Organizing in the Noncommunity Community College

Building AAUP chapters against the odds.
By Caprice Lawless

Oh!” said the math teacher waiting in line to use the copier. “You’re one of the candy people!” She had become suddenly animated after noticing the AAUP pin on the lapel of Melinda Myrick, the president of the Front Range Community College AAUP chapter. The math teacher was referring, of course, to the colorful packages of “Vitamin AAUP” that we leave in classrooms and offices around campus—tiny bags of M&Ms with labels explaining what the AAUP stands for and how to become an AAUP member. She introduced herself to Myrick, and thus another important contact was made.

This interchange, and the story behind it, epitomize how the AAUP chapters of the Colorado Community College System organize adjunct faculty, against all odds. Adjuncts make up 80 percent of the total faculty at CCCS, but only 11 percent of the budget goes toward adjunct pay. Despite our numbers, adjunct faculty are scattered and isolated, making organizing difficult.

The working conditions for adjunct faculty and the obstacles to organizing on CCCS campuses may provide a glimpse into the dystopian future that awaits similarly situated faculty at other higher education institutions. System administrators assert the right to control every word on every wall in campus buildings. Classroom and hallway walls are for paint, not posters. Bulletin boards are controlled by department chairs. Our once-hectic and charmingly shabby mailrooms, where we used to share gossip and make friends, are gone. Adjunct faculty mailboxes are now file folders behind an administrative assistant’s desk, in a separate room from the spacious mail cubbies for full-time faculty members. We must ask for our mail, and, because our college system has determined that AAUP organizing is political activity, we are prohibited from leaving messages about the AAUP in our colleagues’ folders. Some CCCS campus officials have told us that, if we want to use a hallway table to promote AAUP membership, we have to secure a $250 insurance policy for commercial vendors. We can send email messages to faculty peers only from our personal accounts.

We prepare for class in “adjunct workrooms” lined with counters, where all the keyboards face the walls and the photocopiers are moody, where working staplers briefly appear, then disappear. Signs outside many of these workrooms warn that students are not allowed inside; if we want to meet with a student, our options include an empty classroom, the cafeteria, a coffee shop, or our cars. Sometimes a staffer is in the workroom, sometimes not; we have no hot coffee and no phones. Official signs remind us that unofficial signs cannot be posted on the walls. Laminated notices explain how to evacuate the building in case of catastrophe and list numbers to call for help, provided you need help between nine and four o’clock, Monday to Thursday. If you teach at night, or on Saturday, there is no help coming.

Communicating with adjunct faculty members in this setting is daunting. Our tools, therefore, are unusual. Our events are quirky. We deploy an arsenal of peanuts, M&Ms, empty milk cartons, tissue boxes, miniature pumpkins, chocolate-chip cookies, bookmarks, strings of holiday lights, tea towels, cans of beans, used DVDs, coloring books, cookbooks, cheap felt, and a toy microscope. Our events began as simple potlucks in living rooms at our homes, but today we hold formal and informal meetings at the state capitol; in brewpubs; on coffee shop patios; in libraries, community centers, former ghost towns, and city parks; and in the poker room at the Denver Press Club.

We can’t charge chapter dues because our wages are below the poverty level. We can’t pay for meeting space or catering. Soon after we formed our first chapter, we published The Adjunct Cookbook, and then The Adjunct Coloring Book, to raise funds for and awareness of our AAUP chapters. Our chapter members are devoted, quick on their feet, and extraordinarily sincere. What’s more, we have behind us the mighty Colorado AAUP conference—whose leaders drive long distances to meet with us, help us research labor laws and legislative tactics, work with lawmakers to advance legislation in our interest, and coach us on AAUP policy—as well as the national AAUP. Consequently, we’ve gone from having a handful of AAUP members at one college to having a network of members at multiple colleges in the CCCS. Our lobbying efforts have launched legislation that would have required equal faculty pay for equal faculty work. We turn heads, change minds, snag headlines, and dog administrators.

