Organizing the Lower Caste Faculty in a Public University: Progress Report

Left Forum Presentation, 2015

Ruth Wangerin

  1. Introduction

This button I’m wearing says “I was contingent before contingents were cool.” Well, I was contingent before anyone had heard of “contingents.” I was hired in 1970 as an adjunct lecturer when I was in grad school, and I loved getting the experience. However, I thought the college, but not my department, was being pretty cheap with us. As a matter of fact, I got into a fight with the administration about paying starving grad students much later than other employees. Years later, when I finished my doctorate, I resigned, saying it would be unprincipled for anyone with a doctorate to work in this position. “Give this job to a grad student,” I said nobly. Ha ha. Here I am again, with a doctorate, working part time for unfair pay to supplement my pension, which was not earned in academia, I might add.

Which is by way of saying that I have given the issue a lot of thought. Why did so many PhDs in my cohort never get tenure track jobs? And many of us were working class, women, and minorities, like the students who were entering CUNY under open admissions around the same time.

My biggest question is this: Why don’t the tenure track faculty organize an effective opposition to this system of cheap, untenured academic labor? Don’t they see that it’s destroying their whole profession, not to mention higher education?

  1. History of latest adjunct organizing effort at CSI

Last year I wrote to all the candidates in a contested election in the CSI campus chapter of the CUNY faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC). I asked them what they were going to do about the unfair treatment of adjuncts if they were elected. A couple of people from one slate answered me, said they’d set up a permanent committee to study and work on the issue. So I voted for them, and then I waited. I sent them emails. And waited. Finally, when I was able to attend a chapter meeting, I reminded them of their promise. And lots of people in the room were interested and the leadership endorsed the committee, which we formed on the spot. I asked for help fact-finding, educating full-time faculty, and organizing adjuncts. The part they understood was that I wanted to do a survey.

We had a couple of committee meetings and put together a survey. We found that some full-time faculty were supportive, but not as aware as I’d thought they would be. They made rather naïve suggestions about how to solve the “adjunct problem.” Because it’s so difficult to get adjuncts to a meeting because of their complicated schedules, I did most of the work myself on the survey, using the wonderful Survey Monkey. It was a big success, with 455 responses, a 50% response rate, and it was representative in terms of divisions of the school and probably of gender (58.6% women).

All along, our little committee have been getting help and ideas wherever we could. The union sent our campus an organizer who “gets” it because he worked for a while as an adjunct, and he’s been a terrific help. He said we need a seat at the table and showed us which tables were most important. So three of us went to the executive committee meeting of our union chapter with two easy “asks,” which they then took to the labor-management meeting. And the President and Provost of the college agreed that adjuncts’ names should be on Department websites, and that we could have a particular room as a faculty lounge.

Obviously we want to be fairly paid and to have contracts with job security. This would mean our union would have to demand this, and that won’t happen until adjuncts insist on proper representation.


It’s hard to organize adjuncts. Adjuncts are afraid (including afraid of their department chairperson), busy, geographically scattered. They have all different schedules and are not paid to be on campus except when in the classroom.

So far, we’ve been tackling these issues:

  1. more recognition of our belonging to the college and our importance as college faculty,
  2. research funds
  3. space, both lounge and office space
  4. the payless summer and winter breaks, aka “droughts”
  5. organizing adjuncts, getting to know each other, building leadership

We had a workshop to show people how to apply for professional development funds from the union, and at that workshop we also discuss applying for unemployment insurance for this summer. I’ve been encouraging people to do this both to try to get a little money and to keep up the pressure on this issue. Just so you know, adjunct faculty usually get laid off for the summer but are generally denied unemployment insurance benefits because of a special legal loophole dating back to the 1970s.

At the end of our workshop, we constituted ourselves as an Adjuncts Assembly (I hope we’ll change that to Contingent Faculty Assembly), which will meet monthly and discuss not only our own issues but also issues of college governance. I might call this, paraphrasing Kate Eskew, “how to participate in college governance when you’re not invited.”

We also decided to have a social event this summer.


