Like all of you who have been writing for, and reading, Cultural Capital Doesn’t Pay the Rent, I was thrown by the results of the presidential election. I went through a period of not being able to find my fight. Feeling old and tired and desiring nothing but to run away.
Then my own staff union, CWA 9404, started contract negotiations and my fight returned. Right now I am a worker fighting to ensure my union contract protects me when the organization I work for cuts it budget by 30% and national right-to-work laws are enacted. My daily work still feeds me intellectually, emotionally, financially. I’m lucky. But I’m also trying to understand why the most powerful unions in the country didn’t have the foresight to back Bernie, or a back up plan if we got to the nightmare we have arrived at.
More than ever, we need to be the ones to take leadership in the labor movement and ensure it becomes a solid mechanism to work from as we organize safety nets to catch even more of us falling through the gaping hole of an incomprehensible wealth gap and the bleeding wound of a neofascist government.
Yeah, I’m thinking in hyperbolic extremities, but it’s hard not to.
The post below is a section of the book I am writing about the adjunct movement from my vantage point of being an adjunct professor and then becoming a union organizer. It’s about a lot more, but the point I want to make is I am posting this because Miranda Merklien, an ex-colleague, recently sent me an article from the Santa Fe New Mexican about a union forming at the community college where we both taught. The election is for full-time faculty only, adjuncts were not included in the organizing drive. This was the plan the chair of the Faculty Senate has had since at least 2013. To exclude adjunct faculty. It was the fight I was in when I was adjunct rep to faculty senate.
This news is so frustrating. To me, to Miranda, and to our other colleague- also a former adjunct rep (though less so to her)- and also no longer teaching at the college. 300 PT adjuncts, 70 FT faculty. All are contingent. No one has tenure. Yet the FT faculty infantilize the adjunct faculty, absolutely treating us as less than, deeply invested in the two-tiered system. They are building a form of solidarity that weakens faculty power in its divisiveness, creating a wedge administration can take advantage of. I know all to well, the folks leading this union effort are invested in hierarchies and have no sense of collectivism and unity. This is the opposite of what we need to be doing right now.
We also can’t bury our heads in the sand and accept the crumbs we are given, like I know many of my former adjunct colleagues at the community college must have done for this election to be FT only. I can’t be there to organize so I am sharing the below, testimony that change can occur. The piece is about where I was three years ago and where I am now; where the movement was three years ago and where we are now.
From the chapter What’s Love Got To Do With It?
by Jessica Lawless
…A year later I was elected as an adjunct representative to the faculty senate. At first I enjoyed the meetings. It was one of the only times I got to sit with my colleagues and feel
like I was an equal part of the college. Until the chair of the senate, who looked exactly like Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons,” attempted to shut me up every time I spoke. There was a lot of straight up sexism and homophobia in those interactions. There was also outright hostility.
“Ralph, does that new salary chart being proposed only have full time faculty salary steps.”
“What about adjunct pay. Our previous teaching isn’t even factored in when we are hired.”
“You can do the research to propose new salary steps for adjuncts.”
“Aren’t we representing all faculty?”
“Yes, but full time faculty are paid so far below the national average we need a new salary matrix.”
“Of course, but you obviously know adjunct faculty are paid much less. You can’t only focus on full time faculty anymore. The national conversations are about pay parity for adjuncts.”
“That’s not what we are discussing here.”
“What’s the discussion?”
“Raises for faculty.”
Ralph would periodically appease me and Alejandra, the other adjunct rep, by inviting us to his office for private chats. One time he let us know a group was exploring unionizing and we should keep it on the down low. He probably didn’t say it that way. But for some reason he thought he could draw us into a pact where we kept our mouths shut out of affinity to him. At the next faculty senate meeting when the topic came up, I asked where adjuncts came in to the picture.
“We need seven full time faculty to join AAUP to create the chapter before we can even discuss unionizing.”
“Only full time?” I asked
“For now.” He answered
“Can adjunct faculty join this chapter?” I asked, trying to get a different answer.
“You can pay dues if you want. But we need seven full time faculty members first” He gave me the same answer.
I left the meeting seriously pissed off, hopped onto the national adjunct email list I was a part of and asked who the AAUP rep was for my region. I called the rep. “You can’t form a chapter without including adjunct faculty.”
He knew that. He said AAUP had a policy against excluding adjuncts from chapters.
A couple days later Ralph cornered me in an empty hallway between classes. He stood threateningly close, pulling up his usually hunched over back making his full height clear. “Jessica, You understand without a full time faculty union there will not be an adjunct union, right?”
“I know Ralph, we need to work together.” I started to feel anxious but wasn’t entirely sure why.
“We have tried in the past. Adjuncts were the reason we didn’t have a union last time. You need to let us take the lead on this.” Ralph glared down at me.
“It’s not 2005. Things have changed.” My voice sounded less sure than I intended.
“Jessica, you understand what I’m saying. Correct?” Ralph held his ground and kept glaring at me, but wearing a pasted on condescending smile.
For a minute I didn’t understand a word he was saying because heat was rising in my body and my head was foggy with warning sirens screaming at me to get away from this man.
“OK, Ralph.” I walked in the other direction, shaken up and teary. I got myself together and went to teach my “Gender and Culture” class.
