In 2005, an estimated 42.6 million Americans (about 31 percent of the U.S. workforce) toiled as contingent workers outside full-time, regular year-round employment. And the problem is getting worse. By 2020, more than 40 percent may work under insecure conditions: underpaid and without job protection as well as lacking many benefits such as health insurance, pensions, and vacations with pay. Unionizing this large segment of the workforce has proved difficult. Only about 6 percent of part-time employees are union members, compared to 12.5 percent for full-timers. As the labor movement increases efforts to reach these workers, questions remain about the best organizational forms to represent them. Should contingent workers join locals that enroll full-time employees in their industries or should part-timers form their own independent unions? Can solidarity exist between full-timers and part-timers within the same organization?
I would like to consider the union prospects for a large sector of contingent workers probably familiar to many readers of New Labor Forum: adjunct or part-time college and university teachers. Today, there are more than 1.3 million contingent adjuncts—about 75 percent of all college teachers. Why a two-tier labor system has become entrenched in academia is beyond the scope of my argument here. My main point is that unions need to devote more resources to organize this large group. About one-fifth of adjuncts nationwide already are represented by collective bargaining units and they have shown a high degree of receptivity to organizing efforts. But, critically, adjuncts need to look beyond the teachers unions, which are dominated by full-time faculty and have provided them very weak representation. Another path is possible. The formation of a national adjunct labor union could fight for a more just and fair distribution of employee earnings and benefits. It also could mount a challenge to the very existence of the two-tier labor system. Democratic equity goals are essential to help preserve the integrity and quality of higher education. After all, teachers have a special role as “idea workers” to promote critical thinking, truth, freedom, and human development and growth. Their unions should reflect these ideas. A labor reform movement led by adjuncts might spur organizing among part-timers in other professions and industries.