Adjunct organization is on the move.  As noted in the Chronicle, adjuncts are now very close to becoming organized city-wide in Washington, DC.  Georgetown, American, and George Washington are already signed on, and Howard will be joining soon.  This will give much greater leverage to adjuncts in their relationship with universities there, and it already shows: they’re going to get health and retirement benefits prorated to hours worked.  They’ll also save time job-hunting, because their union chapter, the SEIU Local 500, will create a “hiring hall,” a central database to match up universities with adjuncts (that will be a boon to departments, too, especially trying to hire on short notice).  It’s a fantastic victory, but the prognosis on its long-term and wider effects are still hard to predict.

The important piece here for DC-area adjuncts and universities is the virtuous cycle: the more universities in the area sign on, the more adjuncts will want to be members.  The more adjuncts that are members, the more universities will be tied in, so as to have access to the labor pool.  That’s good for everyone, at least in the short term.  And of course I’m very happy for these adjuncts, getting some respect and some benefits, and for the union movement in general.  Those are all unalloyed goods, to my mind.

Nonetheless, there are still some major obstacles to better working conditions for adjuncts.  One is that this works in DC, which is union-friendly, but such organizing will face a much higher hurdle in right-to-bust-union “right to work” states, even more than there is with full-time workers, as there will be an even greater temptation for part-time adjuncts to free-ride on the dues of union members.  What’s more, public employees in some states can’t effectively unionize, and all states, because of the Yeshiva decision,  private universities have no legal obligation to recognize faculty unions.

The other hurdle is one I’m more ambivalent about.  On the one hand, I fear that the institutionalization of adjuncts in this way will further erode full-time academic employment, increasing the trend toward an entirely-casualized faculty workforce of interchangeable labor units.  Will this merely facilitate administrators’ desire to have even fewer full-time faculty?  I doubt the pro-rating of adjunct benefits will lead administrators to the conclusion that, cost-wise, full-time employees won’t be much more expensive, given the salary difference.  On the other hand, maybe that fear is merely a product of my privileged position as someone lucky enough to enjoy secure, full-time employment.  Given current trends, maybe this half-a-loaf is as good as we can expect.  And it’s certainly a big step forward for the adjuncts working now in our nation’s capital.

In other words, a long way to go, but today, let’s celebrate.


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