My consolation that semester was my teaching contracts getting processed incorrectly. I ended up being paid for all of the credits I taught. That may seem like a given, but this is free market higher education. I was hired to teach a course that had variable credits, meaning students could take it for one, two, or three credits. I was on the books as an instructor for six credits, which I was teaching. This course was an important one for the community college’s student population. It served as a safety net for students who were on the verge of losing scholarships, having dropped a class or failed a midterm. It was previously a part of a department run by two full-time staff and one half-time student worker. When they cut the department they kept this course. Pierre, the current dean of humanities, had the bright idea of offering it to an adjunct for the equivalent pay of one credit. Susan, the office support staff for adjunct faculty, pointed out, on our behalf because none of us were at this meeting, the absurdly low pay for an important class. The pay was raised to three credits even though the position technically required teaching six credits. I was hired to teach that course not knowing this background. I was unfortunately extremely grateful for another class. When I moved to New Mexico from California, I was hired at the entry level per credit salary despite having been teaching for four years. This came out to $6000 less for a three credit course then what I was paid for the summer class I just finished teaching at Pitzer College. Free Market higher education works this way.
After the period of gratitude passed, I was pissed at being exploited. The most I did about it was bitch to Susan and everyone else who would listen. However the second semester I taught the course, someone new was preparing contracts in the registrar’s office. They rightfully prepared contracts for all of the credits I was teaching. No one caught it and I was paid correctly for the next three years I worked at SFCC. Free market higher education also works this way.
Another “perk” SFCC offered adjunct faculty was a free meal the week before classes started. The school hosted a “spaghetti dinner” each semester where the deans and VP’s served us. It was their adorable way to get us to come to campus for free, before our teaching contracts officially began, and feed us college boosterism. The meal sucked and none of us came to the dinner after our first teaching semester when we realized it wasn’t required. Then a new (interim) president was hired. A dean of something unnecessary, trying to keep her job, decided to make the dinner more engaging. My partner, Von, who was earning his culinary degree at the college, had just started working in campus food services. I went to the dinner because Von cooked it. And because the dean of something unnecessary asked for my input about what to do for a more engaging, less coercive event. One of my important duties as adjunct rep. Once we were all seated and eating our meal, the Dean of Faculty called me up to the podium to participate in the dog and pony show for the new president.
“Don’t talk about any of the specific issues. Just let people know when the faculty senate meetings are,” The dean said as he handed me the mic.
The Affordable Care Act had recently passed and the college was implementing credit caps on our teaching loads to avoid paying for our health insurance. This was a national issue adjuncts were organizing around. If we didn’t address it at SFCC, a lot of people would lose income next semester.
My inclination was to ignore the direction I was given. Yet I felt fog start to rise in my throat when I saw the Vice President of Academic Affairs, the Vice President of Institutional Effectiveness, and the dean of my department watching me intently from the table directly in front of the podium. The coercion was palpable. I did not want to be unemployed. Again. I told my colleagues the date of the next Faculty Senate meeting and sat back down feeling like I was going to throw up the herbed Greek chicken Von had made.
In every relationship there is a breaking point if both sides aren’t giving equally.
No matter how much I loved the act of teaching, no matter how much I enjoyed preparing lessons and lectures for my students, no matter how much my students never failed to remind me why I loved being in the classroom, the working conditions sucked.
I would come home from meetings at the college, curl up on my couch endlessly ruminating. “Why didn’t I get any of the tenure-track positions I interviewed for?” “Why does that misogynist prick who champions representational landscape paintings in the campus gallery have job security and I don’t?” “Why did I get an MFA?” “What did I do wrong?”
The answer from external sources was always that I obviously didn’t love what I do enough.
An article in the Albuquerque Journal about adjunct professors was published during the time I was collapsed on my couch, beat down by my waning career. It was ridiculous but typical of the push back against adjunct professors speaking out.
Edmunds is a busy man, but he also finds time to teach part time as an adjunct professor in one of two UNM departments. The teaching positions provide little in the way of pay and no employee benefits, but Edmunds doesn’t mind. His full-time employment at UNM [as staff] offers enough to offset any of the drawbacks of part-time teaching. Most important, he says, he really likes teaching. “I look at it as an extra bonus, an opportunity,” Edmunds says. “It definitely involves extra work, but it’s such a great experience being with students in a classroom setting. That’s the really cool thing. I enjoy it.” … In many ways, Steve Borbas’ experience is similar to Edmunds’. He has been an adjunct professor at UNM for 30 years, teaching architecture. He also worked for UNM as an architect and planner for 20 of those years. He is now retired. “I didn’t want to be a tenure-track professor,” he says. ‘I loved the idea of being out in the workforce, and I adored teaching…the extra money was like lunch money,’ he recalls.
This article pissed me off so much I rolled over, reached for my laptop on the coffee table, and wrote a letter to the editor:
In response to the January 5th article, “Part-timers face ‘double standard,’ it is not reasonable to consider that a “double standard” is acceptable for any profession. Simply because some unknown percentage of the group has other secure employment does not mean it is OK to de-professionalize the entire group.
Expecting people who have invested time and money in earning graduate degrees to use their expertise in “teaching positions [that] provide little in the way of pay and no employee benefits,” is unethical and creates a two-tiered system where budgets are cut on the back of one of the fastest growing, most educated, precarious labor pool in the U.S.
What message does this send students taking on exorbitant debt to earn their degrees, especially in a state that consistently rates amongst the highest for functionally illiterate adults and the lowest for high school graduation and college matriculation?
Would you expect a dentist to work for “lunch money” because they love what they do? Why is it acceptable to expect college professors to teach for less than minimum wage and no benefits because they have a satisfying profession intellectually? What does it say about us as a nation if we expect the majority of the professoriate to be working for “lunch money?”
This article is painfully biased against addressing a key labor issue that is destroying the higher education system in our country. Shame on the Albuquerque Journal for minimizing the economic reality and lived struggles of a large part of New Mexico’s work force.
The letter was never published.