Overcoming the Challenges of Contingent Faculty Organizing

How to organize and maintain a bargaining unit representing adjunct faculty.
By David Kociemba

Now is the time for contingent faculty organizing. The drumbeat of publicity in popular and higher education publications means that contingent faculty on your campus know not only that being a college professor is no longer an almost certain path to the middle class, but also that they are not alone. While contingent faculty are culturally middle class or elitist, they are blue collar financially. I get paid roughly what a Boston Public Schools bus driver with modest seniority makes. Contingent faculty are what I call “dirty white collar.” Outrageous loan debt, lack of promotions, and job instability have created class-consciousness and solidarity among these faculty.

Many are shocked by the idea that college faculty are no longer middle class, that there are homeless professors. Parents want to know where the money goes if not to faculty, as direct instructional expenses are usually just 30 percent of the typical institution’s budget. And schools cannot blame contingent faculty for tuition hikes (not that they can plausibly do so with tenure-line faculty either). Now is the time to organize.

The confluence of newfound solidarity among contingent faculty and public concern for their working conditions creates a unique opportunity. The AAUP got into adjunct-only unit organizing more than a decade ago with our unit, the Affiliated Faculty of Emerson College. The recent changes to the focus and structure of the AAUP ensure that the Association has the resources to get back into it more fully now. This is a growth opportunity for the AAUP. Contingent faculty are the majority faculty, but they are the least-unionized group and the one most in need of unionization. Adjunct-only units are so disenfranchised in terms of institutional governance that they are immune to Yeshiva challenges that claim private college faculty are ineligible to unionize because they play managerial roles in hiring and scheduling.

Tenure-line faculty need their contingent colleagues’ collective intelligence and people power to lighten the service load that has increased while tenure has declined over the past forty years. Tenure-line faculty need our story to appeal to the public and to the student body. Tenure is a hard sell, important but tough to explain and justify. In effect, we are all contingent labor, whether we are in the tenure-seeking process, working on one-year contracts, graduate-student teachers, tenured faculty up for promotion, teaching anything controversial, or writing with a badly phrased thought on social media in Kansas. Contingency is an academic freedom issue. And faculty both on and off the tenure track share concerns about education debt load, online education and ownership of teaching materials, the corporatization of academia, and the maintenance of high standards in the classroom. Tenure is not about special elites earning privileges. It is about the seniority privileges all competent teachers in higher education should earn quickly: job security, a living wage, training, respect in the workplace, and a voice in curriculum issues.

But many people worry about how difficult it is to organize contingent faculty. The number-one issue that has defined the Affiliated Faculty of Emerson College was a 2010 membership campaign to achieve union-shop status in order to promote stability, solidarity, and financial security. According to the terms of our contract, if we convinced 58 percent of the unit to pay union dues, everyone in the unit must join the union. We offered a fair-share provision that gave dissenting faculty in our unit the choice not to join and pay a fee to cover the costs of our representing them, for the union has a legal responsibility to represent all members of the bargaining unit. Our unit went from under 1 percent paying membership dues to nearly 70 percent in just two months. We now have 98 percent of our unit paying membership dues, with the rest paying their fair-share fee instead. We did it with four volunteers, support from national staff, and a paid local organizer long affiliated with us.

If we can do it, you can too. Organizing migrant labor is always hard, but this isn’t Harlan County, USA. If you need to, remind faculty in your unit that the more visible they are, the more protected they are against retaliation under federal law.

Your job is not done once your organizing drive is successful. As we have learned, the contingent faculty unit must take on new responsibilities, from monitoring credit-hour shenanigans to building solidarity across faculty ranks to establishing and maintaining communications with other unions. Think of our experience as a case study that you can modify to fit the realities of your campus and your unit.

One Blueprint: Person-to-Person Organizing 

Our membership drive focused on direct conversations between faculty organizers and unit faculty. Organizing has to be person-to-person to respond to the incredible variety of adjuncts. Some people in our unit feel passionately about some of the issues that I just highlighted. Some just want to be left alone to teach, and others hope to become full-time non-tenure-track faculty, a position slightly less contingent. Others are employers themselves and would disagree with much of my rhetoric. A few are independently wealthy and teach as adjuncts to keep active in semi-retirement. Some of our members have been on food stamps, and many are scraping by from paycheck to paycheck. Every summer, I send out instructions on how to claim unemployment. A 2010 survey by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce found that 69 percent of adjunct faculty respondents got their primary income as teachers. And according to a 2011 Inside Higher Ed article, Nicholas DiGiovanni, a Boston lawyer who specializes in university labor and employment issues, says that 72 percent of adjuncts work at the same college or university for six or more years.

