Labor in action
Adjuncts and GAs organize

by Mike Budd

from Jump Cut, no. 43, July 2000, pp. 120-128
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 2000, 2006

The scene is all too common, though probably invisible to many tenured and tenure-track faculty, not to mention people outside universities. It forms the opening of Barbara Wolf's 1997 video, DEGREES OF SHAME — PART-TIME FACULTY: MIGRANT WORKERS OF THE INFORMATION ECONOMY. In the tape, adjunct faculty members describe the degraded conditions under which they work. They are often hired at the last minute, even the day before classes start, on the phone, and many of them scramble to cobble together enough low-paying courses from several institutions within driving distance to barely make a living. The camera follows one adjunct as he commutes from one campus to the next, while in voiceover he describes his hectic daily routine and speaks of "the hopefully not-too-distant future" when he will find a tenure-track job and access to research grants.

DEGREES OF SHAME compares part-time faculty to the migrant workers of Edward it Murrow's classic television documentary of 1960, HARVEST OF SHAME, juxtaposing old black and white images of migrant workers, interviews in color with part-time faculty, and superimposed scrolling computer images of announcements for adjunct jobs. As one parttime faculty member puts it,

"The comparisons are striking…We are very poorly paid, do not by and large have access to health care, except through a spouse, drive great distances and work long hours."

While careful to emphasize that these migrant faculty, often called "freeway flyers" because of their extensive commuting, are not as exploited as migrant manual laborers were and still are, Wolf and her faculty collaborators point to revealing parallels between the working poor and barely middle-class professors: they have low pay, no health or other benefits, no job security, inadequate or nonexistent office space, and they do piece work.

Though in thirty minutes DEGREES OF SHAME has little time to probe the complex causes and implications of this situation, its comparison of those at the bottom of the economic ladder with supposedly elite professors powerfully demystifies academic labor and suggests the larger structural forces at work at all levels of a globalizing capitalist economy. The video's strength lies in giving voice to exoloited faculty workers, in evoking the experience of being a marginalized adjunct faculty member, and in articulating part-timers' anger, frustration, and determination to change their situation.

The video takes us from a rapid description of the problem from those in the middle of it to the point where they are ready to act. An excellent organizing tool, it has been shown successfully at recent conferences of part-timers. Here I will contextualize the video, filling in what is missing. I will sketch the dimensions of the problem of contingent faculty and will explore its sources in large structural changes in higher education institutions and its connection to problems facing graduate assistants and tenure-track and tenured faculty. I will then conclude with ideas for organizing to combat these problems and a list of contacts and resources.[1][open notes in new window]


There are now more than 1,100,000 higher education faculty and graduate assistants in the United States. From 1975 to 1993, all full-time faculty increased 25% to 545,706, tenured faculty increased 23% to 279,424, and graduate assistants increased 27% to 202,819. But part-lime faculty increased 97% to 369,768, while full-time, non-tenure-track faculty increased 88% to 152,004.[2]

Full-time, non-tenure-tack faculty include lecturers, instructors, and visiting professors. Significantly, their working conditions often resemble those of part-time faculty. In fact, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) suggests that many of them are the same people:

"Their appointments may vary from full-time to part-time from semester to semester or year to year, depending on fluctuations in funding and enrollment."[3]

To assess the working conditions of U.S. faculty and graduate assistants, we must combine the categories of part-time and full-time non-tenure-track faculty, who now constitute over 500,000 in number, at least 47% of the total.[4] This percentage has been growing since the 60s. If we combine non-tenure-tack faculty with graduate assistants, it becomes apparent that at more and more U.S. colleges and universities, at least half the courses — and often virtually all of the lower-division courses — are taught by these contingent faculty.

Now adjuncts, lecturers, and graduate teaching assistants often teach at least as well as tenured or tenure-track faculty.[5] But the point is that tenured and tenure-track professors, the only faculty with (mostly) adequate pay, research support, health and other benefits, some job security, and accompanying academic freedom, are being steadily replaced by faculty who have far worse working conditions.

