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a philosopher

I tended to give negative answers towards the union issue because in my experience the unions I've been a part of were ineffectual or simply didn't make a difference. I know my sample size is small, but I've held all of these sorts of positions (part-time adjunct, full-time VAP, and postdoc) across a range of institutions. Sometimes there was a union I was a part of, other times there wasn't. I never noticed a difference in pay, benefits, etc. In fact, the one major issue I faced as a non-TT faculty member (one of real material consequence) was at a school with a union, and when I brought my issue to them they couldn't care less. (This also was a matter of protecting me from the incompetence of my own department, which, again, the union would not/could not do.) I've also twice now watched my union, at two very different schools, be completely ineffectual (for one reason or another) during contract negotiations, getting us no real wage or benefit increase. Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-union, I just don't have faith that unions are going to make a real dent in the plight of non-TT faculty.

UK Based

A different outlook: I didn't rank a lack of union representation high, as the unions here in the UK, while not as strong as they used to be (unfortunately), are still wonderful and effective groups that all can easily join for very little cost (including no cost to some groups such as PG students).

There was recently a nationwide strike here, with one major reason for the strike being issues around workloads and casualisation. I'd have liked the union to focus on this before, but there is clear focus within the union on these issues now, and already important successes due to the strikes in getting the national university body to accept that this is a national (not local) issue.

Unions are crucial, and we need to support them. All of us, whatever stage of career we are in. They may not always be perfect, but the stronger the union the better work we be for us all, especially those from marginalised or underrepresented groups, and those on non-permanent contracts. I realise unions are quite different in the US, and seem to be far more local. I responded relative to my situation where I benefit from a strong, national union. If I did not have one, it would have been at the top of my list as through a union we can fight the other issues that are listed in this survey.

a philosopher

"Unions are crucial, and we need to support them. ... I realise unions are quite different in the US, and seem to be far more local. I responded relative to my situation where I benefit from a strong, national union."

Perhaps, but I just don't see it, even with the stronger, state-wide unions in the US. Here's how one of my cases went: the union covering the state system of a medium-sized US state school system was bargaining for a new multi-year contract, and getting nowhere. The contract being offered by the university system was significantly worse than the current contract (which, to be frank, was pretty decent relative to the local economy). So, there was a strike which shut down the entire state system of universities (affecting 100k+ students). The public pretty much just didn't care, and those who did care were just as likely to get up in arms about haughty professors hurting kids when they have it pretty good compared to McDonald's workers (or whatever). No political pressure was put on either the governing university board or the state politicians who control their state apportionment. So after a week the state made minor concessions, the union caved and got membership to approve the contract, and the faculty were still left significantly worse off than they were under the previous contract (albeit not quite as bad off as before the strike).

Also, it should be noted that nowhere in this whole contract negotiation were non-TT faculty even a serious point of debate: the union was not fighting against how the system had been eliminating TT lines, fighting specifically for improved terms for non-TT faculty, etc. The big concerns were the overall shapes of the pay scales and benefits. So not irrelevant to non-TT faculty, but the broader trends affecting us were not a concern for the union.

To be frank, the union (staffed and run by mostly TT and tenured professors) seemed to me more interested in maintaining their own benefits in the face of cuts than fighting for (or even being cognizant of) their non-TT peers. To some extent I know this first-hand: as I noted before, when I went to them with my issue (which was materially affecting me), not unrelated to the contract negotiations, I received zero support.

Perhaps I'm missing the big picture, or being short sighted, but this sort of thing has been my experience. My other experience with lackluster bargaining wasn't as bad as this one, but similarly involved the union's best efforts ultimately being crushed by much larger social-political forces. That's part of the issue: university funding and spending (at least at many of the places shifting to contingent faculty) is beholden to public opinion and political will. Many universities in the US are also being squeezed by market forces, specifically a large drop in enrollment. I just don't see how unions are going to affect meaningful changes in the face of these social, political, and market forces. We're not coal miners or foundry workers fighting for our fair share of some robber baron's gluttonous profits.


Just to correct a misconception ... you are the union ... it is not "the union did not do this" ... As a member, you make the union. I have seen contingent and full time people contribute to the union effective, and I have seen contingent and full time people talk like the union is something out there that is supposed to do something for you.

Treading water

I have had quite the opposite union experience than "a philosopher." I've also held a variety of contingent positions, ranging from adjunct to full time lecturer to post-doc, in a variety of geographic locations, and being in a union has made a huge difference in pay, benefits, and job security. I hope TT faculty will strongly support unionization efforts by NTT faculty going forward.

