NEA Presses for Adjunct Faculty Rights

Consider a few facts about adjunct faculty in America. They account for 75 percent of all faculty members, according to a 2009 U.S. Department of Education survey. And they likely earn $19,200 a year (with a master’s degree) and a scant $22,400 after earning a doctoral.

“Think about what it’s like to make it in that world,” urged Tom Auxter, president of the United Faculty of Florida, to his colleagues at NEA’s Representative Assembly (RA). “The employee rights of contingent faculty compare to the employee rights of employees at Walmart.”

To be contingent means you’re working on a temporary basis. Often, you can’t count on a job until days before the semester begins. About all you can rely on is poor pay, zero health and retirement benefits, and the lack of a more secure job offer at the end of the year.

“Just think about what it would be like if (a majority) of teachers ended up as contingent teachers,” Auxter proposed.

In July, the NEA RA showed their sympathy—and great support—for their contingent colleagues with the overwhelming approval of a measure that will help adjunct faculty to access unemployment benefits. Specifically, the measure calls on NEA to collaborate with its Contingent Faculty Caucus, led by Judy Olson, an English lecturer at California State University at Los Angeles, to ask the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to issue a clarifying letter that should make it more likely that adjuncts, or contingents, be considered eligible for benefits.

“I am optimistic about our chances of succeeding with the DOL,” wrote Olson, in a recent blog post at the New Faculty Majority, an association of contingent faculty members. “If we do… people with radically unstable jobs can claim the benefits that rightfully belong to them.”

About three-quarters of contingent faculty members say they’re interested in having a tenure-track job, according to the Coalition on Academic Workforce’s new survey of nearly 30,000 contingent faculty members. But, in the meantime, about 70 percent are teaching just one or two courses.

And the median pay per course? It’s $2,400 for an educator with a master’s degree.  (You might think you couldn’t last for too long on such a salary but about one-third of contingent faculty have been teaching on a “temporary” basis at least 10 years.)

Unionization—no surprise—does make a big difference in compensation and benefits.  According to the CAW survey, just 13.8 percent of adjunct faculty on non-union campuses get health benefits through their employers, compared to 34.3 percent of contingent faculty in unions. Similarly, while 27.5 percent of non-union contingent faculty members get retirement benefits, 60.1 percent of contingents on union campuses do.

“We just need more unionization,” said Adrianna Kezar, an association professor of higher education at the University of Southern California, at a spring symposium hosted by the New Faculty Majority. Kezar also noted that not all improvements of working conditions would cost universities a single cent. “The respect, the inclusion in governance, the professional development that already is being offered…” can easily be offered to contingent faculty for free, she noted.