A final statistic makes this clear. Despite the increases in all categories cited above, and a 43% increase in the total number of faculty and graduate assistants, untenured tenure-track faculty actually decreased by 9%, to 114,278, from 1975 to 1993.[6] In this 18-year period, in a growing higher-education system, about 12,000 job opportunities for new, untenured faculty disappeared. At the same time, the system generated approximately 182,000 new part-time positions and 71,000 new full-time non-tenure-track positions, for a total of more than 253,000 new non-tenure-track positions.[7] These numbers suggest that tenured faculty not only comprise a dwindling percentage of the instructional staff, but this group will likely begin soon to dwindle in absolute numbers as well. The situation has certainly not improved during the 90s, with an overproduction of PhDs and other factors leading to a desperate faculty job market in many fields, but especially in the humanities. In 1996-97, according to a Modern Languages Association survey, 33.7% of new PhDs in English found tenure-track positions, compared to 45.9% in 1993-94.[8]

We see a clear and pervasive pattern: Administrators hire part-time faculty at the last minute to cover enrollment increases with added courses. They also, under short- or long-term financial pressures, effectively convert relatively expensive tenure-track positions into cheap, fungible, and exploitable non-tenure-track positions in the name of "flexibility." Adjunct positions pay much less than a tenure-track faculty member would receive for teaching the same course. The amount per 3-credit course varies from less than $1000 to more than $5000, but the norm seems to be around $1500 to $2000.[9] So by hiring several part-time faculty for the salary and benefits cost of one tenure-track faculty member, chairs and deans multiply the number of courses and student credit hours generated, thereby keeping their bosses happy and responding to student demand. The incentives are so great and the logic so inescapable that even administrators who object to the practice find themselves forced into it.

In many cases these non-tenure-track jobs, mostly part-time, and the people in them continue indefinitely, becoming part of the institutional employment structure.[10] Thus grows an "invisible faculty" of second- and third-class academic citizens, many seeking tenure-track jobs but unable to find them, teaching as many as 18 courses in a year at different schools.[11] This burgeoning faculty underclass is composed disproportionately of women, who "constitute about 42% of 2 the part-time faculty compared to 27% of full-time faculty."[12] In addition to the exploitation of non-tenure-track faculty, the declining percentage of tenure-track faculty creates other problems. Some tenure-track faculty ignore, are embarrassed by, or look down on underemployed colleagues, identifying the part-timers with those many unsuccessful candidates they beat out in the tough competition for a tenure-track job.

Although "there's a constant temptation to avoid working hard because you're simply participating in your own exploitation," according to New York part-timer Patrick Young,[13] even the most overworked adjuncts usually demonstrate professionalism and high standards. It's not the victims we should blame here, but a complex of social and economic forces. It's seldom the direct quality of classroom teaching that suffers when tenure-track faculty are replaced with part-timers. It's the fragile and all-important institutional continuity and identity emerging from the everyday matrix of teaching, research, advising, office conferences, and shared governance. All these can only be constituted by the working practices of secure and independent faculty as academic citizens. Advising, governance, and service loads increase for tenure-track faculty as the work becomes divided among a smaller number of people. Excessive reliance on part-time faculty produces more isolated and atomized faculty and students. A dynamic, cohesive college or university requires faculty with the time and resources to keep their teaching and research current, to generate as well as disseminate knowledge, to create an institutional whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The first big wave of part-time biting took place between 1972 and 1977 during the first major budget crisis for the contemporary higher-education system. When the 60s seller's market became the 70s buyer's market, a reserve army of un- and under-employed professors began to form. At the same time, performance expectations for tenure-track hiring, promotion, and tenure started to rise. Administrators and faculty committees had always paid lip service to good teaching, but now quantified student evaluations became mandatory, and good teaching as defined by student evaluations became more often necessary for success. More important, second- and third-rank colleges and universities began to expect junior faculty to publish, sometimes while teaching 6 or 8 courses a year.[14] While these higher expectations have, on balance, probably improved both teaching and research, they have, especially in combination with the rise in part-time and non-tenure-track faculty, helped erode faculty participation in institutional governance.

