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2013 November 25 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Invisible No Longer

AP Photo/Kalamazoo Gazette, James Buck
Members of Kalamazoo Valley Community College's adjunct faculty union meet to discuss the college's plan to avoid paying for health insurance for part-time faculty under the Affordable Care Act by capping their hours.

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Invisible No Longer
Seeking Better Treatment, More Adjuncts Turn to Unions
By Paul Bradley

It was in 1993 that a book titled “The Invisible Faculty” was published and commanded the attention of college officials from around the country.

The book seized on what was then a fast-growing but barely examined trend reshaping the higher education landscape: the burgeoning role of adjunct, part-time professors being hired as college administrators scoured budgets for ways to cut costs. The book painted a portrait of part-time faculty, took a look at their working conditions, presented a list of best practices for handling adjuncts and made recommendations for change.

Two decades later, adjuncts — also called contingent faculty — are no longer invisible. They are squarely in the media spotlight, pushed there by the Affordable Care Act. In anticipation of the full implementation of the ACA, also called Obamacare, community colleges around the country have been slashing the hours of adjunct faculty members to prevent them from qualifying for coverage under the ACA, in the process saving individual colleges many thousands of dollars.

A report by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce provides details on demographics, working conditions, and professional support as reported by the faculty respondents who indicated they were teaching part-time in fall 2010.
Under the new law, employees of large companies who work 30 hours or more a week must receive health benefits from their employers. Employers who violate the rule could face stiff fines.

Originally set to take effect next year, colleges and other large employers were given a reprieve when the Obama administration put a one-year hold on enforcing compliance by employers while details are worked out.

In the case of adjunct professors, the situation is complicated by the difficulty in calculating how many hours they actually work. College officials and the Internal Revenue Service currently are negotiating a critical point: How much out-of-classroom preparation, grading and counseling time should be credited to an instructor who spends one hour in the classroom?

The one-year delay and the ongoing talks have not prevented some colleges and states from acting preemptively to avoid paying the health care costs of part-time employees. Most colleges already have a cap on how many courses an adjunct can teach, and those caps are being more rigorously enforced to ensure adjuncts don’t exceed the 29-hour threshold.

For adjuncts at the affected colleges, the cost-cutting steps represented a double-whammy. Not only would they not be provided health care by their employer, but in many cases their course load would be reduced, slashing their hours and their income.

Still, a significant number of adjunct advocates believe the debate over Obamacare obscures a larger point: the growing reliance on part-timers and the lack of support they receive from college administrators.

Those are some of the factors spurring a new labor movement under which thousands of part-time college and university professors are joining unions, boosting the ranks of organized labor and giving voice to adjuncts who often feel unseen and unheard on their own campuses.

“The health care debate has added injury to insult,” said Craig Smith, an organizer for the American Federation of Teachers, which is placing added emphasis on organizing adjuncts into collective bargaining units. Since 2000, AFT has won union elections on 30 community college campuses affecting 11,000 adjunct faculty members.

“The real issue is that they are underpaid and they don’t have access to benefits,” Smith said. “It’s exacerbated by the lack of job security. A lot of adjuncts don’t know where they’ll be from semester to semester.”

“We’ve always organized all types of faculty and staff. The organization of adjuncts is not new. It’s just that with the expanded growth of adjuncts, we took a look at the landscape and decided we had to take this very seriously.”

Some existing unions are newly energized. Earlier this year, union members at Nassau Community College staged a brief strike before being ordered back to work by a judge. About 3,000 adjunct faculty teach more than 53 percent of the courses at the college and the union has been without a contract since 2010.

Meanwhile, the 2.1 million-member Service Employees International Union has also been aggressively targeting part-time college instructors. SEIU now represents more than 18,000 members at 10 colleges and universities, compared with 14,000 five years ago. The union is preparing to file for elections at more colleges in the Los Angeles, Seattle and Boston areas.

“What started out decades ago as a way to supplement experience on college campuses by using adjunct professors has flipped,’’ Malini Cadambi, SEIU’s national director of higher education, told the Associated Press. “They are the majority of faculty labor on many campuses now, and their position has not improved.”

Adjunct professors now make up more than half of all college faculty nationwide; as late as the 1970s, about 70 percent of college instructors were tenured professors or on a track to tenure. At community colleges, adjuncts teach 70 percent of all courses.

William Primosch, a retired Foreign Service officer, has been teaching political science and international relations at Montgomery Community College in suburban Washington, D.C., since 2007. Last year, he was elected president of the Montgomery College Adjunct Faculty Union, which is associated with SEIU Local 500. The union has been representing 900 part-time faculty members since 2008.

Primosch said the union is focusing on issues beyond Obamacare, including pay parity. Part-time instructors now receive less than half the compensation of full-time instructors for teaching the very same courses. The union is also emphasizing greater predictability and fairness in course assignments, more clarity on performance appraisals and better office space to work efficiently and meet with students, he said.

“To blame Obamacare for the plight of adjuncts is to ignore the truth — the lack of support for adjunct faculty has grown progressively worse over the last four decades and is now a national problem,” he said.

“The biggest issue is a lack of respect and a lack of feeling like you’re part of the institution,” he added. “You can’t improve the institution without giving more support to part-time faculty.

“Community college students need that one-on-one attention. You need someplace to meet, and we aren’t provided office space. You can’t improve the college without using the best tools, and the best tools are a college’s instructors.”

Keith Johnson agrees. He’s been an adjunct professor of sociology at Oakton Community College near Chicago for 13 years, and has been an active and outspoken member of the college’s Adjunct Faculty Association.

“I would like the respect and the privileges and the pay that goes with being a full-time professor,” said Johnson, who worked as a professor at several universities before retiring and beginning work at Oakton. “It’s very disruptive, not knowing from year to year where or when you’re going to be working.”

At Oakton, 65 percent of all courses are taught by adjuncts, including 71 percent in the natural sciences and 79 percent in the biological sciences, according to the AFA. Johnson argues that adjuncts warrant a greater role in campus governance.

Johnson serves on his department’s curriculum committee, but as an adjunct, he has no vote on the panel.

“I have no input,” he said. “I can question the wisdom of some programs, but I can’t vote. What we have is a two-tiered labor system.”

The Oakton AFA recently concluded negotiating a contract that allows about 60 adjuncts to get health insurance under Obamacare, the first time benefits were extended to part-timers.

“It’s a foot in the door,” he said.

But a labor union can’t solve all the issues facing adjuncts, Johnson said. Some adjuncts work full-time in other jobs and have no interest in joining a labor union. Others are retired and are not the type to walk a picket line.

“The whole system is tilted toward those who work full-time,” he said. “You can’t contract respect.”

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