Even adjuncts who do not depend primarily on their teaching income still need these jobs as a secondary income stream to help support a struggling business, make payments on a house, or save for their child’s college tuition. A few appreciate the way the job’s flexibility allows them to do elder care or child care. They are not going to be moved by issues like real shared governance, paid committee work, or promotion to full-time status. Not everyone is going to respond to the rhetoric of shared, institutionalized oppression simply because that is not everyone’s perception of their experience. In-person visits allow organizers to listen as well as talk, and to adapt their strategies to different circumstances.

Moreover, person-to-person organizing works. E-mail, social media, phone calls, and mailings prime the pump by fostering awareness, but they do not convince people to commit. You get them to join in person. The key reason our paid membership numbers had dropped was that we were making it hard for people to stay current. E-mail and other mailings about dues every semester were inconvenient and annoying to the membership. To mail in dues, you have to remember to sign up, have an envelope, have the form, have a stamp, have a pen, and find a mailbox. Phone calls are a personal touch, but you cannot sign up during a call. E-mail is too easy to ignore, which makes online payment schemes less efficient than you might think. There are, after all, many reasons why most businesses try to get consumers to pay bills through automatic payments.

We had a contract provision allowing for automatic dues deduction from paychecks. This is a key concession to get from the administrations: it means everything and costs them nothing more than adding some code to their payroll software. And it makes in-person visits so much easier, because faculty members do not need to have their checkbooks with them, and you can sign them up in one step, right there. But we had not been using it. Our 2010 campaign focused on getting people to sign automatic paycheck union-dues-deduction forms once, rather than every year. A number of people signed up simply for the convenience: sign once and never think about it again.

Early Steps

One key early step if you are interested in organizing a bargaining unit is to read the advice available on the AAUP Collective Bargaining Congress website (www.aaupcbc.org/get-organized) and to contact the organizing department at the AAUP. The staff gave us planning and logistics advice, sent an organizer to visit us on campus, and gave us samples of effective communications. In fact, the AAUP is now creating a contingent-faculty organizing kit.

In addition, you need to get volunteers. Just a few helping hands make for much lighter work. Do not expect many people at first, as volunteering rates tend to follow the power law curve, in which 20 percent of people do 80 percent of the work. Besides, one of the things you will tell people in your unit is that signing up for dues deduction is the one volunteer activity that you need from them this semester. Even if they do not get active, they will feel a sense of ownership.

We received some crucial advice about messaging from an active member in the marketing department: it is important to give faculty members an incentive other than duty to sign up during your membership drive. He also suggested using a random selection process to award prizes, such as gift certificates, to a few people who signed up early. At the end of the campaign, we had one big prize that anyone could win: an iPad (2010’s hot new hardware). Those who had signed up early had a chance to win three times. We also cut dues rates during the campaign.

Prior to the semester of your campaign, the chapter leaders should send out a mass e-mail message announcing what they will be doing before they do it. In our case, since our campaign focused on building membership to the point where our contract’s union-shop provisions would kick in, we mentioned the union-shop provisions in early communications with the faculty. It is not pleasant to exercise the no-rehire option for those who choose not to pay dues or fair share, but it motivates the administration to provide timely information, and it is necessary for the long-term health of the unit. Those who get the benefits of collective bargaining without risk or cost, known as “free riders,” are a big disincentive to many people when it comes to paying dues. We also offer a fair-share provision because some in our unit fear reprisal at their off-campus jobs for belonging to a union. Fairness when it comes to dues is important, but we did not mention it in print again until the end of the membership drive. We did not want the message to devolve into arguments about why compelling people to pay dues is the right thing to do. Later, messages from the chapter leadership emphasized, in general terms, that having more members leads to more leverage at the bargaining table and better semester-to-semester services. Whatever the specifics of your campaign, it is essential to be forthright about dues and other potentially divisive issues at the outset and to be prepared to talk about them in person.