The professionalization of both faculty and administrators since the 70s and the greater separation of their roles have put more and more decision-making power in the hands of administrators unaccountable to faculty, often by default. Incentives for tenured and tenure-track faculty to publish and not to do committee work (service) tend to diminish their commitment to a democratic workplace; at the same time such service and committee work is shared among a diminishing proportion of all faculty. It is not only part-time faculty who are increasingly treated as employees rather than stakeholders in the institution. When faculty complain about committees and meetings, they might consider the potential for workplace democracy in faculty governance, to be lost if it isn't used. Beyond the quality of the participation of tenure-track faculty, though, the basic conditions for faculty governance become impossible when half the faculty cannot participate because they are casualized, semester-to-semester employees. And the health of faculty governance is not a high priority among top administrators, to whom assertive or inquisitive faculty committees often seem an annoyance.

Finally, the overuse of non-tenure-track faculty erodes the tenure system and thus academic freedom. Those who attack tenure directly, prompted by neoliberal economics and conservative attacks on tenured radicals, have lost most of the battles, but as I have shown they are winning the war. Despite administrative assurances that tenure is redundant because employment law provides similar protections, without tenure you must fight to get your job back after you're fired. And non-tenure-track faculty essentially get fired and rehired every semester or year, their lack of even the possibility of tenure cannot help but generate timidity and conformity. But only by looking at the stratifications of the academic workforce can we understand tenure's context and the faulty premises behind the attacks on it.


The problems described above are not evenly distributed throughout U.S. higher education today. They are concentrated in the lower strata of a system in which, as elsewhere, the rich are getting richer and most of the poor, working and middle classes are getting poorer or just holding on. In addition, part-time and full-time non-tenure-track faculty are themselves quite heterogeneous and subject to complex hierarchies.

At the bottom of the higher-education hierarchy are the community colleges with some 40% of the students and 32% of the faculty.[15] The biggest growth in higher education has come here, mostly in vocational programs. Significantly, most of these institutions are built on part-time appointments, which constituted some 65% of their faculty jobs in 1993. Some community colleges in Vermont have 100% part-timers, and several in California come close. Here, a core of administrators and sometimes a few faculty as managers function as the only full-time academic staff. The ratio of students to full-time faculty at 2-year colleges is 52:1 while the overall student-faculty ratio is 19:l.[17] Although community-college faculty have become perhaps the best-organized of the faculty workforce, as with most 4-year schools their bargaining units seldom include part-time faculty.

For 4-year schools, the more important research becomes to the school's mission, the less it depends on part-time faculty, since a research emphasis comes with doctoral programs employing large numbers of graduate assistants. Part-time faculty comprise 30% at comprehensive universities, 24% at doctoral granting institutions, and 16% at research universities.[18] (Graduate assistants often face exploitation, too, and I will return to them.) The public 4-year schools, mostly large state colleges and universities, enroll 42% of all students. Their ratio of students to full-time faculty is 21:1 while their overall student-faculty ratio is 16:1. Of the private colleges and universities that enroll the remaining 18% of students, only the elite liberal arts colleges and research universities have small numbers of part-time faculty.[19] So the excessive use of part-time and non-tenure-track faculty, concentrated largely in community colleges and non-elite public colleges and universities, contributes to a widening class divide in educational opportunities and a negative redistribution of academic resources. This occurs not because of any deficiencies among the faculty themselves, but because of the degradation of the work environment accompanying the casualization and fragmentation of the faculty work force.

