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In one of my grad programs, the TAs were unionized. As far as I know, they fought pretty hard and never could really get anything from the administration. For years, all they were trying to do was to get our meager state tuition waived, but of course the administration doesn't do anything, while they get each other a raise every year. In retrospect, what you said seems to explain the situation:

"...as long as there are a ton of people willing to work in adjunct positions, colleges and universities will continue to use them to cut costs."

In the school, there were 30 or so critical thinking sections offered each year, which were the required class that more or less justified the existence of the department. But they were almost all taught by low-paying grad students or adjunct. And every year a bunch of grad students apply for it - they had to turn people away from this horribly paid job.


Where I work there is a union for adjuncts, which is a nice idea, but in practice the union seems to function largely as just another layer of the administration. There are some full-time, salaried, benefit-ed people who staff the union office, and they never do anything to pressure the administration to change how things work for us. On the contrary, they seem to have worked together with the administration to screw us over -- e.g., they worked out a collective agreement that interprets our hours of labor so that we don't qualify as "full time" employees (and hence get no benefits) even if we're teaching five or six courses in a single term. (I wonder whether any adjunct at my school has ever actually received maternity leave or dental benefits or any of the other nice things we are theoretically entitled to by our collective agreement? I've never heard of it happening, at any rate.)


I worked as an 'adjunct' at a Canadian university. canadian university's are unionized rather heavily (TAs, Adjuncts, Profs/Librarians, only post-docs are left out). the wages there were much higher. i was offered an adjunct position at a detroit university which offered wages 1/3 that of the canadian university. the adjuncts are still a marginalized group, but there are some protections offered in the collective agreement. however, there has recently been an attack on adjuncts in ontario when it has come to re-negotiations of collective agreements (every 3-4 years).

while the unionization of adjuncts hasn't solved the problem, it has at least insured better wages and some minor protection. there is still a disparity in both benefits, protection, and wages (compared to full-time staff) but it is by far better than the counterparts in america.


Jasper: it doesn't have to be like that. in most canadian collective agreements there are stipulations regarding overloading of courses and benefits based on a total number of courses taught for that year (at the university I worked at, 4 courses taught in an academic year would entitle you to health benefits). in your case you need to find better representation for your union. there job is afterall to serve your interests.


this problem is quite scary to me, since it might be my future (even though I can still turn around at this point), but I've always found it quite ridiculous that the actual people knowing and teaching all that higher education stuff (and, thus, they're a fundamental part of what a university is) receive such miserable rewards (I think it's actually even worse here in eastern Europe than what is happening in the US) compared to those who work in the administrative part (and are more akin to replaceable cogs in the bureaucratic machine than the adjuncts are to the education, hah, machine). this is simply very wrong, since university is not its administration, university is what it can teach to its students and what research can it do. last time I checked, none of these things were performed by administrative staff.

I haven't checked what did come out of that "academia vs elsevier" thing from last (or so) year, but I see there being a potential for an even bigger outcry against the bureaucracy of the universities themselves, not just publishing industry.

Scott Clifton

This is only going to get worse. I just got a PFO letting me know that it had over 100 applicants--for a VAP position--in ! Adjuncting will soon be the only option short of leaving academia for graduates of non-pedigreed departments.

Marcus Arvan

Thanks for the comments so far, everyone -- but I can't help but find it curious that no one has attempted to answer the question posed: what is to be done about the problem?


I tried pointing in what possible direction, namely, one similar to what happened in the uproar against elsevier and other academic publishers.

what happened was a sort of international and inter-institutional protest against elsevier's financial practices that were both unfounded and actually negatively influencing the scientific process (a protest site is still here: http://thecostofknowledge.com/ ). there are some major differences between these cases, of course. the elsevier one was united against the publishing practices, a fundamental, yet institutionally distinct partner (or enemy) of academia. this time the protest should be against a fundamental part of the academia itself and the inequality or injustice (what big words, hah) found there. it becomes blurry here, but I think this approach of taking a public stand against these practices is still worth undertaking.

not sure what became of protests against elsevier, though. perhaps they failed miserably. or perhaps they set in motion a new age of enlightenment. who knows.

elisa freschi

@ Marcus, I am afraid that due to the law of offer and demand, it is quite difficult to stop the mechanism by hoping to stop the offer. The offer is *there* and if you manage to convince us, there will always be people who are younger, less qualified, coming from abroad, or simply too desperate to refute a VAP position (etc.).

