Penny Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Labor Studies at The Murphy Institute
Years of organizing, agitating, occupying and strategizing have brought the issue of low wage and precarious work to the forefront of contemporary economic discussion. Fast food and retail are not the only sectors where such low wage work has become the norm: higher education is increasingly structured along the same logic. One of the central slogans taken up by students and professors at today’s May Day march and rally is “May Day $5K” – a call for a minimum payment of $5,000 per college class taught by part-time and contingent faculty. This demand is being made alongside calls for job security, health benefits, and other improved working conditions for the contingent instructional staff that now comprises 75 percent of all college faculty members. Shamefully, CUNY pays adjuncts closer to $3,000 per class, and it’s not an outlier.
Our union at CUNY, the Professional Staff Congress, endorses these demands, as does our sister union at SUNY, the United University Professors. Both of these unions are affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, and both have full-time and part-time faculty in their ranks.
And here you have a seeming paradox: a two-tier labor system that has developed over time under the watch of faculty unions, which is now being opposed by these faculty unions. So which one is it? Do full time and part time faculty have common cause in this fight? Are part-timers well served by bargaining units that include their full-time colleagues? In New Labor Forum’s current “On the Contrary” debate, Ivan Greenberg argues no. He cites the record of “very weak representation” such joint unions have thus far provided – and a look at the disparate salary scales, job security, and academic freedom among faculty on unionized campuses goes far to buttress his point. Greenberg cites the discomfort – even embarrassment – of full time faculty members faced with exploitation at work on their campuses. More often, he argues, they avert their eyes, rather than engage the fight. If full timers do not see this issue as their own – and Greenberg argues that full timers do have an interest in keeping the two tier system in place – the unions they currently control won’t either. Adjuncts should organize separate from their full time counterparts.
Greenberg’s case is counterposed by Eve S. Weinbaum and Max Page, writing from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Weinbaum and Page engage the “best cases” they’ve found among unionized faculty, where “both groups have realized that their own self-interest, rightly understood, depends on solidarity.” Full timers have seen their own jobs deteriorate under the austerity and insecurity of the past four decades, and have a direct interest in fighting against the hyper exploitation of their colleagues. They argue that “the best thing the full-time faculty could do to protect their own jobs would be to make non-tenure-track faculty as costly as their tenure-track counterparts, eliminate incentives to hire contingent faculty, and convert contingent jobs into permanent positions.” Unified action among all faculty is strategic, not only because bigger is better and it’s in everyone’s interest, but because the divided alternative points workers in the direction of mutually assured destruction – dividing each so that both are conquered. Given the scale of the challenges faced by higher education, they reason that faculty unions are best positioned to take on the fight in a way that leads with the interests of students, university workers, and education itself. They detail their own successful experience of solidaristic organizing at U Mass as a case in point; February’s successful two-day strike by UIC United Faculty (AFT Local 6456) at the University of Illinois Chicago, over issues facing both tenure and non-tenure track faculty, could be another.