But what is excessive use of part-time and non-tenure track faculty? Such faculty teach for a variety of reasons. Many are not seeking tenure-track jobs. Judith M. Gappa and David W. Leslie, who adopt a largely administrative-managerial approach, find four types of part-time faculty. "Specialists, experts and professionals" are the group for whom the category of adjunct professor was legitimately invented, since they usually bring specialized and applied knowledge to the classroom; universities cannot ordinarily afford to hire a full-time faculty member in such fields. They generally maintain full-time careers elsewhere and teach because they enjoy it. Likewise "career-enders" are at or near retirement, not usually from faculty jobs, and "freelancers" combine several kinds of jobs, only one of which is part-time teaching. "Aspiring academics," on the other hand, mostly seek tenure-track positions but cannot find them.[20] While Gappa and Leslie minimize the problem, estimating that the latter category includes only a small proportion of part-time faculty, their own and other studies show that almost 50% of part-timers seek full-time faculty employment.[21]

Considering that part-time faculty now total around 400,000, we can estimate the number of underemployed part-timers at around 200,000. This fastest-growing category of faculty, though it includes some without terminal degrees, does not include others with doctorates who have given up looking for academic jobs. Thus it indicates a rising un- and under-employment rate of at least 10 to 20%, Since this situation has worsened steadily for nearly 30 years, it is no longer temporary but structural; it is at least a semi-permanent part of the institutional system.


Not only are the problems faced by part-timers structural, but the causes of these problems as well. I have pointed to one cause above in linking the structural unemployment of faculty to the decline in new tenure-track jobs. The overproduction of PhDs has become endemic in the humanities, but it now extends as well into engineering and the sciences. In these fields, successive low-paid postdoctoral fellowships now routinely last for five years or more for new PhDs who are unable to find good jobs in a bad market, and even "post-docs" are organizing to improve their deteriorating working conditions.[22] Just as the adjuncts in DEGREES OF SHAME compare their situation with that of farm workers, here we see striking parallels to graduate assistants and part-time faculty. Organizing in the 90s at an accelerating rate, graduate assistants increasingly recognize themselves as employees and cheap labor rather than as paid apprentice-students, which is how they are described by university managers seeking to mystify their work and avoid unionization.[23] Graduate assistants organize because they lack health insurance, don't make a living wage, and need tuition waivers and adequate grievance procedures.

But they also organize because of a deteriorating job market. They can think of themselves as apprentices, sacrificing for future careers and the love of knowledge, only as long as the goal, a good tenure-track job, remains a reasonable expectation. But more and more in recent years graduate assistants see their own futures foretold as they see that PhDs from their programs only get jobs as adjuncts and postdocs — more of the same grind with little prospect of improvement. Even for those in the humanities, often socialized to mystify their work as preserving the quasi-religious essence of civilization against the invading barbarians, this can be too much. As Andrew Ross has suggested, the reality of these graduate students' own labor emerges from behind the ideological cult of work which sustains their own exploitation.[24] They begin, unevenly, to see the systemic features of their situation within a deeply flawed market structure. Analytically or intuitively, more and more of them understand that they have little to lose but their middle-class illusions. They connect their own experience analytically to larger structures. Likewise, when a critical mass of adjunct faculty forms, many experience a similar consciousness-raising, and some start to organize.

The overproduction of PhDs is a good example of the systemic determinations behind the increasing exploitation of faculty and the eroding social commitment to quality higher education. Why not produce fewer PhDs and reassert control over the market by reducing the labor supply, thus improving labor's bargaining power over wages and working conditions? The simple and cynical answer is that many administrators would rather let the students teach one another than surrender any market power. A better, more complex answer is that the overproduction of PhDs (and other graduate degrees) responds only partially to the oft-cited selfish desires of tenured professors to teach only their narrow specialties. Such an accusation, in fact, now serves mostly as an ideological decoy for downsizers and right-wingers.