I would rather try to pressure the government and the private funders so that they fund more universities and other institutions where *research* is done and to have counted as research only what one's staff (TT, tenured or post-doc researchers) does (which is fair enough, since an adjunct will publish in 2013 what she has wrote in 2012, while working in another institute…). What do you think?

@Argo, I am not completely convinced by the protest against elsevier, because journals often do add some quality to one's work (selecting the best pieces, typesetting, building a coherent issue on something, advertising, distributing…). Moreover, the comparison to the adjunct situation does not seem to hold: you could stop buying/using elsevier journals because you might decide to publish on springer's ones etc. But Marcus is suggesting a much more radical move: not to take ANY adjunct position at all.


I think the best solution I've heard is that faculty unions/associations get it in their collective bargaining that at least 2/3 of all courses must be taught by TT or tenured faculty.


The only remotely plausible option I can see is to push with everything we have for philosophy to be standardly taught in schools. Then universities will have to compete with schools for those without a TT, there won't be such a glut of unemployed philosophers, etc.

Getting more TT posts funded will, in the long run, not help at all, if those new TT's just produce more PhD's. School teachers won't (directly) overproduce PhD's.


On the question of what is to be done, unionization - if it could be achieved on a wide scale - seems by far the most likely thing actually to make a difference.

Marcus, I'm a little puzzled by your line of reasoning in the post: you say that you can't see how unionization would help, but then you suggest that everyone stop taking adjunct jobs en masse, which is something that it's hard to see how you could realistically achieve without a union. There are lots of questions about whether wide-scale unionization is possible, and of course there are always going to be individual cases (as in the comment above) of unions not working as they should, but as a solution to the problem at hand, unionization seems (to me at least) like the only game in town.


@elisa: the elsevier situation was not that the journals had no qualities of their own, they sure do, but all the editorial work, reviewing, selecting articles, writing feedback etc, was done by the academic community for very little reward (often - none at all, other than "prestige" of being an editor in a significant journal), while the journals command very high prices for this, as we all, I think, know. and, since this money doesn't go the reviewers, editors and the ones actually making and selecting the content of journals, where does it go? that was the painful question. the only part where publishers might seem significant is distribution, since they might have some sort of infrastructure in place for this etc. however, since we're living in the internet age, distribution can be done much more effectively, and, most importantly, with very highly reduced costs. the protesters against elsevier didn't just agree to not buy their journals or publish via them, they agreed to not participate in the editing or reviewing for them as well.

thus, the analogy still holds. "let's not do work for publishers for no/little rewards" is quite similar to "let's not do work for universities as adjuncts for no/little rewards". furthermore, in both cases there seem to be quite a bit of overhead that is being financed by using cheap academic labor (what a horrible world we live in, eh).

of course, this is just one side of the issue. the other is the simple fact of overproduction of qualified philosophers (I wonder if this situation extends to other fields as well).


@Marcus: there is no easy answer to the question. the casualization process of labour isn't limited to just academia. the university is a business, and as a business it will be per-occupied with money and profit, and how best to get labour for as cheap as possible. unions help to protect the labour force against administration, but it is only part of it. when it comes to collective bargaining it is the public support of unions that can make or break negotiations and possible concessions.

there are plenty of arguments why full-time faculty are better not only for the hopefully looking for jobs but also for the students. communicating this to the public is key. most people think that professors just sit around in there office and work for 3-4 hours a week when they are in class. some also think that the concept of a 'job for life', i.e. tenure, is a luxury and an absurdity that few people can get. i think such ideas, in conjunction with university's crying poor, allow them to cut back and restrict services. ultimately it is the students who will suffer.

so what is the answer? still not entirely sure, but i think myth busting and work place protection (unions) is essential.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Mark: I agree. Unionization *probably* is the only game in town. I was just skeptical that it is a "winning game." In other words, I'm worried even it can't get to the root of the problem, which is that there are just too many willing adjuncts out there. All of the unionizing in the world won't change that fact -- but, as I see it, it's the fact that has led to an increasing reliance on adjuncts.

Here are some other games that may be in town (as it were):

1. Stop producing so many PhDs when there are so few jobs.
2. Tenured faculty collectivize behind the protection of tenure, to put pressure on administrations to hire more full-time positions.
3. Tenured faculty taking to public fora (e.g. thr media) to disseminate to parents that their children aren't getting the bill of goods they've been sold.
4. Collective action of adjuncts without unionizing -- such as an Occupy Wall Street like movement started by social media where adjuncts collectively agree to stop accepting adjunct contracts. If a strong enough movement like this got started, who knows what it could do.

