Why We All Should Care About the Unionization of Adjunct Faculty in Higher Ed

Adjuncts today are the "gig economy" workers in academia—a growing class of faculty who often work with low pay and no job security or benefits. For around 50 years, the proportion of faculty hired off the tenure track has been soaring, reaching 76 percent nationally when graduate student instructors are added to the mix. This shift is particularly troubling in higher education because, as research conducted by the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success indicates, research suggests an overreliance on poorly paid and unsupported part-time faculty hurts student retention and achievement.

Why are colleges and universities increasingly leaving tenure-track positions unfilled and hiring short-term adjunct faculty? Professors in the Gig Economy: Unionizing Adjunct Faculty in America brings together scholars from a range of fields to answer this question and address the history, context, processes, and outcomes of unionization among adjunct faculty.

Adjunct faculty aren't a new phenomenon. Faculty unions in the U.S have been around for a long time and have typically included adjuncts. They trace their roots back 100 years to the founding of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) local 33 at Howard University. What has changed over the past two decades is the rise of a national movement to unionize adjunct faculty in separate bargaining units. This shift is a response to the fact that colleges and universities have increasingly left tenure-track positions unfilled and begun relying more heavily on part-time adjunct instructors who often work with low pay, no job security, adequate resources, and no health benefits.

As more and more colleges and universities home come to rely on gig faculty labor, adjunct faculty members have begun to fight back. Some of the nation's largest labor unions have stepped up to help, including the AFT, the National Education Association, the United Auto Workers, the Service Employees International Union, and the United Steelworkers. After the NLRB ruled on August 23, 2016 that graduate students who work as research assistants and teachers can form or form unions, the United Electrical Workers, the Communications workers of American, and UNITEHERE stepped in to help.

Today unionization shows no sign of slowing down. Three years after SEU launched its national Faculty Forward campaign in 2013, part-time and full-time contingent faculty at more than 40 institutions had voted to affiliate with the union, often despite fierce opposition from employers. A 2017 study found that 20 new faculty unions had been certified just the previous year, with nearly two-thirds representing both full- and part-time adjunct faculty. Unionization continues today on campuses across the country. On March 14, 2018, University of South Florida adjuncts voted to form a union, despite opposition from the administration. On April 13, adjunct faculty at the University of Chicago ratified their first union contract, gaining significant pay increases, greater job security, and parental leave.  After around two years of collective bargaining and a strike on April 4, adjuncts at Loyola University in Chicago reached a tentative agreement on April 16.

Faced with rising tuition, increased living costs, and stagnant pay, graduate student workers at 13 colleges and universities have also voted to unionize, despite recent efforts by the presidents of Columbia, Yale, Boston College, the University of Chicago, and Loyola of Chicago to avoid collective bargaining by trying to overturn a 2016 National Labor Relations Board decision allowing grad students to unionize.  Four of the country's major unions—the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the SEIU, United Auto Workers (UAW) and UNITE HERE—have joined together in a national campaign to make these universities bargain in good faith.

Why should we care?  We should care deeply, because he unionization of adjunct faculty is one of the most important recent developments shaping higher education today. It is critical for all those who work in higher education to understand the significance and relevance of adjunct faculty unions in the context of today’s gig economy.

The poor working conditions of adjunct faculty affect the entire professoriat. The increasing reliance on low-paid, part-time instructors has eroded the availability of tenure-track positions at many institutions. Moreover, the same desire for cost savings that has motivated colleges and universities to rely heavily on gig adjunct faculty has led to worsening working conditions for tenure-track faculty in the form of growing teaching loads, a lack of administrative support, and diminishing funds for research on many campuses.

Anyone who cares about the quality of education in higher education should care about this issue. The students who are applying to colleges and universities should care. The parents and other family members who will help pay their children's tuition should care. Tenure track faculty at every institution should care enough to begin planning ways to make their academic departments more supportive of adjunct faculty, and they should openly support the unionization of their adjunct colleagues once a union drive begins on campus. College and University administrators who espouse a social justice mission on the website and claim to prioritize the quality of their students' learning should not oppose the unionization of adjunct faculty and graduate students, and they should bargain with their employees in good faith.

It is essential to prevent colleges and universities from slipping into a corporate culture in which they forget their historic purpose and focus primarily on the bottom line.

Since the founding of our nation, the purpose of higher education has been to provide the most empowering education to students, one that promotes analytical and creative thinking and a capacity for problem solving. American colleges and universities have always sought to develop thoughtful citizens fully capable of contributing in meaningful ways to our democratic society.  But hese aims will never be realized with a professoriat composed largely of underpaid instructors who often work without job security or benefits and no real hope of finding a full-time position or earning a living wage.

Kim Tolley is a professor of education at Notre Dame de Namur University. She is the author of Heading South to Teach: The World of Susan Nye Hutchison, 1815–1845 and The Science Education of American Girls: A Historical Perspective. She is also the author of Professors in the Gig Economy: Unionizing Adjunct Faculty in America