Solidarity: An Argument for Faculty Unity

As in many industries and professions, stable and coveted careers in higher education have transformed into contingent, low-paid jobs. As tenured full professors retired, they were replaced with adjuncts, part-time instructors, full-time non-tenure-system faculty, and other “contract” faculty. The shift was rapid and dramatic: from 1975 to 2010 part-time faculty increased by 300 percent, and the full-time tenure-track professoriate lost more than half its members. Now more than 75 percent of college and university classes are taught by non-tenure-system teachers who have little job security, may be “on call” from one semester to the next, work at several universities at the same time, and can earn as little as $1,500 per course.

Organizing such a dispersed workforce is difficult, but in many places non-tenure-track faculty have mobilized to demand better pay and working conditions. Citywide efforts to organize adjuncts at private colleges are underway in Boston, Pittsburgh, Washington, DC, and elsewhere. All of these various forms of organizing are crucial and deserve active support from other faculty, students, and the wider community.

But non-tenure-system faculty need more power; how can they best achieve it? At public universities, organizing with tenure-system faculty holds the most potential. Not only can contingent faculty gain a voice in their workplace, job security, career ladders, and significant pay raises—but all of this is in the interest of their tenured colleagues. In the best cases, by organizing together both groups have realized that their own self-interest, rightly understood, depends on solidarity.

In the fall of 2003, the UMass-Amherst faculty and librarians’ union, the Massachusetts Society of Professors (MSP), prepared for contract negotiations. We conducted a survey to ask members what issues were most pressing. The MSP (MTA/NEA) represents 1,400 members, including about 1,000 full-time tenured faculty and 400 lecturers and adjuncts (on our campus these non-tenure-system faculty call themselves “contract faculty,” elsewhere they prefer “adjunct” or “non-tenure-track” or NTT; we use these terms interchangeably). While salaries almost always came up first in bargaining surveys, that year was different: more members were concerned about the sharp decline of tenure-system faculty. In the 1980s UMass had employed over 1,200 tenure-system faculty but in 20 years the number had fallen to 950, while the student body was steadily growing. Faculty recognized that their increased workload, larger classes, teaching and service demands were caused by the shrinkage of the tenured faculty.