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Isn’t It Time for Campus EQUALITY Week?

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Campus Equity Week (CEW)  will be held across the U.S. October 26-30.  CEW started as a grass roots movement in 2001 and has been held every other year, alternating with meetings held by the Coalition on Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL).   Since 2013 CEW has been overseen by the New Faculty Majority (NFM), that describes CEW as “a week of education and activism that draws attention to the working conditions of faculty working on temporary, low-paid contracts, who now constitute the majority of college instructors.”

Fourteen years ago, it made sense to “draw attention” to what David Leslie and Judith Gappa called The Invisible Faculty (1993).  At that time, academe was in denial over the exploitation of adjunct professors and the public at large did not have a clue that colleges and universities were thriving on the sweatshop labor of underpaid professors.  Wearing buttons saying “A is for Adjunct” and T-shirts with the words “Campus Equity Now” helped to publicize the inequities of the two-tiered system in higher education.

But one million insecure and low-wage professors, some living on public assistance, now need and deserve much more than recycling old slogans and charging half-price for “part-time cookies,” as Green River College adjuncts did ten years ago. We need concrete goals and concrete actions to achieve them.

What are the goals of Campus Equity Week?  What are the unions, now representing well over a hundred thousand adjuncts, trying to accomplish?  When unions so often herald their equal treatment of their members, why is the word “equality” a fugitive from the contingent faculty movement?  Even the New Faculty Majority eshews the word equality in its mission statement, while its seven primary goals emphasize the word “equity.”

“Equity” was once a good rallying point, given the range of substandard equalitycontingworking conditions between tenured and contingent faculty.  Given the feel-good but undefined meaning makes it easy for anyone and everyone, unions or administrations, to jump on the “equity” bandwagon.  Even the nation’s largest union, the National Education Association (NEA), with three million members, has recently come out in favor of “equity” for contingent faculty in its September 2015 NEA Higher Education Advocate.

But what does “equity” mean? It simply means “fair” or “just.”  But in a two-tier system, just what is fair for contingents and what is fair for tenure-track faculty?  Is it the same for both or is it different?

Equitable treatment does not mean equal treatment.  As Jack Longmate has pointed out, not all those who say they believe in “equity” are “egalitarians” striving for equality and the abolition of the two-tier system.

Academe is awash with “elitists,” who ascribe to a system I have called “tenurism” because it assumes the two-tier system is a merit system, with the tenured faculty deserving of their higher salaries, benefits, and perks, and the contingents deserving of much less. Such tenurists are opposed to equality. (Longmate, “Dreams of Tenure and the Program for Change”)

And while “moderates” may express sympathy for the contingents, and talk about the need for vague improvements, their real goal would seem to be to shore up the tenured class by increasing their numbers.  When Barbara Bowen, President of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC/AFT) of the City University of New York (CUNY) and Vice President of the national American Federation of Teachers (AFT), wrote to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio last year seeking more full-time faculty and failing to mention the ten thousand adjuncts she represents, CUNY adjunct Sean Kennedy wrote an open letter in protest which quickly garnered over one hundred signatures from CUNY faculty.

It took us decades to get the unions to finally come out in favor of “equal pay for equal work.”  But union leaders turned the phrase back on us, saying in effect, “You don’t do equal work, so you don’t deserve equal pay.”  Instead of insisting on “equal pay and equal work and equal benefits,” unions continue to seek and accept a heavily discounted pay for contingents on the grounds that we allegedly don’t engage in such non-teaching duties as committee work or research.  (See my “Equal Pay for Equal Work”.)

What passes for “equality” in unions is the pursuit of “equal percentage” raises and cost of living adjustments (COLAs).  But in a two-tiered labor system these are not equal.  When full-time and part-time professors receive equal percentage increases, the full-timers receive much more money because their salaries are already much larger to begin with.  This process only increases the huge disparity in pay between the two-tiers.