Survey results. In a minute, I’ll show some slides that give some of the results. Basically, we found the following:

  • Half had masters, 1/3 had doctorates or other terminal degrees, and the rest either didn’t answer or had bachelor degrees, some of them non-teaching adjuncts or college lab techs.
  • The three big issues were pay, job security, and collegiality — inclusion in the academic community.
  • The pay, as you probably know, is not a living wage. Last year I made $26K for teaching a total of four 4-credit courses, plus a paid “professional hour” each week. My hourly rate is higher than a lot of people get. Luckily, I have other bits and pieces, including Medicare.
  • Because of the low pay, more than 90% listed one or more additional sources of income, most commonly (40%) one or more additional part time jobs, and 34% had full-time jobs, some of them on campus. A large subset were on pensions, like myself, and had Medicare. Several wrote in comments that they wouldn’t be able to do this job if it were not for their spouse’s job.

Unemployment between terms. Half of those who answered the question (201 people) said that during their time working as an adjunct they had experienced trouble with their living expenses during the unpaid summer and/or winter breaks. CUNY strenuously opposes applications for unemployment insurance by adjuncts during these breaks, so much so that quite a few people believed we are not allowed to apply. The way it works is that CUNY has to reimburse the Labor Dept for the funds paid out to former employees, so they have a motive to nickel and dime us on this.

There is a provision in labor law dating back to the 1970s that someone working for an educational institution who has “reasonable assurance” of being rehired the next term will be ineligible for UI. This is obviously out of date, because at present adjuncts are most similar to seasonal workers, not to year-round teachers or faculty. Yet it’s interesting that the law hasn’t been revised and the judges keep interpreting our non-binding, tenuous letters of probably reappointment as reason to exclude us from UI when we’re in fact unemployed, just like an actor between shows.

Universities are using this loophole to “have it both ways.” That is, they keep their cheap labor force on unpaid standby during the school breaks. We can’t get another job because we’ve committed to teaching the next term, and we don’t get paid for any course prep or research we do in the summer.

  • A theoretical model to explain the mystery: A caste system within a split labor market

OK, here are the questions that used to constitute a mystery to me, and that now I think I can explain:

  1. Why does this system persist and even grow?
  2. Why do “brothers and sisters” in faculty unions and colleagues in academic departments turn a blind eye, cry crocodile tears, or even justify the inequity?
  3. Why do some grad student organizers prefer to unite with grad students on the other coast of this country more than with adjunct faculty on the campuses where they actually teach?
  4. Why did I feel incredibly exposed – like I was breaking a taboo – when I attended a faculty meeting or, worse yet, marched in commencement in my doctoral gown?

At times I have felt, and other adjuncts have also expressed this feeling, that I belong to a lower caste, almost like a race, that there are places I do not belong. I have been looking for a path to citizenship.

Perhaps Edna Bonacich’s classic 1972 model of the “split labor market” can help explain all that. According to Bonacich, a labor market is split when there are two groups of workers who can do the work for significantly different prices – higher priced labor and lower priced labor. The employer is the third player, who wants to get labor cheap and doesn’t mind training lower priced labor to do the work previously performed by skilled higher priced labor.

Thus there is a conflict between higher priced labor and lower priced labor. If the split falls along ethnic lines, Bonacich believes ethnic antagonism will result. But if it doesn’t happen along ethnic lines, there will still be an attempt by higher priced labor to prevent undercutting of the wage rate. And antagonism between higher priced and lower priced labor can still abound.

Bonacich claims that higher priced labor historically have used two methods to protect themselves: exclusion and caste. They might find a way to exclude lower priced labor – keep them out of the labor market altogether. Think the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. If they fail to exclude the lower priced workers, they try to set up a caste system in which certain jobs and titles are reserved for the higher priced workers alone, at a higher wage rate. The lower priced laborers are relegated to a stigmatized lower caste with many restrictions and a lower wage scale. Think white workers reminding white employers that they are white, too, while the lower-priced workers are black and need to be kept in their place.

Well, in our case, there certainly is a split labor market for college teaching.

[People who are desperate, who have figured out a way to live on a low income while they were in grad school, who have independent wealth or a full-time job or are retired, who just want to try to get their foot in the door and don’t plan to make a life career of adjuncting – all of these people clearly will teach college for less than a tenure track assistant professor expects to be paid.]

