Labor Unions: Can They Work for Academia?

Union Organizing of Adjunct Professors

In recent years, in order to increase membership, labor unions have turned their attention toward representing workers not typically represented by labor unions — and they often start by targeting the most vulnerable positions in any given organization. In higher education, that means part-time, or adjunct, professors.

America’s colleges and universities have begun operating like corporations, lowering the number of tenured positions and leaving less-than-desirable options for adjunct faculty. In fact, some instructors make less than minimum wage. In response, many adjunct professors have voted to join labor unions, to address issues of low pay and lack of benefits, among other things, sometimes striking for their cause. But can a labor union truly solve the problems facing adjunct professors?

The Divide Between Adjunct and Tenured Faculty

In 1975, 30 percent of college faculty were part-time. By 2011, 51 percent of college faculty were part-time adjuncts, because over the years, the number of tenured positions has declined. Adjunct professors typically earn between $20,000-$25,000 per year, which, compared to the average annual salary for a full-time professor ($84,303), or to that of a full tenured professor ($139,620), makes it clear how this trend has benefitted universities, to the detriment of their professors. In addition to low wages, adjuncts are subjected to a life in the teaching profession characterized by the following:

  • Teaching multiple courses at different universities
  • Experiencing uncertainty about future course offerings
  • Often living in poverty
  • Not having healthcare and other benefits
  • Often being excluded from faculty senates
  • Lacking an office and other necessities
  • Being treated indifferently by tenured staff

The Push to Organize

In response to the issues facing adjunct professors, some are now looking to a union contract to protect them. One research study reports that as many as 386,000 instructors have joined a labor union, and that number continues to grow. United University Professions (UUP) is believed to be the largest organized union for higher education, while the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has claimed the spot as the largest union specifically representing adjuncts. Even the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), what began as a janitor’s union, has jumped into the fray of academic representation.

Today, adjunct faculty at many universities, including Tufts,  Boston University, Northeastern University, Duke University and more have all joined unions in hopes of achieving beneficial union contracts, but that road hasn’t been easy for some.  Adjuncts at Burlington College, for example, have been waiting on a contract since 2014, and those at Washington University have been waiting since the early half of 2016 — and according to the Washington University’s administration, the union is the blame for the ongoing delays.

Union Promises & Tradeoffs

As in so many other professions, labor unions promise help, but may bring unexpected problems for academics, upon arrival — sometimes even before they’re voted in. At Georgetown University, the SEIU faced claims of coercion during the campaign process and harassment after the contract was in place. Once a union gets in, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to make good on the promises they’ve made adjuncts, because everything must be decided through collective bargaining between the union and the school.

But even if unions were to consistently win at the negotiation table, getting what they want might come with some painful tradeoffs. For example: if unions representing academics across the US were to demand a consolidation of courses, in order to provide a full-time courseload and benefits to a portion of adjuncts, roughly 500,000 adjunct positions would automatically be lost, and that’s only the beginning. A recent study reports that if adjunct professors were awarded the salary increase unions are currently targeting, the universities’ costs could increase from $4.3 billion to $24 billion for courses currently taught by adjuncts. Tuition would skyrocket in response, forcing college enrollment figures into an even deeper decline.

So, can labor unions work for adjuncts?  Between 2013 and 2016, faculty and graduate students at nearly 70 schools have voted to join a union—that’s a clip of nearly one school every two weeks, so time will certainly tell.  The issues facing adjunct faculty are real, but as has happened so often in the modern era, union involvement may bring with it more harm than good for its members. There is no one good answer for addressing this problem, but in general, as in business, it likely begins with communication, a commitment to employee engagement and education and by both administrators and adjunct faculty members coming together to find workable solutions.


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