Guest Opinion: Part-time faculty at community colleges need rights

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Shoreline Community College's campus in fall.

Many people are aware of the student loan debt on par with home equity loans and credit card debt as a fiscal challenge of national concern. And they have heard of President Obama’s proposal to make community college tuition free for all citizens. Almost everyone agrees that a better educated population makes for a better and stronger country.

But less well known are the impoverished wages paid to most community college part-time instructors, the result of discounted rate of pay and workload caps. The dismal compensation forces some part-time instructors to accept food stamps and social welfare programs in order to survive. Those who still have student loan debt from their undergraduate or graduate studies face dim prospects of ever being able to pay those debts off. While Seattle and Washington state have led the way in hiking the minimum wage for unskilled workers, the plight of these skilled teachers, who often do not earn $15 an hour for every hour they work, has long been ignored by governors and legislators.

While the state reports that the average community college full-time faculty salary is $55,616, the average “part-time” faculty member salary would be only $33,670 (or 60 percent of the full-timer) even if they were teaching full-time. By comparison, the annual full-time salary for a minimum wage worker earning $15 an hour is $31,200.

But adjuncts’ pay is much, much worse. No part-time faculty member may teach full-time, but averages only a half-time load, therefore earning only $16,835 a year, or close to half of the minimum wage. Further, many of the full-timers are in fact earning double the average full-time salary, or around $110,000, because they are allowed to teach overtime, thereby taking courses and money away from the part-timers. In other words, many full-time professors are earning more than six times the salaries of the average adjunct professor.

Why are the adjuncts, with master’s and doctoral degrees, paid so little? The colleges have developed the fiction that teaching is piecemeal work and that they can pay the adjuncts only for the actual hours they are in class, and not for all the hours they work outside of class, preparing lectures and exams, grading exams, holding office hours, meeting with students, developing new courses, and keeping up with the latest research and teaching methods. The full-timers are paid for all of the hours they work, but the part-timers are not.

While all of the full-time tenured faculty members are eligible for regular step raises called increments, two-thirds of the colleges have no such steps for their part-time faculty.

When the two-year colleges' collective bargaining law was passed decades ago, there was little thought given to part-time faculty, whose numbers were much lower then. Legislators did not actually intend to force adjuncts into the same unions as the full-timers. But unions representing the different groups brought claims (at Green River and Lower Columbia Colleges) before our state’s Public Employment Relations Commission, who ruled that there could be only one faculty union for each college. This is now state law.

Aren’t the part-timers better off in the same union with the full-timers? Actually, no, for three reasons.

First, the structure prohibits union democracy. Full-time tenured faculty serve as de facto supervisors of the part-timers, who interview the part-timers, effectively hire them, evaluate them, assign them classes, and re-hire them (or not). Since the part-timers are completely dependent on the full-timers, while the full-timers are in no way dependent on the part-timers, who have virtually no contact with college administrators, who routinely defer to the decisions of the full-timers, part-timers are most unlikely to criticize their tenured faculty colleagues; doing so, would, in effect, bite the hand that feeds them.

The National Labor Relations Act forbids putting supervisors in the same bargaining units with the employees they manage because of the obvious conflicts of interest between the two groups and the unchecked power that supervisors have over their employees. The 1980 U.S. Supreme Court Yeshiva decision declared full-time faculty to be “managers” and therefore not even entitled to unions at all in the private colleges.

And Washington state labor law generally precludes having supervisors in the same units. A section of the Washington Administrative Code called “Unit Placement of Supervisors” (WAC 391-35-340, (1) and (2)) makes this explicit. In the K-12 units of the WEA and AFT, principals are not allowed into them.

Second, the full-time faculty have quite different priorities. While full-time faculty are protected by lifetime tenure, part-timers have little to no job security at all. Most exist on quarterly contracts that can be taken away at any time for any reason or no reason, as our contracts state. The precarious nature of part-time faculty, in fact, benefits full-time tenured faculty by serving as a buffer: If funding is cut or enrollment drops, part-timers can be laid off, thereby protecting tenured faculty jobs.

And as noted, tenured full-timers have the power to teach overtime at will for additional income, displacing their fellow part-time colleagues whenever they do. Not surprisingly, full-time tenured faculty control the unions and have used them to bargain much better salaries, benefits, job security and working conditions for themselves.

Third, since 2002, the unions have used their lobbying might in Olympia to defeat bills that might benefit their very own adjunct professors. Failing to bargain any job security at the local level, the unions have sought to kill bills giving adjuncts annual, renewable contracts.

There is only one solution to the adjunct problem. Our state’s 10,000 adjunct professors must have the same labor rights as every other state worker to choose a union devoid of their immediate supervisors.

Fortunately, Sen. Tim Sheldon has sponsored SB 5231, which would mandate separate unions for the part-timers and the full-timers. While a similar bill passed out of the Commerce and Labor Committee last year, not a single Democrat would support it, perhaps because of their long-standing reliance on the unions for campaign contributions and workers. Will the Democrats, who have long occupied the Governor’s office, and controlled both houses of our legislature, place their loyalty to unions above the best interests of higher education in our state? It is time that legislators from both parties address the problems of impoverished but educated workers by allowing them to form their own unions to protect their own needs.

Jack Longmate is an adjunct professor of English at Olympic College in Bremerton and the author of numerous articles on contingent faculty. Keith Hoeller is an adjunct professor of Philosophy at Green River College in Auburn, and the editor of "Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System" (Vanderbilt University Press).


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Jack Longmate

Jack Longmate is an adjunct professor of English at Olympic College in Bremerton and the author of numerous articles on contingent faculty.