Prior to the semester, it is important to plan the classroom and office visits and to create a tentative organizer schedule, then begin the visits immediately after the semester starts. Access to faculty mailing addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses is essential. If the administration does not automatically provide this information under the contract, that is a goal to achieve in bargaining—and an achievable goal since it costs nothing. (Administrators already have this information so they can contact faculty for contracts, remind them about campus events, and alert them to campus emergencies and cancellations.) If the chapter leadership does not have that information, campus contact information, classrooms, and office hours can be compiled through online directories or acquired through departmental faculty and staff. (One must, however, be careful to determine who is actually in the unit, especially if the unit is relatively new, for contingent faculty often have odd, campus-specific titles that they may share with other faculty ranks.) In addition, chapter organizers need to nail down the target number to activate union shop clauses, if there are such clauses in the contract, and to know the deadline for reporting success to the administration. It is important to identify the availability of those doing the recruiting and to recognize inopportune times to recruit, such as the first week of classes, vacations, and grading periods.

An ongoing task is finding factual information on specific issues affecting contingent faculty. Federal government regulations do not require schools to report on adjunct hiring, pay, benefits, or job conditions. The higher education industry’s lack of standardization in position titles further complicates research. Fortunately, the AAUP is a gold mine of data on industry trends, salaries, institutions, best practices in contracts, and inclusive policies and procedures. In 2012, the Association’s Committee on Contingency and the Profession issued a report on how to transition to adjunct faculty suffrage in faculty governance and to paid, protected service work. Other groups offer resources as well; chapters serving adjunct faculty should consider connecting with groups like the New Faculty Majority, the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, and other area unions of contingent faculty. Dropbox and Google Docs are cheap, easy ways to share forty-page articles on issues related to contingency; we convinced forty-seven faculty to sign up for these services in one week. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Adjunct Project” has crowd-sourced data on pay, contract provisions, and benefits. The American Federation of Teachers’ Higher Ed Data Center has an easy-to-use database of federal data breaking down the number of faculty by rank at each institution, organized by state. Most disciplinary organizations have contingent-faculty policy recommendations that can help a chapter make the case to administrators that they are managing the institution unprofessionally. An institution’s tax filings, accreditation reports, and press releases on subjects such as fundraising are all helpful in negotiating institutional policies and contracts. At public institutions, requests made under the Freedom of Information Act can also be a useful tool.

During The Semester

The chapter depends on volunteers to play several roles: a researcher to look into institutional policies and contract specifics, a phone Santa to take on phone calls to faculty, a postal worker to do mailings, a scheduler whose database organizes the organizers, a Miss Manners who thanks people for signing up, and organizers to sign faculty up. A media producer can also be a great asset.

The last step just before the semester and the membership drive begin is to phone the top fifty candidates for membership: those who have paid dues in the past, have seniority, and support the union. Talk with them about what the chapter leadership is doing and why, and then promise to mail a form to them. During the second week of classes, those who agreed to join but forgot to do so should be visited. In both instances, they will likely appreciate the personal contact, which will underscore the fact that chapter leaders are trying to make the membership process easy and personal rather than bureaucratic and impersonal.

Getting the membership campaign off to a quick and successful start sets a very positive tone and makes it easier to persuade those less inclined to become members to sign up. Cherry-picking the best initial candidates generates good word-of-mouth. It also allows canvassers, especially those new to the process, to make early mistakes to forgiving targets. Canvassers are more likely to keep doing the hard work of in-person organizing when they have a sense of momentum and receive positive reinforcement. Therefore, the organizers of a membership campaign should start each week with the group of faculty who will be most receptive to the membership pitch. Canvassers thus will be at their best when they are dealing later with the faculty members who are most difficult to persuade, most fearful, or most reluctant to become members.

After the term’s first-week deluge of fliers about campus events and administration regulations ebbs, the chapter leadership should mail out a short pitch on the benefits of membership along with a membership form, preferably in the union’s or the institution’s colors. The message should be readable at a glance, with strategic use of bold font and bullet points. Putting such messages in campus mailboxes by hand is effective, although campus mail can often be used as well. A few days later, the leadership should follow up with an e-mail message that includes the dues form as an attached file; under the best of circumstances, it will serve simply as a backup copy. That follow-up e-mail should indicate that someone representing the chapter will be dropping by during office hours or after class. Use private, noninstitutional e-mail addresses whenever possible.

