Equal Work Deserves Equal Pay, Say UMass Amherst Professors

Jeff Schuhrke January 29, 2014

Nearly 50 people, including Massachusetts Society of Professors President Randy Phillis (L), withstood freezing temperatures outside the University of Massachusetts-Amherst administration building on Friday to support adjunct professors seeking inclusion in the faculty union. (Jeff Schuhrke)

Amidst of a wave of recent cam­paigns to orga­nize con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty at uni­ver­si­ties around the coun­try, about 50 peo­ple braved sin­gle-dig­it tem­per­a­tures on Fri­day out­side the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Amherst admin­is­tra­tion build­ing to ral­ly in sup­port of a group of adjuncts seek­ing union representation.

Instruc­tors with the university’s Con­tin­u­ing and Pro­fes­sion­al Edu­ca­tion (CPE) unit — a par­al­lel cam­pus unit offer­ing both online and in-per­son cours­es to tra­di­tion­al and non­tra­di­tion­al stu­dents — are aim­ing for accre­tion,” a legal maneu­ver that would allow them to join the fac­ul­ty union on cam­pus and be cov­ered under the same contract.

The effort is being spear­head­ed by the Mass­a­chu­setts Soci­ety of Pro­fes­sors (MSP), a Mass­a­chu­setts Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion-affil­i­at­ed union that rep­re­sents about 1,400 fac­ul­ty mem­bers and librar­i­ans at UMass Amherst, includ­ing the major­i­ty of the university’s near­ly 500 adjunct (non-tenure-track) pro­fes­sors. But many CPE instruc­tors are cur­rent­ly exclud­ed, with tan­gi­ble effects: While the union­ized adjunct instruc­tors make a min­i­mum of $6,400 per course and receive health ben­e­fits, non-union instruc­tors at CPE make a min­i­mum of only $3,200 per course and get no benefits.

Accord­ing to UMass Amherst’s web­site, CPE is designed to offer uni­ver­si­ty cours­es on a more flex­i­ble sched­ule to adults and work­ing pro­fes­sion­als, in addi­tion to stu­dents design­ing their own majors. And instruc­tors who have taught both through CPE and direct­ly through the uni­ver­si­ty say that though the pay and ben­e­fits are dif­fer­ent, the work is not. I teach the exact same class­es online through CPE that I teach on cam­pus,” says an instruc­tor, who asked not to be iden­ti­fied for fear of retal­i­a­tion. It’s the same class­es, the same work effort, the same intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty, often­times the same set of stu­dents, admin­is­tered by the same depart­ment, get­ting cred­it in the same degree, with funds com­ing back to the same uni­ver­si­ty — and yet all that work is not on the same union membership.”

Though some of CPE’s class­es are taught in per­son, most are taught online. Pro­fes­sors point out, how­ev­er, that online instruc­tion is by no means eas­i­er. Eliz­a­beth Sharpe, who has taught a his­to­ry course online through CPE since last year, stress­es that teach­ing online requires the same amount of per­son­al atten­tion for stu­dents as a tra­di­tion­al on-cam­pus class, if not more. I get to know the stu­dents very well because they have to pro­duce so much. It’s very time con­sum­ing for the pro­fes­sor to be there all the time,” she says. I’ll spend the bet­ter part of the day read­ing [essays] and reply­ing to each stu­dent, because you’ve got to write every­thing out [as opposed to speak­ing with stu­dents in per­son]. It’s a very per­son­al approach.”

In addi­tion to the $3,200 per course min­i­mum, non-union CPE teach­ers are paid accord­ing to a step rate based on the num­ber of stu­dents enrolled in each class. MSP orga­niz­ers argue this sys­tem is sim­i­lar to piece work, in which work­ers are paid based on the units they pro­duce — a pay scheme more typ­i­cal of over­seas gar­ment fac­to­ries than U.S. pro­fes­sion­al sec­tors. Right now, I have 11 stu­dents. But if I had 12, I’d be paid [about] a thou­sand dol­lars more,” Sharpe says. It’s very arbitrary.”

The MSP says the num­ber of CPE class­es — about 225 out of a total 3,000 offered by the uni­ver­si­ty — has grown tremen­dous­ly” in recent years. There are now required, cred­it-bear­ing cours­es for some on-cam­pus majors offered exclu­sive­ly through CPE, which the union says rep­re­sents the out­sourc­ing” of uni­ver­si­ty instruc­tion to low­er-paid workers.

And because they’re part of a sep­a­rate cam­pus unit, these class­es usu­al­ly include addi­tion­al ser­vice and cur­ricu­lum fees beyond those already charged to full-time stu­dents. This, says MSP Pres­i­dent Ran­dall Phillis, gen­er­ates con­sid­er­able income for the uni­ver­si­ty, but adds to the debt bur­den of stu­dents tak­ing these courses.”

