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State should give part-time community college faculty a fair deal

Shoreline Community College's campus in fall. Credit: Shoreline Community College

Although much attention has been paid to providing a living wage for unskilled workers, no one has asked if skilled workers should also be provided with a living wage. 

Under current Washington state laws, two-thirds of our state’s community and technical college faculty are classified as temporary part-time faculty and paid poverty-level wages (typical annual pay for a part-timer teaching half-time is $16,835). This is not simply because part-timers work fewer hours; it is because part-time faculty are paid at a much lower rate than full-time faculty.

The law denies the part-timers some very basic protections. In Clawson v. Grays Harbor Community College (2002) Seattle attorney Steve Frank brought suit on behalf of the adjunct faculty who taught in several community colleges, including the Seattle community colleges and Green River. Based entirely on legal definitions that made little or no distinction between full-time and part-time faculty, our state Supreme Court unanimously — and wrongly — decided that part-time faculty were “professionals” and exempt from the Minimum Wage Act. The court discounted how adjuncts were treated, instead ruling on how the colleges defined them. 

The ruling also means that part-time faculty are not paid for all the time they devote to the job. At least for unskilled workers, that practice would be forbidden.

Can’t the adjunct faculty members do what every other mistreated group of employees does and organize a union? In fact, the teachers unions are at the heart of the problem. The adjuncts are already organized. State collective bargaining law, written decades ago when there were few adjuncts, forces them into the same unions with the full-time faculty, who have tenure.

Washington state law at present denies adjuncts the fundamental right to have their own separate unions. In Washington colleges, full-time faculty execute the managerial function of determining their own workload by being allowed to teach overtime at will; whenever they do, they displace jobs that would otherwise be assigned to adjuncts. This constitutes a conflict of interest among members of the same union. 

While unions have traditionally opposed the inclusion of both supervisors and the supervised in the same bargaining unit because of the obvious conflicts of interest between the two groups, the higher ed divisions of the Washington Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers insist on putting them inside the units — something they do not allow in their K-12 divisions.

The result of our state’s putting adjuncts, who teach on quarterly contracts with little to no job security at any of the colleges, in the same units with full-timers, who are protected by tenure and who may act as their daily supervisors, is the separate but unequal system we have called “faculty apartheid.”

At every opportunity, the full-time faculty have cannibalized the salaries of part-time faculty, whether it be salaries, or incremental step raises, or cost of living adjustments, part-time equity pay, or overtime work. The full-timers consistently take the larger share for their minority and leave a pittance for the part-timers who form the majority. 

In 40 years, the part-timers have seen few gains at the bargaining table. The major gains such as health care, retirement, and sick leave have either come from the legislature or class action lawsuits initiated by members of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association. Unknown to most of the adjuncts, the AFT and WEA have opposed bills for equal raises and job security for adjuncts.

Because unions are granted the right to serve as the exclusive collective bargaining agent, it is imperative that they exercise democratic procedures and their duty of fair representation to all members. Yet everything that unions are supposed to do — treat members equally, provide better salaries, job security and due process grievance procedures — they have failed to do for adjuncts at community and technical colleges in the state. The two-track system leaves the adjuncts worse than if they had no union at all.

Tim Sheldon’s SB 5844, which will be heard in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee this Friday morning, will at long last give adjunct faculty the right to choose their own unions free of supervisors. Will the Legislature act to give us the labor rights all other state employees have?

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