Behind the limited market power of seemingly "pampered" professors lies a much stronger structural demand, the institutional need for graduate assistants as cheap labor. After numerous calls for voluntary and radical enrollment reductions, especially in marginal programs, the continuing overproduction of PhDs demonstrates that many doctoral programs cannot afford change their admission policies even if they would want to. Especially in liberal arts departments driven by the need for large numbers of graduate assistants to teach lower-division undergraduate requirements, these doctoral programs produce PhDs less in response to the demands of any outside job market and more as a by-product of their own need for cheap labor. Increasingly, exploited non-tenure-track faculty and postdocs form a structural unit along with exploited graduate teaching and research assistants; the graduate students often ascend to the same roles a few years later.

Thus a superficial cause masks a deeper one. Institutions respond to the limited market power of a relatively few senior professors, but only because those professors' goals — to teach graduate students and to have time to do their research — happen to match the institution's own needs.

Another superficial cause put forth is the need for "flexibility" in hiring. Academic administrators argue that uncertain funding from state legislatures and large fluctuations in student demand for courses and programs necessitate having some faculty who can be laid off during a financial crisis without threatening tenure-track faculty. The problem with this argument is that especially at the less affluent and prestigious institutions — community colleges and state colleges — the percentage of part-time and other non-tenure-track faculty far exceeds the requirements for such flexibility. In fact, when more than half the faculty are adjuncts, we're no longer talking about "flexibility."

Many blame decreasing public support for the financial problems that generate abuses of the adjunct system. While it is true that taxpayer revolts like California's Proposition 13 have been a major cause of public higher education's money problems, we seldom hear about the underlying reason for those revolts. In fact, individual taxpayers have increasingly had to make up the revenue lost from a growing variety of tax breaks and other forms of corporate welfare. Just at the federal level, welfare for corporations and the rich amounts to at least $448 billion a year, and corporations' share of the tax burden has dropped from 31% in the 1950s to 11% today.[25] At state and local levels, where public education gets most of its public funding, governments compete against one another in a "race to the bottom" — for example, in handing out huge tax breaks for businesses such as sports stadiums.[26] If corporations and the rich paid their share, public college and university budget problems, not to mention a whole host of even more pressing public deficits, would disappear instantly.

Most public colleges and universities have always lacked institutional autonomy, and capitalist globalization increasingly assimilates them to corporate models. Why should professors have the lifetime job security of tenure when no one else does, says the new conventional wisdom. Casualization and "outsourcing" of the workforce, widening gaps between tiers of more and less skilled workers, instrumentalization of labor, and privatization all constitute large, long-term trends, now imported into colleges and universities. And these trends have recently intensified with the global domination of multinational capital over the nation-state.[27]

To understand the degradation of faculty and graduate assistant work structurally, we need to see it as the application to contemporary higher education of a practice developed by nineteenthcentury capitalists, which was originally called the "Babbage principle."[28] As analyzed by Harry Braverman in his classic Labor and Monopoly Capital, capitalists learn to commodify labor and extract maximum surplus value from it by pushing beyond the conventional social division of labor to a detailed division of labor.

Here the capitalists break down the whole production process into smaller and smaller units, and they divide workers into isolated and atomized tasks, categories determined by skill level. Thus they can increase profits by paying workers only the minimum amount, calculated on the basis of the particular narrow tasks assigned, and reducing the number of workers doing highly skilled and highly paid work. Combined with automation, the whole process of fragmenting production makes each task less skilled and less valuable, each worker a cog in a machine that only owner and managers understand. Workers are deskilled, their knowledge and command of the larger production process eroded, and their relation to the finished product alienated.[29]

It is not difficult to see the alarming relevance of this analysis, originating from the battles between industrial workers and bosses over more than a century, to academic labor today. Is the smallest unit of teaching labor the individual course? How little is it worth? Or is it the individual student paper, graded in a large lecture course perhaps by an anonymous moonlighting adjunct or teaching assistant from another university? Is the most efficiently produced and consumed higher education commodity the low-quality course, with minimal reading and writing, forced on adjuncts or TAs by overwork, lack of resources, and at lower-tier schools the resentments of disadvantaged students who must finance college with long hours at low-paid jobs?