UK Based

A philosopher: I can't comment on the unions in the US, and their effectiveness more broadly, and I'm sorry to hear your experiences. I would urge you, and others, not to let that entirely destroy your faith in the idea and the possibility of effective unionisation. I know that the main union in the UK (the UCU) has been repeatedly effective in various ways, and is now is taking non-TT (non-permanent) issues very seriously (the new general secretary explicitly campaigned on this issue and was elected at least in part due to that).

The difference between national and state-wide may play a part here, and the non-existence (effectively) of private universities in the UK - I'm not knowledgeable enough on these topics to comment really. What I can say, from my experience, when I started my PhD, the union here felt weak and ineffective. In recent years, it has felt a lot stronger, and far more effective at all levels, despite universities in the UK also being squeezed by various market and political forces too.

This is why I did not rank it as important in the survey, as I have union representation that I think is good (though, naturally, not perfect - there are issues here about who in the workforce are active in the union and on which issues for example). But, if I did not have that union representation, I would have placed it right at the top of the survey as I think that unions will be a part of getting the other issues rectified.

"We're not coal miners or foundry workers fighting for our fair share of some robber baron's gluttonous profits"

No, we're not coal miners. But we are workers, fighting for fair pay, conditions, and contracts as part of our share of universities very large profits! Yes, we are better off than some (even many) in the workforce, but that does not entail that we cannot fight for better conditions, and resist changes that would worsen our conditions. Many unions here explicitly expressed their support for UCU during the recent strike action. Unions of unions are also crucial. Solidarity!

a philosopher

"Just to correct a misconception ... you are the union ... it is not "the union did not do this" ... As a member, you make the union. I have seen contingent and full time people contribute to the union effective, and I have seen contingent and full time people talk like the union is something out there that is supposed to do something for you."

Come on, you clearly knew what I meant. There's me as a member of the union, what the general body will vote, and the people sitting in leadership who set the agenda. These are different things, and clearly by "the union" I meant the later two. I, as a contingent faculty who had just showed up on campus two weeks previously and knew no one, was not in any sort of position of power within the union ... at all.

Besides, if this was a real thing, then I couldn't complain about "my government" because I'm a citizen with voting rights.

Before any other people pouring their blood, sweat, and tears into a union get upset at me and try to tell me why I'm wrong: I explicitly said that I'm not against unions, I know there are plenty of cases of them doing good in academics, but my own experiences make me dim on just how effective they really can be. The forces affecting contingent faculty are complicated and deep. I'm happy to agree that unions can play a small part in helping improve the situation, all I'm saying is that I rated them low in this survey relative to other measures because I don't think they're positioned to be a major part of the solution.

a philosopher

Treading water and UK Based: I'm glad there are examples of unions doing good for contingent faculty. As I said, perhaps I just need more experiences to see more clearly how they can be effective.


I'm in Canada, and also have a union that I think is good. But FWIW, I was not thinking very much of the overall goodness of unions when I answered this question on the survey.

For pretty much all of the questions, I was reporting on whether I wasn't getting, or was having trouble getting, the thing named, whether it was job security, union representation, academic freedom, good pay, or what have you. As I have union representation, I ranked the lack of union representation quite low.

a philosopher

I guess I should clarify. I rated "lack of union representation" as not a serious problem I face, not something the APA should address, etc, because like others in this thread I either had it already, *or* because when I did have it, I didn't find it helpful wrt other harms it's presumably supposed to help with (e.g., job insecurity, pay, etc).

I also want to take a step back too. Marcus says:

"Respondents who self-reported as adjunct instructors appear more likely to agree that union representation, academic freedom, and absolute deprivation are important issues they face (though there was some considerable variance on all three issues even among the adjunct respondents)."

I never found myself in a union as an adjunct --- and also never found myself paid a livable wage as an adjunct, either. In one place a union was trying to organize right before I left. The few success stories I've heard seem to be what unions have done for adjuncts, e.g. getting their pay from sub-McDonald's wages to something you can live on. I can definitely picture a union of adjuncts, in say a large city or state-wide, being effective at raising pay. So if I could have filled out the survey as me qua adjunct, I would have rated a lack of union representation as more important.

NTT Defender

I did not rank lack of union representation highly because I am a part of a union and it is an effective union. I make 15 percent more at my current NTT position than I did at a previous NTT position, where I didn't have a union, and I have guaranteed professional development funds, guaranteed raises if I'm here next year, etc.


Chiming in here a bit late:

My situation is that I have a non-TT position.
At the department level, I have been renewed as of October.

Admin then sits on their hands until enrollment numbers for the next academic year.

So the department could say "hey we'd love to have you back" in the Fall

Then the admin could make some arbitrary decision in like March and say too bad, we can 't have you back.

But it literally makes zero sense. Enrollment is thriving where I am. The classes will fill up and they will need the classes taught but . . . well we're gonna make you wait.

Its exploitative BS.
(thought I'd preach to the choir a bit)

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