “My hope is that the administration will understand what is going on … [and] begin to chart a new course of openness and dialogue.”
Despite victories at Duquesne and elsewhere, exploitation of adjunct labor continues to be a major issue at universities across the country. As noted by the AAUP, heavy reliance on underpaid, overworked contingent faculty members is not only bad for those faculty, but for tenured faculty, students, and the quality of university education as a whole. It’s a fight that those of us who work at universities in any capacity would be wise to pay attention to and support.