In his article” The Abysmal State of Adjunct Pay and Actions to Create Change” in the December 2012 edition of Z Magazine, Jeff Nall outlined in broad terms the economic and academic impacts of the growth of part-time faculty at colleges and universities, now filling something like 70 percent of teaching positions. He and others advocate the creation of adjunct teachers’ unions to improve working conditions and wages. As a founding member of one such union—The Allan Hancock College Part Time Faculty Association of Santa Maria California, affiliated with the California Federation of Teachers—I can attest both to the usefulness of such unions but also to their significant limitations.


Organizing part-timers is a very difficult business: part-timers are dispersed both temporally and geographically and not easy to contact. Many are afraid of losing their jobs if they join a union and some are wary of unions as somehow “unprofessional.” But the level of discontent of part-timers is so high that with hard work and dedication these obstacles can be overcome. We were able to organize and, working together, to forge a strong union. An essential part of this organizational effort involves educating the public and seeking their support, something we did with considerable success. Under this kind of organizational pressure, we were able to achieve recognition by the school administration and board relatively quickly. In the years that have followed, we have won improvements in both salaries and working conditions.


Our aim in negotiations has been to achieve parity with full-timers, and while we have succeeded in achieving major gains in hourly compensation, we have only marginally succeeded in bridging the gap between full-time and part-time compensation. But we now have representation on virtually all major institutional committees and we have gained some important improvements in seniority and job security. Our efforts have certainly been worth it, but we are also aware of their limits. These limits are largely institutional. Here are some of them, though not necessarily in order of importance.


1. ADMINISTRATION. There has been an enormous increase both in the number of administrators and in their salaries over the last two or three decades as corporate models (e.g. President and CEO) have taken the place of the older more academic ones. Of course, colleges and universities were already bureaucratized, but it was an “academic” bureaucracy based on pyramidal principles and moderated to a degree by the recognition of tenure and some academic rights for the full-time faculties and to a lesser degree for the students.


Under this older system, there were few adjunct teachers. These have come to the fore under the new corporate model systems where economics (costs of faculty) has come to play a most vital role, where the differences between faculty and administrative salaries have become extreme, and where corporate funding and reaction is now a key player in administrative decisions.


Under this system adjuncts have virtually no rights except in those cases where they have become organized and have forced—as our union has done—changes in both compensation and working conditions. But colleges and universities are still far from democratic institutions in any meaningful sense as we find out again and again when boards of trustees make decisions that negatively affect faculties and students, disregarding their grievances and suggestions for improvements.


2. THE REDEFINITION OF STUDENTS AS CONSUMERS. Apparently all our colleges and universities are required to create a “Mission” statement. The one where I taught is typical, I’m sure, because these statements are put together after the committee members who write them have looked at any number of others.


I remember being given ours and being asked, as a member of the Academic Senate, to approve it. I remarked that it seemed to me that with a few alterations it could serve equally well as a “Mission” statement for Nabisco. I mentioned that, among other things, I had looked in vain for some reference to developing responsible citizenship. My remarks were treated by the committee members with contempt.


But this change in the definition of the students’ role can have a profound effect on the adjunct teacher’s view of their job. Under this view, it is the teacher’s job to create satisfied “customers,” as we were told several years ago by a previous college president. And since students are customers now, a major question becomes how much to charge them for tuition and fees. The answer would appear to be “as much as you can get away with.”


3. FULL-TIMERS VS. PART-TIMERS. Any part-timer that I know could tell you stories about full-timers denigrating part-timers. For many years it was the custom at my school to hire newcomers from outside and very rarely to give consideration to a part-timer. If a part-timer was hired, it was usually someone from another school. Fortunately, we have been able to change that practice, but unfortunately there are still too many full-timers who consider part-timers as less-than-equals. It is our union’s view that so long as there is a caste distinction between full-timers and part-timers there is no possibility of finding a just solution to the problem.


So we have proposed—and the California Teachers’ Federation has officially adopted its policy—the creation of a single faculty status for all teachers on a single salary and benefits schedule, whether full-time or part- time. Under this proposal, your faculty status will be the same, though your responsibilities, required duties, remuneration and benefits may differ according to the number of hours you teach. There are obviously many more topics for discussion about the question of adjuncts and full-timers and their respective roles, but our response strikes me as the best: abolish the distinction. 


Roberto Armstrong is a painter, sculptor, writer, and a retired art and language teacher with more than 50 years of teaching experience, much of it part-time.