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We all have a stake in adjunct appointments

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Progress in a long fight

Justice for adjuncts was a major part of the union’s last contract campaign.
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CUNY survives constant underfunding for two main reasons – it shifts costs onto students and it grossly underpays half of its core teaching workforce. Without a workforce of 11,000 adjuncts doing work for which full-time instructors would be paid at three times the rate, there would be no CUNY as we know it. Adjuncts are not just underpaid: until now, their jobs have been completely contingent, without any security.

That’s why the structure for adjunct job security in the new contract is a breakthrough. CUNY’s entire labor system rests on underpaid work – by all of us, whether we are full-time or part-time. We cannot allow it to rest also on job insecurity. Throughout the past month, as the other union officers and I have been pressing CUNY to expedite payment of contractual increases, we have also been meeting with long-serving adjuncts and department chairs, listening to their concerns and helping to make the new adjunct appointments work. What stands out for me in these meetings is the depth of commitment to CUNY’s mission among adjuncts who have worked at the University for years and the dedication of department chairs, who labor to create meaningful academic life under untenable conditions.

THE FRONT LINES

These two groups are on the front lines of implementing the new system of adjunct appointments, but we all have a stake in their success. Why? Because introducing even limited job security strikes a blow to the heart of the system of radical contingency that gives all the power to management. CUNY’s negotiators understood that the new system is a dramatic break with the past – that’s why they resisted it until the final hours of bargaining.

Over months of contract talks, we hammered out a pilot program for a totally new approach to adjunct appointments. The new structure will provide greater stability for adjuncts and their departments, and greater academic continuity for students. The basic idea is that adjuncts who have been appointed repeatedly by the same department to teach a significant number of credit hours every semester should receive multi-year appointments, and those appointments should be secure.

STRUCTURE, NOT AN OPTION

The key to the new system is that it is a structure, not an option, just as tenure or the certificate of continuous employment for full-time faculty are structures. But for adjuncts the appointment will be part-time, and it will be for three years. Every adjunct who meets the length-of-service requirement must be considered by the department personnel and budget committee for the three-year appointment, just as every full-time faculty member who reaches the service requirement for tenure must be considered for tenure. Once an adjunct receives the three-year appointment, the department must provide the adjunct every semester with at least six credits of teaching or an alternative assignment. Thus, the adjunct has guaranteed income and the department has a more stable workforce.

The plan also includes a transitional two-year appointment that does not involve a review and does not provide the same job security as the three-year appointment.

The new system may sound complicated, but its premise is simple: adjuncts deserve to be treated as professionals from the day they are hired, and everyone at CUNY will benefit from their increased professional treatment. The prospect of a secure, three-year appointment after extensive service will gradually change the way adjuncts are hired, mentored and integrated into department life.

The plan is the first program for any kind of real security for adjuncts in CUNY’s history. Apart from the overall economic settlement, it was the hardest part of the contract to win.

On the last night of negotiations, CUNY management’s representatives announced at 3:30 am that they could no longer accept the agreement on adjuncts we had reached through long and difficult negotiations. The PSC bargaining team stood our ground. The union membership had given us the power to insist on a systemic change on job security by authorizing the executive council to call a strike.

The issue was not money, it was control. CUNY negotiators recoiled from anything that interrupted their absolute freedom to refuse an adjunct a job, no matter how long and how well she or he had been teaching. While the CUNY administration laments the lack of funding that leads them to rely on an underpaid workforce of adjuncts for half of the University’s courses, the truth is that management likes the system’s radical insecurity. Merely putting a dent in that system required the whole power of the union.

One way of accommodating to economic scarcity is to demand a completely flexible workforce – one that can be hired and fired at will. Look at fast food industry and just-in-time production and every other industry that shaves costs by keeping employees on unpredictable schedules. In a period of austerity for public institutions that CUNY management has failed to challenge successfully, the ability to hire and fire at a moment’s notice has become a preferred way to manage the budget.

COMPLETE CONTROL

That’s why everyone who works at CUNY has a stake in making the new adjunct appointment system permanent and a success. As long as the central University administrators can continue to employ more than 11,000 colleagues who have no job security, they will continue to have an incentive to shift more and more work to positions over which they have complete control.

The proof was the most recent round of bargaining. CUNY management has consistently sought to weaken job protections for HEOs, and Chancellor James B. Milliken’s number one demand this time was to allow an explosion in the number of full-time faculty positions with no job security. CUNY already has a limited number of full-time faculty who are not on the tenure track, but these positions are designed to be used for special cases, such as for clinical practitioners. Management’s demand was to allow an unlimited number such positions, all without tenure, without any job permanence. Tenure would soon be a thing of the past if that were to occur.

The union pushed back and sharply curtailed the expansion, but I expect to see this demand return in the upcoming round. University management’s agenda is clear: more contingency, more insecurity, more control.

Against this backdrop, the introduction of job security for CUNY’s least secure workers is a milestone. I applaud those who are trying to make it work: the adjuncts who have taught for 10, 20 or 30 years at CUNY simply because they believe in our students and in CUNY’s potential to transform lives, and the department chairs who straddle the needs of faculty and students.

The new system is not perfect: it is not as inclusive as the union’s original proposal, and it will not reach every adjunct who deserves support and security. Like everything else in the contract, it was a compromise. But the three-year appointments for adjuncts are a powerful start on a long-overdue change, a change as important – for everyone – as any we have negotiated.