Why My Fellow Adjuncts and I Decided To Form a Union at Our Community College

Luke NieblerJuly 28, 2015

"We are teetering at the edge of major changes in the structure and future of higher education in the United States. Faculty must have a voice in creating a sustainable, just education system, both for us and future generations of students."

On my first day teach­ing at the Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege of Alleghe­ny Coun­ty in Pitts­burgh, I was wracked with the nor­mal anx­i­eties of a new col­lege instruc­tor: What if the stu­dents don’t like me? What if my les­son plan falls apart? Where exact­ly is the copy machine? What if my hair looks stupid?

How­ev­er, as I adjust­ed to life as an adjunct instruc­tor with a semes­ter-to-semes­ter con­tract, my ques­tions quick­ly changed: What if my class­es don’t run and I can’t make rent? How do I get from class to my next job in time? How do I meet with stu­dents with­out real office space?

After years of orga­niz­ing, we have won our union elec­tion, and hope­ful­ly I can get back to wor­ry­ing more about les­son plans than my finan­cial sta­bil­i­ty. On July 14, 86% of my col­leagues vot­ed to form a union with the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (AFT), effec­tive­ly union­iz­ing over 800 instruc­tors across CCAC’s four cam­pus­es. And while this is only the first step before we head to the bar­gain­ing table, it rep­re­sents a huge vic­to­ry for aca­d­e­m­ic labor and con­tin­gent faculty.

The road to the elec­tion was long, start­ing through casu­al office dis­cus­sions in 2012. From then, we began to form a rela­tion­ship with the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers, who were then orga­niz­ing adjunct fac­ul­ty at Point Park Uni­ver­si­ty and Duquesne Uni­ver­si­ty. After some dis­cus­sion, we then chose to be rep­re­sent­ed by the AFT, which has rep­re­sent­ed the full time fac­ul­ty at CCAC since 1971. With the help of our full time col­leagues, we then put our nose to the grind­stone and tracked down hun­dreds of our cowork­ers scat­tered through­out West­ern Penn­syl­va­nia. Two years and count­less phone calls, house calls and hall­way con­ver­sa­tions lat­er, we have full recog­ni­tion as mem­bers of a union.

Although the adjuncts at CCAC have tried to orga­nize in the past, our dri­ve flour­ished because of a few key fac­tors. First, the chang­ing polit­i­cal cli­mate over the past few years has brought adjunct labor issues to the front of many people’s minds. Espe­cial­ly in Pitts­burgh, the death of Mar­garet Mary Vojtko at Duquesne Uni­ver­si­ty pro­vid­ed a trag­ic exam­ple of adjunct exploita­tion and kicked off a nation­al con­ver­sa­tion. As I spoke to my col­leagues, they were aware of the larg­er pic­ture and how the cor­po­ra­ti­za­tion of high­er edu­ca­tion has mar­gin­al­ized fac­ul­ty. Many instruc­tors were excit­ed to hear that we could band togeth­er to improve our work­ing con­di­tions and have a real voice in the life of the college.

Sec­ond, the nation­al move­ment to union­ize con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty was instru­men­tal in our orga­niz­ing effort. The work of adjuncts in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. area, St. Louis, Boston, Philadel­phia and across the coun­try pro­vid­ed us with valu­able lessons as we talked to cowork­ers, com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and stu­dents over the past three years. The momen­tum of adjunct orga­niz­ing inspired us as we watched our friends at Duquesne fight a hos­tile admin­is­tra­tion and as we fol­lowed George Wash­ing­ton University’s suc­cess­es at the bar­gain­ing table. Dur­ing the cam­paign, we were bol­stered by mes­sages from the Unit­ed Aca­d­e­mics of Philadel­phia, who are fight­ing a tough cam­paign against the admin­is­tra­tion at Tem­ple Uni­ver­si­ty. Through­out our union dri­ve, the nation­al move­ment showed us time and time again that union­iz­ing was pos­si­ble and essen­tial to reclaim­ing our val­ue as work­ers and educators.

Third, the sup­port we received from the larg­er com­mu­ni­ty was invalu­able as we moved to the elec­tion. No one can live or orga­nize in a vac­u­um. The full-time fac­ul­ty union pro­vid­ed essen­tial sup­port to us, and the mem­bers have helped us build a strong work­ing rela­tion­ship with the college’s admin­is­tra­tion. Amaz­ing­ly, CCAC’s admin­is­tra­tion has not thrown any road­blocks our way, choos­ing instead to respect the voic­es of fac­ul­ty at the col­lege. This spir­it of col­lab­o­ra­tion has been aid­ed at every step of the way by our team of AFT orga­niz­ers, oth­er union allies and even friends in the admin­is­tra­tion. This coali­tion of sup­port­ers will be essen­tial as we fight for our needs at the bar­gain­ing table and work as mem­bers of the CCAC community.

The bar­ri­ers to orga­niz­ing adjuncts are real and dif­fi­cult to over­come. We often don’t know our cowork­ers, we are decen­tral­ized and our lack of secu­ri­ty cre­ates a per­va­sive fear among adjuncts. How­ev­er, the only way that we will be able to fight for increased pay, greater job secu­ri­ty and a voice in the col­lege is by work­ing collectively.

We are tee­ter­ing at the edge of major changes in the struc­ture and future of high­er edu­ca­tion in the Unit­ed States. Fac­ul­ty — those of us who are most con­cerned with stu­dents’ well being — must have a voice in cre­at­ing a sus­tain­able, just edu­ca­tion sys­tem, both for us and future gen­er­a­tions of students.

Of course, this is only the begin­ning. So far, we’ve only won the legal right to bar­gain col­lec­tive­ly, and the real work of build­ing a con­tract is only start­ing. How­ev­er, the rela­tion­ships we have built through the process will give us pow­er to advo­cate for a stronger, sus­tain­able and more just edu­ca­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty. And hope­ful­ly, we’ll be able to help push the move­ment for­ward as oth­er groups of adjuncts across the coun­try seize pow­er in their work­places and make their voic­es heard.

Luke Niebler is an Eng­lish adjunt instruc­tor at Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege of Alleghe­ny Coun­ty, PItts­burgh, an activist among his cowork­ers and an aca­d­e­m­ic. You can fol­low the CCAC adjunct move­ment at @CCAC_adjuncts
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