The Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL) came to New York City on August 4 for its biennial conference, which was held this year at John Jay College and hosted by the PSC. The meeting, COCAL’s eleventh, drew more than 200 people from the US, Canada and Mexico.
“The COCAL movement provides the opportunity for diverse contingent faculty from three North American countries to come together...to discuss the challenges of our working conditions [and] the plight of higher education,” said Maria Peluso, an adjunct faculty member and union leader from Concordia University in Montreal.
PSC’s Vice President for Part-Time Personnel Marcia Newfield, who was the coordinator for this year's COCAL, told Clarion that organizers “wanted to break the frame” of traditional academic conferences.
“It was the format of presentation, presentation, presentation and then some discussion that we wanted to move away from.” Newfield explained. “People get frustrated because there’s so much information to digest and not enough time to learn from one another.”
So instead of just listening to panelists at one session and then moving to the next, conference attendees mapped out strategies in one of five different “interest groups,” which met over the course of three days. There were still plenaries at the conference, which brought together tri-national perspectives on adjunct organizing and were simultaneously translated. But this year’s meeting allowed for more interactive discussion in the smaller working groups.
Jennifer Chancellor, a co-coordinator of the CUNY Doctoral Student Council’s Adjunct Project, was on the local COCAL organizing committee. She helped devise protocols that would shape the discussions in the different groups.
“The goal of COCAL is not COCAL,” Chancellor told Clarion. “It’s to create networks and continue the conversation that leads, hopefully, toward action.”
In Chancellor’s group, participants talked about how to create coalitions of undergraduates and adjunct faculty working together on issues of mutual concern. About 20 people attended the session and shared ideas that had worked on their own campuses, from hosting a coffee hour to paid internships for undergraduates at an academic union.
By the conference’s last day, the groups had developed some goals that they presented to the conference as a whole. One group proposed development of a “democracy index,” scoring colleges and universities on criteria like pay equity and shared governance. The media working group urged activists to “retire the image of ‘poor adjunct’ and rebrand as ‘pillars of the university.’” Plenary participants backed a statement supporting a minimum adjunct salary of $7,000 per three-credit course, along with other job protections.
Joe Berry, a COCAL founder and author of Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education, has seen the discussion at the conferences evolve, from what began as a much-needed space to vent about the adjunct experience. “Now they can talk about strategy, and that’s huge for a group like this that cuts across union lines and public and private higher education,” Berry told Clarion.
“COCAL’s importance has grown as the scandal of contingency within the academy started to become a media issue,” PSC Treasurer Mike Fabricant told Clarion. “Returning to the media capital, NYC, at this particular moment was a very smart strategic decision.”
The conference was launched, at first informally, in 1996 during the Modern Language Association conference. The second conference took place at the CUNY Grad Center in 1998. In 2001, COCAL attendees made plans for the first Campus Equity Week, now an annual event, which draws attention to contingent faculty working conditions at colleges across the US and Canada. The 2009 COCAL conference saw the formation of New Faculty Majority, a membership-based group that has taken up legislative issues. New Faculty Majority has organized adjuncts to testify before Congress about the effects of health care reform on contingent faculty, and has worked for federal legislation that would require colleges to disclose their dependence on part-time and contingent faculty.
Holly Clarke, an adjunct lecturer who has taught at John Jay since 1988, has attended several COCAL conferences and was on the local organizing committee for the 2014 session. Clarke told Clarion there was a “developing conversation” over the course of this year’s conference, “drawing on the knowledge and experience of the people in the room.”
Clarke said she was struck by the commonality of adjuncts’ experience across national lines: “There is a common theme that raising and transforming the circumstances of contingent faculty is the lynchpin to pushing back against an agenda that would undermine both public and private higher education,” Clarke told Clarion. “Hopefully full-time, tenured faculty who feel themselves threatened will recognize that this fight is their fight.”
Clarke, who attended the bargaining for equity workshop, said she had learned from the experience of other activists there, from new organizing tactics to how to avoid unintended consequences in new contract language.
Hunter College adjunct lecturer Yvonne Groseil attended COCAL for the first time this year. Groseil said the conference fostered a sense of community, an important counter to the often-isolating experience of being an adjunct day-to-day, and that she was inspired by organizing efforts at other colleges.
This fall, Groseil is helping plan an adjunct meeting on her campus on September 17 to share what happened at COCAL, and this Spring she plans to organize a session where Hunter adjuncts present research that they’re working on.
“COCAL energized me,” Groseil told Clarion. “It made me want to get out and think of something creative.”