Organizing the New Contingent Majority

By Joe Berry

Professors in the Gig Economy: Unionizing Adjunct Faculty in America by Kim Tolley, ed. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.

Professors in the Gig Economy is a valuable addition to the too-small library of books on contingent faculty and graduate employee unionism. The book’s focus on the organizing process puts it in even more rarified company. It enters the truly charmed center of the circle because it was edited by a teacher, Kim Tolley, who herself recently had the life-changing experience of helping to organize her own workplace, Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California. Tolley’s experience makes her particularly well qualified to edit such a book, especially since organizing a bargaining unit of both tenure-track and contingent faculty at a private university is very unusual in American higher education. Her own two chapters, one on the story of the Notre Dame organizing, written with Maryanne Delaporte and Lorenzo Giachetti, and the other a cogent conclusion to the book, written with Kristen Edwards, provide excellent supporting pillars for the rest of the material.

Tolley’s story and the stories of her coauthors are particularly important to this reviewer, and not only because I have written on the same topics and live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Thirtyfive years ago, in the late 1980s, a group of faculty from Notre Dame de Namur contacted the California Federation of Teachers and me—at the time I served as the executive secretary of their closest higher education local, the San Mateo Community College Federation of Teachers Local 1493—about the possibility of organizing. As a too bureaucratically rigid union staffer, I merely passed this inquiry on (as was the standard procedure) to those in charge of organizing at the state level. Nothing further was heard of the effort. I imagine that someone uttered the following deadly words: “It’s private sector, it’s really tiny, with Yeshiva it can’t be done.” My personal failure to pursue this opportunity in spite of union protocol has bothered me ever since. So I am particularly pleased to be able to read Tolley’s story and recommend it, and the book that it sparked, to the widest possible readership.

As in many other pieces of writing, from books to articles to movie scripts to songs, social context and history, and what is left out, are crucial. The successful organizing drive at Notre Dame de Namur took place in the wake of the 1980 Yeshiva decision, which defined full-time tenure-track private-sector faculty as managers and therefore outside the protection of federal labor law, the National Labor Relations Act. Faculty on contingent appointments, of course, are not covered by this decision, but the major higher education unions largely ignored them, since by themselves they were hard to organize and could pay only minimal dues, and since—generally speaking—representing them is a precarious pain in the neck.

Professors in the Gig Economy comes out in the context of the first massive attempt to organize contingent faculty in private higher education, in this case by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a nontraditional union in the higher education sector. SEIU is the union that supported the organizing at Notre Dame de Namur; it is also working with faculty at other religiously affiliated institutions, like Georgetown University, Seattle University, and Pacific Lutheran University, as well as at Mills College in Oakland and perhaps a hundred other institutions nationally. The Pacific Lutheran campaign has given rise to a favorable National Labor Relations Board decision that revises the criteria for applying both Yeshiva and the historic religious institution exemption. (This decision, of course, may be overturned either by the new board or by the Supreme Court.)

Like most edited volumes, Tolley’s is uneven. This book is perhaps more uneven than most, but one can only speculate about the political and editorial judgments that were made in selecting what to include.

In addition to the chapters directly cowritten by Tolley, the chapter by Timothy Reese Cain stands out. It is probably the best short history of activism and organizing among contingent faculty and graduate student employees that has been written. Cain’s chapter is distinctive in a couple of important ways. First, he avoids many of the common errors that other authors of summary articles on this topic have made. He did the archival and secondary-source research diligently and, unlike many writers, when he says something was “the first,” he gets it right—it really was the first. Even I, a longtime student of higher education unionism, found myself surprised that Cain got some things right that are often gotten wrong. I learned more than a few things from his work.

Two examples will suffice. One was his discussion of the first faculty union in higher education and the importance of its being in the American Federation of Teachers and at one of the leading historically black institutions, Howard University. He understands its significance despite the short time that it survived, and he describes in detail the reasons why it was so short-lived. Cain also tells the story of the first graduate employee union to have a written contract—at the University of California, Berkeley, on the heels of the Free Speech Movement in 1964—which is almost always left out of the history of the graduate employee movement. In general, Cain draws the often ignored but important lines between the social movements that were occurring at a particular time and how they affected the campuses and the resultant attempts to unionize faculty and graduate student employees over more than a century. He also does not shy away from describing in an even-handed but clearly prounion way the political struggles within unions at national and local levels, showing how they affected the unions’ success or failure in organizing contingents and other faculty. His retrospective focus on the contingent majority sets his brief history apart from other faculty unionism surveys.

On the other hand, Elizabeth K. Davenport’s chapter, “Unions, Shared Governance, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” has almost nothing to say about unions or contingent faculty. It would sit comfortably in a collection on the challenges of shared governance at historically black colleges and universities, but why it is in this book is a mystery to me.

Other chapters worthy of note are the informative case studies of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Shawn Gilmore), the City University of New York (Luke Elliott-Negri), Georgetown University (Nicholas M. Wertsch and Joseph A. McCartin), and California State University, East Bay (Kim Geron and Gretchen M. Reevy). Combined tenure-track and non-tenure-track organizing, like that at Notre Dame de Namur, took place on all of these campuses except Georgetown. The issues and problems in this collaboration are well examined. Interestingly, in two of these examples—the California Faculty Association in the CSU system and the Professional Staff Congress in CUNY—major leadership changes and virtual local revolutions were necessary before the unions began to represent their contingent majority effectively. Gregory M. Saltzman’s chapter on union organizing and the law is useful, though the legal terrain for collective bargaining is becoming more hostile by the day.

Some chapters seem to suffer from what some of us in the movement have come to call “the tenured gaze” or “the tenured blind spot.” The issues, questions, and concerns of contingent faculty themselves and the problems they face in acting upon them, as well as the problems of their daily lives, do not always come to the fore to the extent that one would hope. This could be partly because the majority of the sixteen contributors appear to be tenured or tenure-track faculty members or outside consultants. The fact that the majority of the voices represented in the book are from the tenured and tenure-track minority distorts the broader picture, even when the authors have the best of intentions and come from institutions where tenure-track and contingent faculty organized together. The book fails to foreground sufficiently the subjective realities of the contingent majority. The very lack of job security that is the book’s focus—“the gig economy”—is itself a problem that hinders the discourse of which this book is a part: without job security, very few contingents feel free to speak their own complete truth, as they see it, in public or even to tenure-track and tenured colleagues. It is simply too risky.

A similar weakness of the book overall is that it ignores the majority of those contingents—namely those who teach in community colleges. The focus is almost exclusively on four-year institutions, places where the PhD is coming to be the passport to any job at all. The majority of community college faculty, even today, hold only master’s degrees. The contingent majority among them, overwhelmingly “part-timers,” is the largest single group among the million-plus contingent faculty members working today in the United States. To ignore that fact is to limit unnecessarily the potential impact of this very fine book.

Joe Berry is author of Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education and editor of the news aggregator COCAL Updates for the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor. He is a former member of the AAUP’s Committee on Contingency and the Profession and currently serves on the boards of the New Faculty Majority and AFT 2121 at City College of San Francisco. His email address is

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