Anyway, maybe these are all "pies in the sky" that will never happen, but still, I think it might be worth it to see if there are any better options -- for again, I don't think that mere adjunct unionizing will address the root of the problem. It will at most raise adjunct wages, not counteract adjunct dependence.


If we're just brainstorming, here's a proposal... As Anon87 pointed out, support from the public matters, and lots of regular people think that tenure is an outrageous privilege. So if we're trying to get universities to make more real jobs for us, we're going to have an uphill battle getting the public on side because of how they conceive of professorships. For that same reason, I'm skeptical that faculty can do a whole lot about "protecting tenure" or getting administrations to create a lot more tt-track jobs. But why not agitate for something else? I myself am skeptical about tenure. It would be nice to have, but I'd be happy with much less. Our real problem is not that we don't have tenure or even tenure-track jobs. It's that we don't even have what employees in most other lines of work take for granted:
(i) some degree of job security -- not having to apply every term, with no idea of whether we'll get work, or how much, etc.
(ii) real benefits
(iii) the possibility of _advancement_ and recognition in the profession on the basis of the massive amount of work and experience we accumulate as adjuncts.
So it's about stuff like that. If universities don't want to create more tt jobs, fine. But then they'd better create _something_ better than what we have now. I think if the public had a better sense of what we really do, and if we were not demanding tenure, they'd be on our side.


So...no one's taking up my suggestion, which is one that actually seems to work (some universities do have a policy whereby x% of courses are taught by TT or tenured faculty).

Dan Dennis

Rachel: Sounds like a good idea to me.


The one place that does not succumb to this sort of cost-cutting exploitation is the SRLAC. Typically the SRLAC utilizes adjuncts only to fill particular needs and must strive for various sorts of full-time alternatives whenever possible (even in non-TT). The basic model of the SRLAC commits it to the non-temporary, non-part-time faculty member.

But it is also the reason that many SRLAC's struggle. Without a huge endowment or cost-subsidy for students, the costs are pretty significant.

Ideally we would be able to make the argument that the education that goes on in the SRLAC is just better and more effective than what the mass-student model that has taken over the University, and that educational "value-added" deserves a cost-premium. But that's a difficult argument to make when the economics of education are so perilous already.

elisa freschi

@Jasper, I agree with you about the fact that one should not focus on the life-long guarantee (which might be an old-fashioned ambition) but on concrete alternatives (for instance, guarantees for jobless periods).

@Rachel, probably it is difficult to imagine why
universities should agree about such a policy.

@Marcus, I wonder whether instead of producing less PhD one should not rather make clear to prospective students that a PhD is not (or "not necessarily") the beginning of an academic career. Would not we be happy to welcome PhD students who took some years off from their "other" career in order to follow their interest for philosophy?


Elisa: I think you're dismissing it too quickly, especially since some universities have signed onto it. If faculty think that it's a priority, then they can make it happen through collective bargaining.

Maybe I'm wrong to propose an actual solution that works. It seems that people just want to keep talking about how we're producing too many PhDs and how administrations love hiring adjuncts instead of replacing TT retirements.

Justin Kalef

Marcus! It's good to run into you again. We met a few years ago when you came to my former department on Vancouver Island to present in my colloquium series. Greetings!

Rachel, I like the idea you're proposing. But like others, I wonder why the administration would agree to it. Could you please explain? What bargaining chip do you see a department as having/using in negotiating for this?

Marcus Arvan

Greetings, Justin!


Justin: salary, benefits, class sizes, research funds...all sorts of bargaining chips. And this isn't for *departments* to negotiate: it has to be faculty-wide.

Justin Kalef

Thanks, Rachel; but I still don't get the idea.

The faculty approaches the dean/VP Academic/whatever and says "We collectively insist that no fewer than X% of our sections be taught by tenured or TT faculty members, or else..." Or else what?

Or are you thinking more along the lines of "If you are willing to agree that at least X% of our sections will heretofore be taught by tenured/TT faculty members, we in turn will relinquish part of our salaries and benefits, expand class sizes, and give you some of our research funds(?)"?

I'm honestly not trying to be thick: I sincerely want to understand the proposal. Can you help? Thanks!

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