Debt-Ridden and Desperate, America's Adjuncts Are Attempting to Unionize

Part-time professors say that they struggle to earn a living wage, often have to take second jobs, and are sometimes just a canceled class away from real poverty.

by Samantha Melamed
Mar 9 2015, 6:45pm

Philly adjuncts marching for union rights last month. Photo courtesy American Federation of Teachers/United Academics Flickr fee

Linda Lee used to have a successful career in publishing. Then came what she calls "the worst financial decision I ever made in my life."

She went to graduate school.

Lee enrolled in a doctorate program in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania but, after her funding ran out, began working as an adjunct professor to pay her bills. Six years later, she's still at it. But even as she teaches five classes per semester at four different Philadelphia-area universities, she struggles to pay her rent, let alone keep up with the massive students loans she took out along the way.

"When I started grad school," Lee said, "I never imagined that this is what my life would be. This is not what I signed up for."

So goes the plight of the adjunct professor—the growing cohort of part-time instructors who now make up more than two-thirds of all college faculty in America. Highly educated (and often carrying the debt to prove it), adjuncts say that even as tuitions have skyrocketed, their wages have stagnated, leaving many in poverty and therefore just one canceled class away from total financial devastation.

In response, adjuncts nationwide have been organizing in hopes of better pay and conditions. National unions, including the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), United Steelworkers and Service Employees International Union, have made a project of it, putting on pressure with events like National Adjunct Awareness Week at the tail-end of February. Since November, at least eight colleges have seen their adjuncts form unions. A new ruling from the National Labor Relations Board in favor of adjuncts at the Jesuit-led Seattle University would also allow their votes from a union election last year to be tallied.

One of the most ambitious efforts is in Philadelphia, where the AFT has launched an initiative, United Academics of Philadelphia, with the goal of representing 15,000 adjuncts at colleges and universities in the metropolitan area.

First up is Temple University, where Lee works part-time. According to organizers, the majority of the school's 1,300 adjuncts have signed union authorization cards, but the administration is opposing the plan, which it says will "dramatically and negatively impact the mission of the university." According to organizers, the dispute will be heard by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board beginning March 19.

Adjuncts at Temple want increased compensation, greater job security, access to health insurance, paid sick days, transparency around hiring decisions and an improved pay schedule (they claim to often not see a paycheck until six weeks after the semester begins). In the long term, the vision is a standardized contract and terms for adjuncts citywide.

For Lee, more than just her livelihood is at stake. She sees this as a battle for the future of higher education.

"I want the university system to be sustainable, and it's not right now," she said. "It's not sustainable to have university teaching as your profession."

This is nothing new for Jeffrey Dion, a painter who teaches at Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia.

He has worked as adjunct since 1991. He loves his job, and, based on years of positive student evaluations, he believes he's very good at it.

"But does it pay my bills? No," he said, when reached by phone just after 8 AM on a Friday. "So what I'm doing now, I just walked into a job painting a house."

Dion, a single father of a 12-year-old, paints houses at least 40 hours a week, teaches two classes, and makes art when he can. By his résumé, and his monumental canvases of industrial landscapes, he appears to be a successful artist. "But it doesn't feel like that in day-to-day life," he told me. "I haven't missed a mortgage payment, but there's been times when I've borrowed money or... work at 6 AM at one job and then go and teach, then clean somebody's garage."

Even after 18 years on the job, Shanker's still never sure when her next paycheck is coming.

Something the actor Patrick Stewart said in an interview keeps sticking with him: "I find myself continually torn between a sense of almost juvenile hopefulness and a real despair." He said it perfectly describes the life of an artist. But he added that "without an economic support system that gives you security, you feel that despair all the time."

Second, third, and fourth jobs are common. Elizabeth Spencer, an English adjunct at Temple and area community colleges, used to babysit to supplement her income, which peaked around $25,000, the average for adjuncts. She knows a number of colleagues who work at a pool in Philadelphia to survive the lean summer months.