Corporate-minded college administrators see that people are available who will teach for low wages, and they make the most of it, gradually replacing higher priced with lower priced academic labor. In fact, they are steadily turning potentially higher priced labor – people with PhDs, for example – into lower priced labor by reducing the number of full-time tenure track positions available. And now some universities (such as SUNY and CUNY) are refusing the higher priced workers’ demands for raises, too.

Exclusion clearly isn’t happening. The faculty unions have failed to keep out the adjuncts, and in fact adjuncts are now the majority in many colleges.

With the growing tendency to run universities like corporations, the temptation is strong to believe low-paid instruction will be just fine, especially in non-elite settings.

A soon-to-retire full professor at my college told me that an administrator somewhere had told him he could run a university with a handful of full professors and a multitude of adjuncts. No matter how much we claim that that’s no way to run a college, it seems to be the way we’re headed.

In some colleges, they assign a textbook from a big company like Pearson that comes with test questions and slides – never mind how shabby and full of errors the slides are – and even give adjuncts a “syllabus.” In some people’s minds, that means the student is getting the same course they would have from an adequately paid and supported faculty member.

Caste. Caste has been the solution chosen by higher priced academic labor. They maintain that certain tasks and qualifications are theirs alone, and they try to get this written into the contract.

  • Tenure track professors define the upper caste: Only they are hired by a national search, only they are worthy because they’re doing research and have lots of publications, only they are “real” professors.
  • They monopolize certain jobs: Only they go to Faculty Senate and have a vote in college governance, only they can advise students, only they go to faculty meetings or set curricula.
  • It became obvious at commencement: Only tenure track professors put the velvet 8-cornered tam on their heads and march in the commencement convocation. Adjuncts I spoke to about coming to commencement said they didn’t feel welcome.

Adjuncts may or may not accept the idea that tenure-track faculty are doing a better job teaching than they are. But adjuncts do know that they aren’t paid for any of those activities and so they don’t try to participate, even if invited. It’s really difficult to get an adjunct to attend a meeting because we have pride – we’re not paid to attend meetings. [The same 2-3 adjuncts hold all token positions for adjunct faculty for my college and perhaps for CUNY, and have for many years. (When the election is held, there’s no publicity and most adjuncts I know are completely mystified – What’s this about? Who are these people? Why do we only get two reps?)]

The only reason the caste system is still working to some extent is that tenure track faculty have some power and influence, students and families admire professors, and many administrators have some belief in higher education as a public good.

Dedication to caste, even by union leadership. My union is suspected of being of the tenured, by the tenured, and for the tenured. One of the officers recently said,

“[d]ecades of underinvestment by the State and City have led to a massive reliance on adjuncts, whose underpaid labor allows CUNY to stay afloat as enrollment rises.” (Steve London, 3/6/15)

Note the assumptions: implied alliance with or at least sympathy for the employer, who is portrayed as helplessly forced to use “underpaid labor” (underpaid by whom?) to “stay afloat.” Note the use of the “political passive” voice. Note the essential nature of the lower caste: “underpaid labor.” (Under what? Under the wage rate that the upper caste is desperately trying to defend.) We are “underpaid labor” – not fellow faculty who are being cheated. We are outsiders who should be replaced by different people, people like themselves, people recruited in a national search. I and many others fear that our union officers want adjuncts replaced by people who will uplift the prestige of the university’s brand and therefore their own personal brands as faculty (with a capital F) of that university.

This explains why some union members signing in for a large meeting on my campus acted almost insulted when I asked them if they were adjuncts. This is why everyone advises new PhDs to not get “labelled” by working too long in an adjunct position. This is why some graduate students avoid “pollution” by too much contact with the lower caste—they are aiming to join the upper caste after getting their doctorates. This is why some grad students with TAs or RAs think they’re better than grad students with adjunct titles. And this is why it was so hard to go to commencement.

  1. Conclusion

I’d like to tell my full-time brothers and sisters that caste isn’t working much longer.

A: We’re starting to crash the party and break into their caste’s sacred spaces, as I did by attending commencement. Adjuncts are starting to Occupy the Faculty.

B: Administrations are cutting back on full-time lines, and salaries, are resisting any attempts to eliminate the two-tier system and pay a fair rate across the board for college teaching. And bigshots are sometimes heard mumbling about the inconveniences of tenure and academic freedom.

What to do about it? I’ll let the other panelists and the people in the audience give their ideas.





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