This is the Wal­mar­ti­za­tion of the uni­ver­si­ty,” Phillis adds. The admin­is­tra­tion has set up a two-tier sys­tem where some cours­es are deliv­ered as stan­dard parts of the cur­ricu­lum, but are done so by instruc­tors paid only half-price.”

Accord­ing to the MSP, there are cur­rent­ly 229 CPE instruc­tors. Nine­ty-six of them also cur­rent­ly teach tra­di­tion­al cours­es on cam­pus and are there­fore part of the MSP bar­gain­ing unit, while anoth­er 34 are grad­u­ate stu­dents and mem­bers of the Grad­u­ate Employ­ee Orga­ni­za­tion (GEO), part of UAW Local 2322. But the 99 instruc­tors who teach direct­ly and exclu­sive­ly for CPE lack any rep­re­sen­ta­tion whatsoever.

Ear­li­er this month, the MSP approached the UMass admin­is­tra­tion to for­mal­ly request that these 99 non-union CPE instruc­tors be allowed into the unit. The admin­is­tra­tion refused, telling the union they did not agree that the instruc­tors share a com­mu­ni­ty of inter­est” with union­ized fac­ul­ty — the lit­mus test for form­ing a sin­gle bar­gain­ing unit.

I don’t real­ly under­stand that log­ic,” says Sharpe, who pre­vi­ous­ly taught a tra­di­tion­al course on cam­pus. I’m the same per­son, I’ve taught both, and my com­mu­ni­ty of inter­est hasn’t changed.”

Even more puz­zling, the union says, is that at the university’s sis­ter cam­pus, UMass Boston, Con­tin­u­ing Edu­ca­tion instruc­tors are already eli­gi­ble to be part of the same bar­gain­ing unit as the rest of the fac­ul­ty. Con­sid­er­ing the sim­i­lar­i­ties between that pro­gram and CPE, this dis­crep­an­cy in pol­i­cy makes no sense to us at all,” says MSP orga­niz­er Ferd Wulkan.

In an email, UMass spokesper­son Ed Bla­guszews­ki tells Work­ing In These Times that fur­ther infor­ma­tion [on why the uni­ver­si­ty does not rec­og­nize a shared com­mu­ni­ty of inter­est] will be shared as part of the state process to review the accre­tion petition.”

In response to the university’s refusal, the MSP orga­nized last Friday’s ral­ly. Both union and non-union fac­ul­ty, as well as grad­u­ate-stu­dent union mem­bers and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of West­ern Mass Jobs with Jus­tice, gath­ered to deliv­er the mes­sage, as MSP orga­niz­er Bri­an Pick­ett put it: Here we are as a com­mu­ni­ty of inter­est and here we are as an inter­est­ed community.”

Though many non-union CPE instruc­tors were on-hand, most pre­ferred to remain anony­mous, fear­ing reprisal from the uni­ver­si­ty. After all, as con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty, they must be reap­point­ed every semes­ter, and the admin­is­tra­tion can choose not to invite them back. This is what hap­pened last year to Ellen Mar­tins, pres­i­dent of UMass Lowell’s recent­ly formed adjunct union, who had taught at the uni­ver­si­ty for 28 years before sud­den­ly being told she would not be reap­point­ed. (After alle­ga­tions of ille­gal retal­i­a­tion and a statewide cam­paign on Mar­tins’ behalf, UMass Low­ell rein­stat­ed her in September.)

West­ern Mass Jobs with Jus­tice Coor­di­na­tor Jon Weiss­man, who orga­nizes with Wal­mart asso­ciates and oth­er low-wage work­ers, says the CPE instruc­tors’ pref­er­ence for anonymi­ty is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the cul­ture of fear regard­ing union orga­niz­ing in Amer­i­ca … [Work­place orga­niz­ing] is the last civ­il right being exer­cised in an atmos­phere of ter­ror.” Asked to com­ment on these fears of retal­i­a­tion, Bla­guszews­ki says the uni­ver­si­ty respect[s] the right of fac­ul­ty and instruc­tors to voice their views freely.”

Imme­di­ate­ly after the ral­ly, MSP orga­niz­ers for­mal­ly filed an accre­tion peti­tion with the Mass­a­chu­setts Depart­ment of Labor Rela­tions, which has the pow­er to bring the non-union instruc­tors into the exist­ing bar­gain­ing unit. They expect it could take the DLR weeks — or even months — to car­ry out an inves­ti­ga­tion and issue a rul­ing. In the mean­time, the MSP plans to con­tin­ue orga­niz­ing CPE teach­ers and will pre­pare to bar­gain a new con­tract lat­er this year, which union lead­ers hope will include greater equi­ty and secu­ri­ty for adjuncts already in the unit.

Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke

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