Community college part-timers need legislature's help

Previous legislatures have stepped up to help the forgotten backbone of community colleges' teaching staffs. Is this legislature about to give favors to the full-time faculty who already receive disproportionate support and do little to help their colleagues?

Crosscut archive image.

Washington State Capitol

Previous legislatures have stepped up to help the forgotten backbone of community colleges' teaching staffs. Is this legislature about to give favors to the full-time faculty who already receive disproportionate support and do little to help their colleagues?

Unions have long extolled their ability to secure higher wages, greater job security, and better working conditions for their members.  This “union premium” can be as high as 30 percent in wages and benefits in contrast to unorganized workers.

Before we get to the very real problems of part-time community college faculty in Washington state, it's important to put some context around higher education and unionized faculty.

In forthcoming research on national faculty salaries at four-year colleges from 1988-2004, Central and Western Washington professors David Hedrick, Steven Henson, John Krieg and Charles Wassell, Jr. ask, (April, 2011) "Is There Really a Faculty Union Salary Premium?" They answered that higher education unions had a “weak effect” on wages and that the union wage premium was statistically insignficant:  “Studies of the effects of unions on collegiate faculty salaries are inconclusive,” they found.

Hedrick and his colleagues reaffirmed the earlier research of Gordon Tullock (1994), who wrote: “Unions may be able to shift funds around among the faculty but ... there is little chance of increasing total salaries.”  At the same time, they hypothesized that “the presence of faculty unions may result in improvements in amenities, benefits, and working conditions.

However, Hedrick et al. studied only the salaries of full-time faculty, most of whom were on the tenure-track. The scope of their study excluded the 41 percent of the nation's college professors who now teach part-time off the tenure-track. While "contingent" faculty of all stripes now number 1 million, these part-time "adjuncts" count for 727,098 professors nationwide.

In Unionization in the Academy, Judith Wagner DeCew summarizes the conclusions of a study conducted by Gary Rhoades, in his book Managed Professionals: Unionized Faculty and Restructuring Academic Labor (1998):  “Rhoades concluded from his analysis of 183 faculty union contracts that these documents do not often protect, but actually further marginalize, part-time faculty…. Consequently, the national unions may claim to be advocating for part-time faculty, but the contracts do not show that they have made much progress."

This has certainly been the case in Washington, where the “part-time” community college faculty have been forced into the same unions with the full-time faculty:  either the Washington Education Association (WEA) or the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).  At all 34 community and technical colleges, these unions have bargained completely separate but unequal wages, job security, and working conditions for their 4,000 full-time and 10,500 part-time faculty, thereby creating a full-time faculty class of “haves” and a part-time faculty class of “have nots.”

While the average full-time professor earns $55,915 a year (with summers off), the average part-timer who teaches half-time is paid 60 cents on the dollar for teaching the same number of courses and earns $16,795.  In other words, while a full-timer averages $6,213 to teach a course, an adjunct is paid only 60 percent, or $3,728, to teach the same course.

By 1996, the WEA and the AFT had let adjunct salaries fall to only 40 cents on the dollar compared to full-time faculty teaching the same number of courses.  From 1996-2008, the legislature appropriated $50 million to increase adjunct salaries to 60 cents on the dollar today. While unions have generally supported these small legislative raises, their support came only after independent adjuncts went to Olympia to demand change from the legislature.

From 1999-2004, 90 percent of all money bargained by the local unions for step raises called “increments” went to the full-timers, as did 97 percent of the local “turnover savings” (created when someone leaves or retires). These funds could have been shared more equitably to avoid increasing the disparity in pay between full- and part-timers.

This legislative session, both the WEA and the AFT are fighting hard in Olympia to increase salaries chiefly for the full-time faculty, thereby making the disparity larger and reversing 15 years of slow, but steady, progress in our legislature.

Rep. Chris Reykdal’s HB 1631 and Sen. Derek Kilmer’s SB 5507, both supported by the unions, were introduced to provide automatic funding for the current system of increments, thereby ensuring that adjuncts will continue to be shortchanged on salaries.  The fiscal notes for these bills amount to $10 million a biennium.  These bills would still provide two-thirds of the increment money to the one-third of the faculty called “full-time,” thereby increasing the disparity; they would give nearly 100 percent of the category of funds known as local turnover money to the full-timers; and they would still not require the unions to bargain schedules for incremental pay increases for part-time factulty.

