Rhode Island Adjuncts Vote for a Union, Aim to Improve Learning Conditions

More than 400 adjunct or contingent faculty members at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) are joining the state’s largest education union, NEA Rhode Island, after a resounding vote for unionization this week.

With their vote, the CCRI adjuncts join a fast-growing movement of contingent faculty who see unions as a powerful means to improve their working conditions. Equally committed to student success as their tenured peers, these faculty members often struggle through miserable working conditions that undermine student learning.

“We are proud to welcome these new members, as they join our other strong CCRI unions in providing thousands of Rhode Islanders each year with an opportunity for a great college education,” said NEARI President Larry Purtill.

Across the country, more than a million faculty members, or about 75 percent of all college professors, are contingent; at CCRI, about 60 percent are. Despite their Ph.D.’s or other degrees, they typically earn less than a WalMart clerk—and less than a third have health benefits, either. (Making matters worse, many colleges have been cutting the working hours of adjuncts to avoid potential penalties under the Affordable Care Act.) The issues around their meager employment have become so dire even Congress is paying attention.

But adjuncts who belong to unions are much more likely to get benefits and better pay, and their collectively bargained contracts also are very likely to improve the working conditions that affect student learning.

For example, at Columbia College in Chicago, the NEA-affiliated union of part-time faculty’s recent contract guarantees more stability around course assignments, so that faculty get adequate preparation time to build syllabi and lessons that make sense for their students. At many other institutions, adjunct faculty are hired (or fired) a day or two before classes begin, a practice commonly called “just-in-time” hiring.

And that’s not the worst of it. Contingent faculty describe sharing tiny offices with 50 or more colleagues (or working out of their cars), making it impossible for them to meet privately with struggling students. They are commonly denied access to campus libraries and shared curriculum resources, and excluded from professional development opportunities and campus governance. (Much of these conditions is described in the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education’s recent report, “Who is ‘Professor Staff,’ and How Can This Person Teach So Many Classes?”)

And the pay… Before faculty at Klamath Community College in Oregon joined the Oregon Education Association, adjunct professors earned about $8,000 a year. That’s not much less than CCRI’s Zdenko Juskuv, who packs together five classes on three different campuses to earn about $24,000 a year. But pay wasn’t the primary issue on the Rhode Island campus.

CCRI English professor Tom Jones said he hopes a collectively bargained contract will “solidify regular, consistent, and transparent policies about class assignments and input into curriculum affecting the courses we teach. These are my reasons for working on a union organizing effort.”

“We are pleased that a union will help us be recognized as the life-blood that makes the college work,” commented Professor Jerry Falcone, who has been an adjunct in the business department for 26 years.

The union drive at CCRI, which began almost a year ago, focused on a few issues, including course assignments. Adjunct faculty also were concerned with job security—the number-one issue among contingent faculty nationwide—and they shared a desire to be part of the college’s governance. They wanted a stronger voice at the table, and a role in shared decision-making.

NEARI already represents other bargaining groups on the CCRI campuses, including full-time faculty, professional staff, and education support professionals. They also represent employees at other Rhode Island institutions, including Rhode Island School of Design and Rhode Island College. Nationwide, NEA represents nearly 100 bargaining units of part-time faculty in 24 states.