One adjunct who teaches in the city and didn't want to be named said that, despite working overtime, she was in default on two of her student loans, for which combined monthly payments exceeded $1,500. She faces her wages being garnished in the next few days if she can't work out a payment plan. She's considered bankruptcy, but doesn't have the money to consult with a lawyer on how to proceed.

Meanwhile, the dream of a full-time professorship seems further out of reach than ever. Spencer believes there's a stigma attached to adjuncts that makes landing those jobs even more unlikely. "There's a perception that you're damaged goods."

Not that a union is a panacea. Dion is, after all, a member of the faculty union at Moore. And at some colleges and universities around the country, adjuncts have voted down organizing efforts. (At others, like the newly unionized Bentley University outside Boston, those no-votes have flipped in just a couple years.)

But Jennie Shanker, an artist and instructor involved in organizing at Temple, said it could be an important protection for adjuncts, who otherwise make easy targets for cutbacks.

"If you're not at the table, you're on the menu," she told me. "And because we don't have a union, because we're not organized and we don't have any power, we are constantly the ones who are on the menu."

Even after 18 years on the job, Shanker's still never sure when her next paycheck is coming.

She's had classes canceled with a day's notice because they were just one student short of minimum enrollment. (She said that's doubly painful in cases when she's turned away another job, and then is left with no income for the semester.) More recently, she's noticed the university has employed other tactics in lieu of canceling classes: reducing teacher pay for under-enrolled classes, or combining two nearly-full sections into one, resulting in double the work for no additional money.

"People are afraid to not accept a class," she said.

(Temple declined to comment on these practices or on the organizing effort. Moore also declined to provide a comment.)

Shanker worries that the part-timing of education has broad implications for both faculty and students. There's no question that full-time positions are disappearing: less than a quarter of faculty were part-time in 1970, whereas now, half are.

Her own income from adjuncting isn't sufficient to support her, so she gets by through a combination of teaching, hustling art commissions, and taking on credit-card debt.

But what really scares her is that, as she's grown older and more expensive, she's been offered fewer classes. Many of Shanker's older colleagues, who have no retirement plans or health insurance, are in similar situations. Margaret Mary Vojtko, a Duquesne University professor who died in abject poverty in 2013 (she had taken to sleeping in her office because she couldn't pay her utilities) became a tragic symbol of this phenomenon.

"After 12 years at Moore, my new boss decided I was no longer needed," he said. By then, it was too late to apply for jobs elsewhere for the next semester.

For the first time, Shanker mentioned the issue to her students as part of February's national week of action.

"When students hear that, as of the end of April, I don't know if I'll ever have a teaching job again—and this is the way I've been leading my life for close to two decades—they're stunned," she said.

That's essentially what happened to artist Mike Geno, a painter who has earned a degree of fame for his lush portraits of cheeses. Just as his painting career was taking off, his adjuncting career screeched to a halt.

"After 12 years at Moore, my new boss decided I was no longer needed," he said. By then, it was too late to apply for jobs elsewhere for the next semester.

Eventually, he landed a job at Temple, where he teaches two classes. But, he said, "There are no guarantees."

As of last year, adjuncts at Temple started at $1,300 per credit hour, significantly more than the national average of $2,987 for a three-credit course; some also have access to health-insurance subsidies. But Art Hochner, president of the Temple Association of University Professionals (TAUP), the union the adjuncts hope to join, said they're limited to two classes per semester, and that full-time professors are rallying around the issue. "It weakens the full-time faculty for there to be so many unrepresented adjunct faculty who we have no way of involving in the work we do."

TAUP's last effort to unionize adjuncts, four years ago, fizzled out. This time around, though, adjuncts are energized. Many said they have little to lose.

Without significant changes, people like Lee don't see much of a future in academia.

Though she has no shortage of jobs, including teaching in Temple's Intellectual Heritage program, a required humanities core curriculum, "They're just really sucky ones."

She's still trying to find time to finish her PhD in folklore, in between the 50 to 65 hours per week she spends teaching, grading papers, planning lessons, and driving between jobs.

"That's why I'm involved in the efforts to unionize," she said. "I want to make sure the best, most talented people aren't being driven out of higher education simply because there's a need to be able to pay your bills."

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