Around the country, part-time university faculty members, also known as adjuncts, are organizing to demand better pay, improved working conditions, and health care and retirement benefits. While it is estimated that adjunct professors make up around 70 percent of university teaching staff, they are paid only a fraction of a full-time professor’s salary, often earning only minimum wages for teaching the same classes and working a similar number of hours as their full-time counterparts.
Adjunct faculty, considered contingent faculty for hiring purposes, have no guarantee of continued employment, and are often forced to teach multiple classes across multiple campuses in order to make even a living wage. Adjuncts are often not provided with even the basic conditions needed to be effective faculty members: they sometimes work with no office space for meeting students and must purchase supplies and even university parking passes out of their own pockets. Most students and parents are unaware of the working conditions of most university faculty, which can translate to a decrease in the quality of education that students receive. Contingent faculty are more common to award high grades to students who do substandard work, for example, because their rehire is often highly dependent almost entirely on receiving favorable student evaluations. Adjunct labor has become more common due to the lack of regular, tenure-track (full-time) positions for university faculty.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of the fastest-growing U.S. labor unions which consists of 2.1 million members throughout North America launched on March 24, the Adjunct Action website (http://adjunctaction.org/) in order to address issues commonly faced by university adjunct faculty. The goal of the website is to unite adjunct faculty nationwide and to create adjunct organizing committees on campuses throughout the United States. The SEIU Adjunct Action campaign hopes to reach at least 1 million adjunct faculty throughout the nation. Several attempts by adjuncts to organize and demand better wages and working conditions have been successful in recent months.
The plight of adjunct faculty members made headlines in 2013 with the death of faculty member Margaret Mary Vojtko, the 83-year old adjunct at Duquesne University in Maryland, who died nearly destitute after her contract with the university was not renewed. Books, blogs, and specialized websites and social media outlets have begun to raise awareness of and propose solutions to the growing trend of adjuncts in higher education. News articles are also beginning to shed light on the issues of depression and other mental health issues faced by contingent university faculty on account of their low wages and less than ideal working conditions.
Last year, with the help of the SEIU, adjunct university faculty at Georgetown came together and successfully won a negotiation of their contract. Adjuncts at Lesley University in Boston have also unionized with backing by the Service Employees International Union. In September, 2013, adjuncts from nearby Tufts University were the first to organize under the SEIU. In February, unionized adjuncts at Michigan State University under the Union of Nontenure Track Faculty won a grievance over faculty raises in 2012 and 2013 and are now being offered $67,000 in back wages. It is hoped that under the SEIU similar attempts to organize by adjunct faculty will take place in higher institutions in Los Angeles, Washington, and Seattle, as well as city and nationwide.
By Amber Workman