I have worked on the inside, the outside, the side-by-side. Graduate school. MA and PhD level attempts to bring equity to teaching and research. Countless committees, strategic planning groups, ad hoc equity teams. So many teams. So many meetings. No results: no increased pay, no redefinition of contact hours, no paid committee work, no paid prep time, no health insurance, no transparency regarding hiring, no continuity for paychecks. Nothing. Just more of the same “let’s work on this together” and, my favorite, “it could be worse.” Sadly, the people making the promises seem to really mean it; they actually think more meetings and talking will result in systemic change. (When?)
Until the adjuncts in NH teamed with SEA/SEIU, we were considered a safe bet for non-resistance. Across different offices and departments the subtext was the same: they need their contracts; they need to maintain positive relationships with Chairs and Administrators. They wouldn’t think of risking it all. They will pretty much do anything to keep their jobs.
With each passing week, more and more people signed cards. We were moving fast; the System grew desperate, mandating a nine credit limit stating that adjuncts and part time employees may only teach three (3 credit) courses. The language was vague re: adjunct versus contract part-time employees or visiting instructors. But, the message was crystal clear: the union wants to take away your contact hours (System pushed their fiat on SEA/SEIU) and anyone who pursues unionization will be punished. It wasn’t subtle; it wasn’t as clear as I just indicated. But, the punitive, manipulative, and threatening tone and attitude of the Board of Trustees, System administrators, and key Administration and Faulty on campus sent a clear message off “resistance is futile.”
We’re now negotiating our first contract.
Clearly, the people who run our colleges fear an adjunct planet. But, who stole the soul? Who created the conditions which may now require a fight the power attitude and approach? As we all move closer toward a self-determined understanding of what we must do to achieve the equity needed to do our jobs, support our careers, and live prosperous, healthy lives (mental, physical, spiritual, emotional), we need to ask that proverbial question: what are you prepared to do?
For me, the best strategy was to stay the course with the union drive. Recruit as many people as possible. Talk to colleagues who did not support the drive. Many conservatives believed unionization would bring them less equity; they had all (like me, a notorious prog) worked countless years toward maintaining and growing positive relationships with Chairs and Administrators. They rightfully wanted to know how their work ethic would be embraced and enhanced by the Union. My answer was the same: imagine what a few thousand self-determined, politically diverse, yet professionally united workers could do when faced with unemployment threats, reduced hour disasters, and increased enrollments. Who on their own can encourage administrative cuts, increases in their three or four day work weeks, or hold them accountable for failing to meet with faculty-driven solutions to increased student enrollment?
For the most part, the conversations about unionization were positive, even with the most aggressive dissenters. The powerful propaganda circulated by the System and State worked to raise enough questions and concerns to lead some people to view SEA/SEIU with suspicion. As counterpoint, success stories and fact-driven analyses that centered on the exceptional, long-term collective bargaining between SEA/SEIU and the System almost always trumped distortions and lies, fear-inducing tactics that preyed on the brokenness of a dispersed, stressed, working-poor community of talented, resilient, accomplished teachers.
I learned a valuable lesson, though; and it didn’t matter if a dissenting colleague wound up joining the drive or remain in the background or simply said “no thanks.” I learned that we are strongest when we are able to meet, talk, plan, support each other. The adjunct life is one where busy nomads rarely find a moment to pause and rethink or project or just laugh and hang out over coffee or lunch. This lack of contact increases alienation; and we are prone to this kind of separation because the nature of our work is erratic and contingent on at-will contracts administrated by people who oftentimes cannot keep up with their own workload or, worse, who play head games with faculty as part of some latent expression of class-based animosity or emotional immaturity or revenge-driven cycles of living.
Without each other, we will never progress as professionals or a community of professionals that carry with them many generations of lessons on how to overcome this moment of fear. We will not be able to apply the lessons of our experiences as teachers or our own research (and life!) into social justice. We know from experience-driven evidence that sustainable communities produce a higher quality of learning experiences than tentative, chaotic, and self-destructive (last minute; always last minute!) decisions made by administrative colleagues who may never have taught before or have forgotten in their deluded state of job security–they’re a term away from downsizing always but have forgotten that!–how to grow trust across faculty and student relationships, increase enrollment and revenue, and celebrate/replicate success (especially when such developments take place in another department).
More than asking for forty acres, Jack; more than simply focusing on the lack of equity in health care, wage, and working conditions (you know, actually getting paid for the hours you work). Adjuncts are no longer asking for a favor or simply looking to be heard. We are uniting, and moving fast. We control the flow of credit hours and recruitment and revenue streams and curriculum development. We are the ones who teach the most students and have started to raise their awareness re: the conditions of the workers who have been charged with the most important task of changing lives. How can we do that when we cannot even pay our mortgages and rent, food bills, health care, and so forth? How can we look any struggling student in the eye and say we are the ones to lead when we cannot even take charge of our own careers and lives?
Yes. I just ended my piece with a question. 🙂