How have we built so much with so little? Our approach to advocacy organizing for adjunct faculty might be described as “guerrilla marketing”; with so many of the usual avenues for building community closed off to us, we have had to develop creative, unconventional ways to reach our faculty colleagues and wield our collective strength. We aren’t expert labor organizers but ordinary adjunct faculty members who, like you, find ourselves in one of the biggest and most important movements in the history of US higher education. The ideas below have worked for our chapters, and they may work for yours as well.

The Faculty Un-Service

To recover from the soul-crushing, fall-semester in-service, we usually host an AAUP Un-Service at the historic Denver Press Club. (The Colorado AAUP conference purchases an annual $250 membership at the club so that we have a dignified place to meet, where any of us can have fun for just the cost of a drink.) At this event, we un-celebrate the start of another academic year for some of Colorado’s best teachers—us! Every year is different. One year we made a homely cornhole game from a cardboard box, the openings marked with salaries of administrators, full-time faculty, and adjunct faculty. What the game lacked in beauty it compensated for in the interest players took in it once we set it up in the club’s back room. The game grew louder and funnier as the night wore on and the cardboard grew increasingly unsteady. This drew the attention of a few people seated at the bar across the room, none of whom worked in higher education but all of whom soon became friends of the AAUP. One of them, on his way to the loo, stopped to chat and introduce himself. He was the news director at a local TV station. You never know when a friend like that might be helpful later on, down the rocky road we tread.

We usually pass around misfortune cookies at these events. (To make them, type a list of wacky fortunes like, “You will teach several classes for an unacceptably low wage. Your AAUP friends will make the semester bearable.” Roll these up tightly. Purchase a box of inexpensive fortune cookies, unpack them, use tweezers to insert the misfortunes, then put them all back into the box.) Each attendee pulls a misfortune cookie from the box and reads aloud the fortune and the misfortune. We toast both messages. Making the misfortunes ahead of time eats up an afternoon, but opening them like that down at the club at the start of the term, when you need genuine encouragement from real friends, might well be the very definition of fortune!

Project Gesundheit

In February, our administration publishes the annual audit of CCCS, something we want to share with our faculty colleagues because they need to know how our college system has spent its funds. Few of them have the time, however, to read long reports. We consider educating one another about our own college system a critical part of our work as activists. We need a disarming way to put out some of that news, at least. By that time of year, most of us have head colds—students come to school sick, and germs are such opportunists! The college is too cheap to pay us sick leave or to buy tissue boxes to put in the classrooms.

This type of mess is organizing gold. We pull together the most startling financial facts, print them, and tape them to blank, generic tissue boxes. We then plant our sixty-nine-cent, tissue-box “publications” with highlights from the annual audit in classrooms across campus. Those tissue boxes stay in the classrooms for weeks because faculty and students need the tissues. With each sneeze, we get the AAUP word out, so to speak. With each sneeze, as well, our peers get the low-down on where our college is, literally, stashing $20 million a year while telling the public and us that they are broke. It’s enough to make your eyes water.

The Damn It! Summit

By year’s end, we’re all exhausted by the work, lack of support, lack of funds, and, most important, lack of fun. We need to blow off steam and to reconnect, so we created the Damn It! Summit. We ask attendees to send us one-line curses about all those little and big slights endured and collected during the year. The only challenge is choosing the worst one from among so many! We print these and set them around the club before everyone arrives. We like reading them aloud while sipping drinks and raising a toast both to the curse and to the author of the curse. It’s cathartic. Participants prepare ahead of time and are ready to read aloud their brief, bad stories about work that semester. After we listen to them, one by one, we vote on our favorites using paper ballots. We then bestow first-, second-, and third-place awards for Best Worst Stories about Work. Each award comes with a prize—something adjunct faculty want and can’t afford to buy but will enjoy, like gourmet pasta, snacks, coasters, or beer mugs. Pens, staplers, paper clips, and other things that look or smell like work have no place at the Damn It! Summit.

Winter Break Unemployment Workshops

In 2017, we put together a workbook that explains how adjunct faculty can apply for unemployment benefits directly following the end of classes in December. Just as the holiday season was settling in, we held workshops in three cities in the Denver area to help faculty members at several CCCS colleges with the application process. After a month of appeals to our initial applications, only three of the fifty who applied ultimately received any of the meager unemployment benefits. Even in the darkest, coldest, paycheck-free months of adjunct faculty winter, our smug, ski-lodge lounging administrators proved that Ebenezer Scrooge was just a rank amateur.