Both unions are also pushing Rep. Mike Sells’s HB 1503 and Sen. Steve Conway’s SB 5434, which would expand collective bargaining so the unions could increase salaries with local tuition.  Since there is no provision in these bills to earmark any funds for adjuncts, it is likely the unions will continue to give most of this new money to the full-timers, as they have been doing for decades.  Moreover, adjuncts may end up losing courses if the colleges reduce money to pay them in order to give raises to the full-timers.

Although the legislature has earmarked equity and increment money exclusively for the adjunct faculty, the unions have diverted significant amounts to the full-time faculty.  They have done this by designating full-time tenure-track faculty who teach overtime as “part-time” faculty.

Washington state law offers lifetime tenure to full-time community college faculty after only three years of teaching. Since union contracts cap adjunct teaching below full-time, the unions have ensured that no adjunct faculty can ever qualify for tenure, no matter how many years they have taught. Some adjuncts have taught for 20, 30, even 40 years and still teach on quarterly contracts that can be easily withdrawn or cancelled without even a reason given by the college.

And as Jack Longmate, adjunct English instructor at Bremerton-based Olympic College, recently pointed out, full-time faculty have the option of substantially increasing their salaries by teaching overloads, sometimes doubling the number of courses they teach — and taking courses and income away from adjuncts.

Yet the very same union contracts cap adjunct workloads well below full-time, thereby forcing many adjuncts to either teach at several colleges, or to take on additional jobs to supplement their meager teaching income.

In addition to failing to bargain any significant measure of job security for nearly all adjuncts, the unions have also failed to offer any significant legislation to grant substantial job security to adjunct faculty. Furthermore, both the WEA and the AFT have refused to support legislation that would give annual, renewable contracts to long-term adjuncts (for more on job security for adjuncts, see my article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Adjunct Bill of Rights”).

Without any job security, many adjuncts have already seen the recession cut their classes and income.  With further budget cuts inevitable, more adjuncts are likely to see their income reduced further.

Union leaders have been quick to retaliate against adjuncts who criticize them in public.  Soon after Olympic College adjunct Longmate testified against the unions’ increment bill (HB 1631), leaders of both his state and local union (WEA) retaliated by cutting off his travel money and demanding his resignation as the elected secretary of his local.  As Inside Higher Ed reporter Dan Berrett writes, this was not the first time that the unions have sought to purge adjunct activists in Washington.

As I wrote two years ago, this abuse of the adjuncts is the consequence of forcing them into the same union with the full-time faculty who serve as their immediate supervisors.  This is illegal in the private sector and in many states.  Without any job security, the adjuncts can hardly be expected to bite the hand that feeds them.

While there may be considerable doubt as to whether the teachers’ unions have helped the full-time faculty compared to their non-unionized professors at private colleges, there can be no doubt that the unions have failed to provide “fair representation” to their adjunct faculty.  In terms of wages, job security, and working conditions, the teachers’s unions have made sure the largest portion has gone to the full-timers, while the adjuncts are forced to eat crumbs.

Eschewing individual merit raises, unions have long touted their ability to treat all of their members equally.  Yet at every turn the AFT and the WEA have favored the full-time, tenure-track faculty and disfavored the adjuncts.

Collective bargaining has failed the adjunct faculty.  It is incumbent on legislators, who may be reluctant to interfere with the collective bargaining process, to recognize that it has not worked for the adjuncts.  Politicians must ensure that collective bargaining fairly represents all of the members of the bargaining unit, not just the privileged minority.

In the short term, our politicians must step in and fix these many inequities through legislation; they should continue the goal of previous legislatures to reduce the overall salary disparity between adjunct and full-time faculty.  They certainly should not be passing any bills (such as the union-backed increment and bargaining bills) that are likely to give more money to the full-timers than the adjuncts, thereby increasing the disparity.

In the long term, the legislature must support the fundamental labor right of adjunct professors to choose their own unions, to elect their own representatives, and to bargain their own contracts.  This means nothing less than passing enabling legislation to allow adjuncts to have their own separate unions, as they are able to do in many other states.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

default profile image

Keith Hoeller

Keith Hoeller is an Adjunct Philosophy Instructor in our community colleges and the editor of Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System (Vanderbilt University Press).