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Adjunct professors join steelworkers, auto workers to get organized

Non-tenure track and adjunct professors used to be the minority on college and university campuses. But now they're the majority. And, since they do not get benefits and have little or no job security, more and more are joining unions. Right now faculty (non-tenure track and adjunct) in D.C., Maryland, Ohio, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Washington State are organizing. And, they're joining forces with surprising partners -- unions not traditionally affiliated with education.

Tenure and non-tenure track professors haven't always gotten along.

"I've worked in places where I've walked down the hall and had full time faculty members just walk past me and not even look at me," says Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a non-profit that works with non-tenure faculty. "Let's not even talk about talking about curriculum issues and trying to work together as colleagues... A caste system is how some people have actually described it."
 
That system is one reason Maisto says as more part time and adjunct professors have joined unions they have avoided the ones that are traditionally academic. In Pittsburgh, they've joined the Steelworkers Union. In New York, it's autoworkers, and in D.C., it's the Service Employees.

Kip Lornell, an adjunct professor at George Washington University, says when non-tenure professors at his school organized, they approached the American Federation of Teachers.
 
"We figured let's go to someplace that already represents teachers," he says. "We spoke with them and their reaction was that sounds interesting and that was the extent of their interest."

But Richard Boris, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, says teachers unions may have simply been caught off gaurd.
 
"It's not that they were uneager, they didn't understand what was happening," he says. What was happening, Boris says, was part time and adjunct professors were taking over the profession. Traditionally 75 percent of teaching was done by full timers but the numbers have switched.

"This process occurred over the last15 years, in such small increments that no one quite figured out it was happening," Boris says.
 
But they've figured it out now. New Faculty Majority's Maria Maisto says traditional teachers unions are starting to welcome non-tenured members with open arms.

Editor's note: In addition to her reporting on Marketplace, Sally Herships is also an adjunct professor.
 

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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