Redundancy is an asset in a membership campaign, especially one targeting contingent faculty. Many contingent faculty either do not have a department mail slot, cubicle phone, or university e-mail, don not know they have these tools, or do not use them. This lack of awareness and connection is one result of working for several employers in a given semester.

The person scheduling the office visits needs to keep track of who has been visited and might need to be visited again. The daily goal is not to present a cumbersome comprehensive list but simply to identify enough targets to keep the canvassers active. Visiting after class is best because it is the most likely time when adjunct faculty members can be located. They will also be more receptive to talking after class rather than beforehand, when they may be doing last-minute prepping. Although office hours are a good secondary piece of information, they often get posted two to three weeks into the semester—and contingent faculty offices, if they exist, are often so crowded that faculty tend to use the time to do research, grade papers, or grab a bite to eat somewhere else. That said, attempting to catch adjunct faculty during their office hours is an effective use of a canvasser’s time while he or she is waiting for another block of classes to finish.

As canvassers make more contacts with contingent faculty during the course of this membership drive, there will be an increasing need for a database to track contact information, course schedules and classroom locations, office hours, and seniority status. The most important thing the database will track is the date and result of each contact made. Be sure to document who talked to the faculty member, by what means, what sort of conversation the canvasser initiated, the response from the faculty member, and the degree to which the faculty member seemed receptive to becoming a member and why. Documenting visits allows you to avoid wasting time visiting faculty members who have already given a firm yes or no; even with potentially receptive prospective members, it is preferable to let two weeks go by between contacts to avoid irritating them.

Within one week of signing up, each new or renewed member should receive an e-mail message expressing appreciation for the support that membership provides. The thank-you note should include a reminder of why membership is important, a copy of the membership form, an invitation to talk about the union with colleagues, and an offer to provide supporting materials and advice. Such a message provides closure, prevents problems in comprehension later, and provides a failsafe against database snafus. But a handful of members, perhaps just one in fifty, will spread the word informally, and that result is gold— often more effective than the leadership’s work.

A media campaign might extend throughout all of this person-to-person organizing. Whether that campaign includes posters, protest songs, or sophisticated use of social media, the messaging can reinforce the notion that membership is empowering, safe, and normal. Our chapter did not conduct a media campaign because we wanted the element of surprise with the administration and feared that the messaging would blur into the posters for other activities and events. Before devoting a great deal of time to the creation of posters, someone needs to become knowledgeable about institutional policies regarding any postings to bulletin boards and other surfaces. For digital messaging, it is important to remember that the administration may reserve the right to look through anything that ends up on its servers, even a private e-mail account that you access through campus wireless.

By the end of the first month of the membership drive, the chapter leadership ideally will have contacted faculty members by e-mail and regular mail, announced the first set of raffle winners, reminded people of upcoming raffles, announced how many faculty have already become members, and reminded faculty of the deadlines for which your chapter is responsible (for us, it was professional development grant applications). These efforts will keep the membership campaign in the forefront, remind faculty of several reasons to become members, and build trust that the union is active, organized, and competent.

Two months into the membership campaign, your print communications should consist of a shorter bullet-point list, because by this point the faculty should have received multiple communications from the chapter. The print communications should be specific about why faculty should join now, ways for chapter members to get involved, and what the chapter has done. In addition, the communications should announce the second group of raffle winners and remind recipients of the grand prize, and they should showcase solidarity and safety in numbers by noting how many faculty have become members. At this point, the nonmembers are typically the “hard cases”: the wafflers, the over-scheduled, the nitpickers, and the opposed.

Making The Pitch

Why is old-fashioned person-to-person organizing worth the time and effort? It is hard to say no to someone’s face—and that is becoming even more difficult as our social interactions become increasingly virtual. In addition, many of the conversations with potential members will include information about department affairs, information that is hard for contingent faculty to get because they are often barred from department meetings and faculty governance, shut out of faculty e-mail lists based on their rank, and poorly integrated into the social life of the campus. Since adjuncts are often totally ignored, a friendly ear and a knowing voice are a winning combination for a canvasser.

