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Inside Higher Ed :: Clash of Interests

May 11, 2006

Living in the midwest, I hear of union issues quite often. However, growing up in a right-to-work state that was extremely hostile to unions, I have had little personal interaction with them.

This article outlines some of the problems with unionizing adjuncts: full-timers have a different agenda; splitting from full-timers dilutes the voting bloc and helps administration’s agenda; etc.

The problems, obliquely referenced in the article, though are very similar to those at Wal-Mart: there is always someone else who can do the job. Like it or not, there are just enough people (should we warn grad students) in the job market to allow admins to “try someone else out.” Coupled with the adjunct pressures (no health insurance, the need to supplement with one or more jobs, no time or space to study in order to advance in the profession, etc.), there is little energy or incentive for adjuncts to mobilize.

Two examples: my local university, where I have adjuncted, employs on average about 40% part-timers. They are also the only university within 50 miles, which allows them some leverage over the work pool. Don’t like it here, they can say, hit the highway.

A couple of weeks ago at the local Wal-Mart, I learned that my check-out guy was a recent English degree graduate. For whatever reason he was working at one of few employers in the area which would hire him. He pointed out a recent history grad along with a social work grad (she was shift manager). Small-town life at its richest.

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5 Comments
  1. Inside the Philosophy Factory permalink
    May 13, 2006 11:38 pm

    Up here we have a combined union for our CCs. The key to making it all work is that the union got a provision into the contract that there will be no more than 30% adjuncts on any one campus, the rest must be tenure/tenure track faculty. Thus the 30% includes 1 year positions.

    Also, they allow you to teach several other places and combine the sections to qualify for health insurance and if you teach at least 6 credits per semester you are on the same salary scale as the full-time people.

    It is a good state to live and adjunct in — when I moved up here I got a 50% raise from the flat state. Even the private schools need to keep up in order to compete in the market… not a bad deal overall.

  2. Piss Poor Prof permalink
    May 14, 2006 3:38 pm

    Your situation sounds wonderful. It addresses the exigent need of the employers (only need a section of this and a section of that) as well as the employees (four total sections gets me health insurance). Nice deal.

    I fear that the locals here are union-resistent.

    Can’t hurt to try, though. Thanks for the inspiration. I will try and find some specific information–pseudonimity-required obsfucation is kind of a hindrence here. 🙂

    Thanks again.

  3. Professor Zero permalink
    May 21, 2006 4:52 pm

    On the graduates working at Wal*Mart, yes, it’s a weird problem although I think _part_ of it is the economy.

    I’ve got a _good_ graduate (outstanding major for the department) working as a grocery store checkout clerk now. Her problem, however, is cultural; she is keeping pace with her underemployed and only marginally employable boyfriend. This is unfortunate, but I can’t fix it.

    Meanwhile, there is someone to whom we gave the M.A., still working at Blockbuster Video after several years.
    I voted against admitting him to the program, on the basis of his performance at the undergraduate level,
    and I voted to fail him on the M.A. exam (on which he did not write in complete sentences). I was outvoted on
    both occasions, though. I suspect it was, at first, that we wanted a T.A., and at the end, that we felt guilty letting someone into the program so that we could have a T.A. and then not giving her the degree.

    It is unfortunate because this man is a nice person and not stupid (did OK in MA-level courses, for instance–not great, not well enough to be recommended to continue to the Ph.D., but certainly OK). Better advising might have gotten him into some sort of postgraduate training which would have been more appropriate for him.

    I could cite a few more examples–all three of the Ph.D. programs I am involved in graduate a few people each year who are effectively unemployable in their respective fields except as adjuncts or high school teachers. I think this is really unfair; these people should, in some cases, have been dropped at the M.A., and in others, better advised on things like dissertation topic.

    At my school, I think the worst problem
    is in English. They have oodles and oodles of first year courses to cover, and they seem to let virtually anyone teach these courses. This means they allow people to get degrees, and then stay on as adjuncts, when really they shouldn’t. Not all of these people are going to get ‘real’ jobs. Leading them
    on is deceptive, and exploitative.

    That said, English really is in a bind.
    They would gladly convert the best of their part-timers into full-timers, with benefits, retirement, etc., if the university would permit this. But it is too cheap to do so. And they’d be tougher on the graduate exams too, if the university didn’t demand that they produce a certain number of degrees per year. And then, they have these oodles of first year sections to cover, which the university will not let them cancel.

    Once again–it’s the economy.

  4. Anonymous permalink
    May 22, 2006 2:00 pm

    Well it sounds as though you’ve been exploited, but also confused.

    a) an undergraduate degree in English where you discussed feelings about ideas, expressed yourself, and emoted about texts…which was fun for an 18 year old, but won’t prepare anyone for graduate school, in any discipline;

    b) a graduate degree you didn’t finish…but which somehonw convinced you to hang around adjuncting for a _long_ time…far too long

    c) so many _different_ adjunct jobs: from the attitude towards women evinced in these pages, I am not sure you didn’t have complaints about sexual harassment, and weren’t renewed for _that_ reason…although who knows, they could have just felt lukewarm about you, or yet more likely, simply didn’t have authorization to hire anyone on a more permanent basis. But typically, the phrase “try someone else out” means there is a fairly serious problem with the one who is not being rehired. In the departments I’ve worked
    in, at least, we’ve always been far too busy to decide to “try someone else out” just for fun.

    It is possible (I don’t know, would have to know more) that faculty have been less than honest with you from from freshman year onwards: that you had the kind of professors PZ is complaining about, and didn’t realize you weren’t getting an education that would actually prepare you for graduate
    school.

    Why didn’t you finish your dissertation?

  5. Anonymous permalink
    May 22, 2006 4:18 pm

    It occurs to me: is this adjunct abuse primarily an English department thing, and if so, why?

    I’ve been primarily in Romance Languages and the departments I’ve worked for rarely used adjuncts: it has been TAs and instructors, when not professors. Professors go nuts when the university claims it can’t afford anything but an adjunct, and department chairs press heavily for real positions. Not to do so
    impoverishes any program, is the common wisdom.

    Re your battle with PZ and CP (above) — it’s funny! But no, PZ isn’t talking about adjuncts–if you read him
    slightly more closely, you’ll see he’s talking about research (b****ing about bad research) and about irresponsible professors–not about adjuncts.

    Finally, don’t feel bad about not having come from an academically oriented family. Most professors I know don’t; I don’t.

    ***Anonymous in Oregon***

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