This sad episode has had a strange epilogue, however. By getting so many adjunct faculty together, we built camaraderie among faculty who did not previously know one another or know about our AAUP chapters. It was as if we had all been abandoned and were holed up in the same remote cabin, just as the worst blizzard of the year descended. We were snowed in together, metaphorically, for that long, dark month of hoping, of nonstop correspondence, appeal-writing, and phone calls. Those faculty members who suffered from having their claims denied may not have known about our AAUP chapters before our workshops. They do now. They know we care, they know how hard we fought for them, and now they have an altogether different view of our parsimonious CCCS administration.

Un-Celebrating A “Pay Raise”

The first year our administration gave adjunct faculty members a “pay raise” of $4.80 a week, six-figure administrator salaries were jumping 30 to 50 percent. We were devastated, and we planned to meet at the club. We invited peers to bring items they might purchase with their windfall of $4.80: a couple of cans of baked beans, a photo of one tooth that they might have cleaned, a snapshot of two manicured fingers, a photo of a deluxe burrito from a taco truck, a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread, or a used DVD, for example. We set up a display of the assorted $4.80 items brought by attendees on a spare table and decorated it with a string of festive holiday lights. We invited the press to the event as well. Luckily for us, our uncelebration piqued the interest of a local reporter, who photographed our lowly display. Thus, we snagged a headline in the local news magazine. (That same investigative reporter later did a front-page story on our situation when the AAUP censured the Community College of Aurora for its dismissal of our colleague Nathanial Bork.)

The next time the administrators gave themselves big raises and tossed us another $4.80 a week, we asked adjunct faculty members to bring their pay stubs with them to the annual meeting of the Colorado AAUP conference. We set up a toy microscope at a long table. One at a time, we photographed faculty peering through the eye piece, trying to locate the microscopic raises on their pay stubs. We sent those photos, along with a stinging caption, to our media contacts and posted it on our Facebook page and our website.

The Adjunct Index

Every other year, we publish The Adjunct Index, a takeoff on the monthly index published in Harper’s. We post the list on our website; send it to chapter members, lawmakers, the press, and our supporters in the higher education community; and post it inside microwaves and refrigerators on campus, where adjunct faculty members pressed for time will see it. Some tell us that reading The Adjunct Index is what helped them decide to join the AAUP. The facts in it shine a bright light through the thick smokescreen of bloviated administrivia clogging our hallways and college web pages.

Fear Factor

We’ve hosted many other events, such as the Adjunct Health Care Fair, a community-college-focused Summer Institute, a series of “adjunct survival” workshops, food-bank visits, a pilot Campus Equity Week tailgate party, a series of regional pub crawls, and numerous holiday-themed Scrabble games and potluck suppers. We’ve placed countless crossword puzzles, bookmarks, newsletters, fliers, and sweets in adjunct workrooms. We’ve learned to think outside the classroom, the conference room, and the other expected frames of faculty work.

We have fun, but there is an avalanche of fear tumbling all around us as we organize—and because we organize. The faculty majority in our community college system does not feel welcome on our campuses; too many are afraid to advocate for better working conditions, and, in most cases, even to be seen socializing with other faculty members. Our noncommunity community college system runs on fear—of retaliation, of job loss—instead of freedom. Of course, that is wrong. And thanks to the organizing work of AAUP members like us, the situation is beginning to change. My colleagues and I know one another better now, and we look out for one another.

Here is our advice to others trying to organize against similar overwhelming odds: Make it easy for your peers to get to know who you are, what you are up to, and where you are meeting next. Sometimes you have to start small, with a package of M&Ms, a box of tissues, or an AAUP bookmark. Most adjunct faculty members, especially, survive by keeping a low profile, by commenting under their breath about how awful their working conditions are and pretending to be laid back. Be visible in small ways, if you must. Offer playful ways for peers to move from awful-izing to organizing and to rise from laid-backtivism to activism.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Academe Blog.

Caprice Lawless is second vice president of the AAUP. She teaches English at Front Range Community College and is a member of the Denver Press Club.