The core of this sort of campaign is a faculty member with a pen and a form in his or her hands, catching people after class and saying, “Hi, I’m with the AAUP. Do you have two to three minutes to talk about signing up with the union?” The canvasser needs to be conditioned to stop talking at this point and just listen. Sometimes the person being approached is ready to sign. In that case, doing more than asking him or her to sign the form can only undermine the faculty member’s readiness to do so. If the faculty member indicates that it is not a good time, the canvasser should say, “That’s fine,” and ask, “When would be a better time to talk?” If the faculty member says that there is no good time to talk, the canvasser should not argue the point. A rejection now saves time later, and it is best to avoid the bad word-of-mouth that results from an aggressive or argumentative sales pitch. If the faculty member is noncommittal, the canvasser should ask if there are any questions that he or she might try to answer. If the faculty member asks a general “What’s this about?” question, the canvasser should have a fifteen-second response of perhaps three sentences. Organizers will need to communicate with one another daily about their visits and results, but also about which faculty members do not keep regular office hours, who lets classes out early, and how faculty are responding to the messaging.

Canvassers are going to have to talk to people in person, often three to five times, for only about 5 percent of faculty will mail in the dues form of their own accord. But once a canvasser has done twenty in-person meetings, he or she will be hooked. We found ourselves making time to fit in one or two visits in the fifteen minutes between the classes we taught. However, we have also found that giving canvassers even a very modest stipend definitely helps morale.

General Advice and Observations

  • Always have a pen and membership forms on hand so that faculty can sign up when they are ready.
  • Wear your union pin.
  • Do not talk to faculty in front of their students.
  • Avoid talking to faculty in their classrooms. Talk to them in the hallway. Do not block exits during conversations.
  • Respect the faculty members' limits. If they have only five minutes, take less than five minutes.
  • Bring a book or some quizzes to grade. You are going to have a lot of time standing around, so get some work done.
  • Get there fifteen minutes early.
  • Take notes about what happened while it is still fresh in your mind.

Even if your chapter does not quite reach its goal in a particular campaign, it will still have gotten much closer to that goal. In our case, because we used membership forms that specified the automatic payroll deduction of dues, the memberships will roll over to the next semester—when a new campaign can begin.


Our unit had a few advantages that other units may not have: location, unit size, a comparatively successful history at the bargaining table, access to contact information, favorable faculty demographics, support from the national office, and a bit of luck. We also finessed a few challenges that other chapters may confront: a fearsome administration, the nature of contingency, and a restrictive “no-strike, no-lockout” clause. One key advantage we had was that no administrator knew what we were doing until it was too late. We had gotten the required approval for the payroll deduction of dues during the quiet summer months from a vice president who was heading out the door.

Emerson College is in downtown Boston, with a money-pit campus in Los Angeles and a castle in the Netherlands. Fortunately, we had to organize only the Boston campus! Our small campus size does not require mass communications for messaging. We could walk to every faculty member’s classroom or cubicle in less than five minutes. We also have generally around 240 members at any one time, with 20 percent turnover each semester, so we did not have the logistical challenges that other contingent faculty units might face.

The demographic advantage was significant. Emerson College is a media, communications, and liberal arts school, so we did not have the sometimes difficult task of selling professors in business, engineering, law, or medicine on unions. Indeed, two of our biggest departments, visual arts and theater, had extensive experience with unions, which meant we did not have to educate as many people on foundational union concepts.

In addition, we were leveraging a comparatively successful new contract. While many units faced severe cuts at the height of the 2009 recession, we managed to refute the administration’s claim of financial exigency at the table. With help from AAUP resources, we had read the college’s tax returns. The school had doubled its net worth during the 2000s and was unlikely to take much of a hit because of its small investment portfolio. And the administration could not balance the budget on our backs because adjunct salaries were just 2 percent of the operating budget. Indeed, that is one of the great advantages of being an adjunct-only unit: big improvements for your members are affordable to colleges and have a systemic impact on campus climate, as we are the majority of the faculty. Without giving anything up, we were able to gain a faculty development fund for adjunct faculty in return for a contract length that suited the college at a time when it was planning to transition to its first new president since 1993.

