Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

October 22, 2016   |   Ithaca, NY


Commentary: In support of unionization by part-time faculty

As a former adjunct who taught at five colleges and universities in three states before eventually earning tenure in the Department of Writing at Ithaca College in 2007, I’m writing to support the unionization of part-time faculty at the college and respond to four obfuscating statements concerning adjunct unions in The Ithacan’s article on Thursday, March 5, “Seeking Security: An Analysis of IC employee concerns in light of national trends toward unionization.”

Statement 1, from former President Peggy Williams when explaining why no faculty unions had formed prior to or during her tenure: “The majority of employees have concluded they are better off maintaining a direct working relationship with their supervisors, managers, and administrators.”

Academic workers, like all workers, fail to form unions for many reasons, among them aggressive resistance from supervisors, managers and administrators, workplace isolation or atomization, fear, lack of extra time and energy and acceptance and/or complacency. In academia, there may even exist a reluctance to identify as a mere “worker” rather than an intellectual or professional. While all these and other complex social, economic and psychological factors work to defeat unionization, no worker I’ve met in my life would trade better pay, benefits and working conditions — along with regular and predictable contract negotiations in which he or she has a voice in the vote — for a cozy “direct relationship” with the boss.

Statement 2, from Nancy Pringle, the college’s legal counsel, when explaining how the long-term effects of unionization are unpredictable: “The reality of collective bargaining is that it is an inherently time-consuming process involving trade-offs, which impact all parties engage in the process.”

True, and the impacts for otherwise powerless adjuncts are invariably better pay, very often benefits, and better, more predictable working conditions. In all my experience working as an adjunct, I never feared, nor met a single co-worker who would not gladly welcome, such impacts.

Statement 3, from Bruce Cameron, professor of labor law at the Regent School of Law: “No one is getting rich at the expense of the workers [on a college campus].” Ergo, workers are not being exploited by “greedy” capitalists.

The chief but by no means only problem with this view — that only greedy employers exploit workers, who therefore require labor unions — is that it willfully fails to comprehend that everyone working within the main structure of a system that relies on outsourcing cheap labor depends on that cheap labor for his or her livelihood. Whether we are greedy or not, both President Tom Rochon and I — and every full-time employee at colleges and universities around the country — earn a living wage that increasingly depends on others in the system not earning a living wage. Colleges and universities are greedy for viability, and one major way to keep soaring costs form soaring even higher is to outsource labor.

Statement 4, from John Scully, an attorney with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, when explaining that the traditional purposes of a union are not relevant at a college campus: “The union negotiates average wages. If you are better than average, then the union harms you. …  It makes it harder to financially reward superior research and teaching. ” Hello, John Scully: Adjuncts are not financially rewarded for superior performance. All adjunct wages at a given institution are the same: far below poverty level. The only hierarchical distinction made between adjuncts concerns rehire: that is, in what order people are asked back from semester to semester, or not, to staff classes that may, or may not, fill with students.

Not unlike gay marriage rights, part-time faculty unions are sweeping the nation, as The Ithacan also reported March 5 in the article “Part-time faculty across nation move toward unions.” The only serious question Ithaca College should ask about the unionization of its part-time faculty is clear: Which side of history are we on?


Tom Kerr is an associate professor of writing at Ithaca College. Email him at [email protected]