After Campus Equity Week 2007, I wrote, “for all of the publicity and all of our accomplishments, we have not yet stemmed the still rising tide of exploited contingent faculty. The multi-tiered system remains in effect throughout academe, even where campuses have been organized by one of the big three faculty unions.”  (See my “The Future of the Contingent Faculty Movement”)

Though the unions have been devoting more effort to organizing contingents, with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) expanding its presence by organizing the private sector, not a single U.S. union has come out in favor of full equality and the abolition of the two-tiered system.  American unions seem quite willing to accept contingency and its lack of equality as a permanent given, to accommodate to it rather than fight to oppose and dismantle it.

While unions hold out the hope of improving the lot of adjuncts, none has published a detailed strategy on how they will accomplish such goals in an era when union strikes are increasingly rare.  SEIU has publicized a $15,000 per course salary goal, perhaps to mirror their $15 an hour minimum wage campaign, but they have not revealed a plan other than the mantra of “collective bargaining.”  That collective bargaining has been in decline for the last several decades, and that it has miserably failed the contingents for decades, is not mentioned by anybody.

Shouldn’t the contingent faculty movement be demanding equality and an end to the two-track system?  Shouldn’t the unions be thinking of ways to accomplish this?

There was a time not long ago—the 1960s—when there was a one-tier system in the U.S. and a shortage of Ph.D.s willing to take and keep tenure-track jobs.  Instead of part-time “freeway fliers” moving from campus to campus, David Brown’s The Mobile Professors (1967) talked about the shortage of full-time faculty members who would not stay put, instead hopping from one college to another seeking better pay and perks.

And the Vancouver Community College Faculty Association in British Columbia long ago abolished the two-tiered system.  But U.S. union leaders act as though Canada were really Mars and resist considering the Vancouver Model a goal to be emulated and do not believe that equality is possible for U.S. higher education.

Can’t we start by changing Campus Equity Week to Campus Equality Week?Shouldn’t we demand that our local, state and national unions and the AFL-CIO publicly endorse equality and the demise of the two-tier system, as the rank and file United Auto Workers have been doing in their recent contract negotiations?  Isn’t equality for those they represent part of a union’s duty of fair representation?  Could their endorsement of the two-tier labor system, with significantly different working conditions, be seen as discriminatory?

If we don’t set equality as our explicit goal, we will never get equal treatment.  We will continue to be treated in an inferior manner as non-citizens of academe, forever trying to play catch up with the moving target of superior tenure-track salaries, benefits and working conditions.

Why should a contingent faculty movement settle for anything less than equality?  Why shouldn’t adjuncts insist that those who claim to support them do the same?

Since U.S. unions often speak so much about equality in other realms, why can’t they adopt equality in higher education?  Could it be that they are so dedicated to the tenure-track professors that they see improvements to contingent faculty working conditions as a threat, fearing that more for contingents means less pay and security for the tenured class?  If so, the likelihood that such unions will fight for meaningful improvements for contingents is remote indeed because they continue to be dedicated chiefly to the tenure-track and what I have called “the tenure or nothing process.”  The answer cannot be simply “tenure for a few more.”

Richard Moser, the first chair of Campus Equity Week in 2001 and the co-creator of the first Metro organizing strategy in Boston in 1999, recently wrote me the following:

“As one of the original organizers of CEW back in 2001, I am more than proud of the continued activism by contingent faculty. But even the best of tactics needs to be rethought, refreshed and revised. It’s way past time for us to put full equality on the agenda. Campus Equality is what we need now. And, the grassroots organizing, rank and file protest and political leverage to back it up. As the civil rights movement taught us: we need ‘eyes on the prize, and feet on the ground.’”

As Moser suggests, it’s time for a change.  If U.S. faculty advocacy organizations and unions remain unwilling to embrace “full equality” as the singular vision for the contingent faculty movement, and continue to proclaim only vague goals of improvement, they should be seen as obstacles, not friends, of the contingent faculty movement.   And contingent faculty themselves must use discernment to avoid being hoodwinked by the sweet-talk of equity or parity, equal percentage pay increases, and other measures that effectively accommodate to the two-tier system, instead of challenging it.  Contingent faculty should insist on committing their efforts to eliminating the two tier faculty labor system and replacing it with full equality.  Our goal should not be to shore up the two-tier system, but to abolish it.

More articles by:

Keith Hoeller is the co-founder (with Teresa Knudsen) of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association and Editor, Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System (Vanderbilt, 2014). 

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