While eager to move on, the administration had a reputation for strong-arm tactics. A few years earlier, it had gone so far as to threaten to disband the campus union of tenure-line faculty by using the precedent set in the 1980 Supreme Court decision NLRB v. Yeshiva University, in which most full-time faculty members in private institutions were denied the right to pursue collective bargaining under the legal framework of the National Labor Relations Act on the grounds that they were “managerial employees.” Unfortunately, the more hard-line administration had secured a “no strike, no lockout” clause that banned handbills and leafleting, among other forms of public demonstrations. This restriction was another reason we tilted toward a person-to-person campaign.

Future Goals and Challenges

We are at the bargaining table now with the enhanced leverage granted by our membership campaign and the AAUP’s new focus on contingent faculty. We now have a highly popular, faculty-friendly African American president whose transformative impact is maximized at a college with a terrible history of tenure decisions for African American professors. Students loved his response to the Newtown school shooting, which featured heartfelt observations, a campus speaker series, and the creation of a gun-violence resource center. He drove students back to their dorms from the hospital after the Boston Marathon bombing. Some full-time faculty have wondered why we need faculty unions now. Be careful what you wish for, right?

Any student of history knows that underlying ideological and economic forces are far more important than the actions of great individuals when it comes to understanding our past. While our new Los Angeles campus is beautiful, fund-raising is at an all-time high, and the college turned a profit between $2 million to $17 million in each of the past five years, the administration still claims poverty. Although the college has been converting full-time contingent faculty positions into tenure lines and adding new lines, whether that largesse will trickle down to adjuncts is our big question. That worry is compounded by the fact that we have gone from having twenty-two graduate-student instructors to one hundred in the past five years, a troubling trend at a liberal arts college without a doctoral program. While the president has solicited input from adjunct faculty serving on his faculty advisory committee, he has negotiated personally with the tenure-line collective bargaining unit and the advocacy chapter of full-time non-tenure-track faculty, but not with us.

Last year, during the week when early-admission acceptances were due from prospective students, social media and local newspapers reported on multiple accusations that led the federal government to investigate Emerson College for Title IX violations relating to procedures for reporting sexual assault on campus. This development ended the president’s honeymoon period, especially since it led not only to reporting reforms but also to dubious investigations of faculty classroom speech, prompting a lawsuit. The slow pace of federal investigations means that this will be an ongoing disaster for the next few years.

The administration needs a big win. It may think that the win will come from “disruptive innovation,” gaining post-tenure review, or online education. We think it will come from a transformative collective bargaining contract with the campus’s majority faculty, who teach 47 percent of the classes. Whether the administrators want to raise teaching quality or increase student satisfaction, they cannot do it without us. While many people think that hiring adjunct faculty is about retaining control, administrators have virtually no idea what happens in adjunct classrooms. I have had two classroom observations in fourteen years at five colleges and universities; I had more than that in my first week teaching sixth graders to play Dungeons and Dragons at a summer camp. It often seems as though the only people who care about the performance of adjunct faculty are the union leaders who provide their members with articles on pedagogy. The only way administrators can get transformative change cheaply is with improvements in adjunct faculty pay, benefits, and working conditions. In many cities across the country, the labor market is being transformed because of citywide organizing, which means that even “good administrations” will not have that competitive advantage in hiring for long.

One goal might be to reduce contingency through due process rights in rehiring and opt-in paths to permanent adjunct positions, full-time, or even teaching-intensive tenure. Another path would be favorably defining the credit hour so that each hour in the classroom is acknowledged as requiring two or three hours worked in preparation for the purposes of eligibility for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which is a massive boon to college professors that costs administrations nothing. (Find out more at the Academe Blog: see “The Fight to Get Your Education Loans Forgiven Is On!,” posted November 4, 2013.) Perhaps paid training, service work, and mentoring are things an administration can get behind. What business does not train or observe its employees? Is academia corporate only when it is convenient? Perhaps you can get a better administration by demanding the right to anonymous review of chairs and deans by contingent faculty and staff or anonymous exit interviews for adjuncts not rehired. Then administrators would treat everyone as a constituency to be courted.

This is what “disruptive innovation” should look like on your campus.

David Kociemba is the president of the Affiliated Faculty of Emerson College AAUP chapter and the chair of the AAUP’s Committee on Contingency and the Profession. His e-mail address is david.kociemba@gmail.com.

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