What is the smallest unit of academic research labor? Perhaps humanities faculty, still writing long discursive articles and books, could learn from our more advanced cousins in science and engineering. There the process of quantification as commodification has gone much further, and the cynical concept of the "least publishable unit" routinely generates multiple publications from the same research by breaking down reports of results into artificially small segments. Thus science and engineering faculty maximize their rewards, based on numbers of publications, for the same expenditure of (mostly postdoc and research assistant) time and energy. It demonstrates admirable efficiency and entrepreneurship, but while those at the top of the faculty food chain learn to commodify their research, and those at the bottom to commodify their teaching, faculty deskill themselves, and shared democratic governance withers. Faculty get rewarded for thinking about means rather than ends, parts rather than wholes, for thinking technically and "professionally" rather than critically and holistically. Too few have the time or ability to attend to the whole institutional process of the production and dissemination of knowledge, so technocratic administrators assume more and more control.

June Nash explains the consequences of deskilling on faculty and graduate assistant teaching and research:

"The principle is simple: segment the workforce in jobs where subordinated workers undertake the denigrated, low-paid portions of the task structure, thereby preserving the privileges of a core group who monopolize the prestigious, more highly compensated sector. But in the case of academia, a method that has proved counterproductive in the U.S. industrial scene, with the debasement in the organization of work and the alienation of the workforce, is now being tried with faculties charged with instilling the highest levels of aspiration in training future generations who will undertake the most responsible roles in the society."[30]

Yet the faculties and students at elite schools remain largely protected from the overuse of part-timers, which occurs mostly at schools with more disadvantaged students. Combined with the disproportionately large number of women among part-time faculty, this produces a growing class, gender and racial hierarchy among both faculty and students during a period when higher education has become ever more central to social power and economic success.

"The American system of higher education since the nineteenth century has had a reputation for its egalitarian character and openness, especially when compared with its European counterparts."[31]

Such growing inclusiveness culminated with the open admission policies initiated in the 1960s. But the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, growing out of the tax revolts grounded in a diminishing corporate tax base, led to (among other things) an expanded use of part-time faculty.[32] Although groups formerly excluded from college have gained access, the expansion of the higher education system has come at the expense of inscribing a new class hierarchy within it. The "future generations who will undertake the most responsible roles in the society" now seem limited largely to those at elite colleges and universities, while the rest will learn to follow orders, mostly for technical tasks and mid-level service jobs.


I emphasize the structural dimensions of the problem not to overwhelm you with how much needs to be done but to demonstrate how seemingly discrete issues — casualization, GA exploitation, privatization, tuition increases, tenure form a pattern also visible elsewhere in capitalism's contemporary mutations. We're all in this together, all the tiers of the academic workforce, including tenured, tenure-track, fulltime non-tenure-track, and part-time faculty and graduate assistants. What they can do to one of us or to one tier, they can and will do to all.

Realizing this, the most exploited lead the way. During the last few years, graduate assistants and non-tenure-track faculty have started organizing in earnest, and unions and other associations are spreading rapidly.

"Twelve campuses, including three at the State University of New York, had T.A. unions three years ago, according to the A.F.L-C.I.O. Today, there are 23 unionized campuses, with serious movements under way at institutions like Yale, Temple, Oregon State and New York University."[33]

Organizers' biggest victory has come in California, where T.A.s at eight University of California campuses voted in the spring of 1999 to unionize. Representing nearly 10,000 graduate-student employees, the unions are affiliated with the United Auto Workers. T.A.s at Berkeley have been fighting for collective-bargaining rights since 1983. Ricardo Ochoa, union president there, gives credit for the victory to "a strong union, a system-wide T.A. strike in December [1998], legislative pressure, and a favorable ruling by PERB,"[34] the Public Employment Relations Board.

Not to be outdone, part-time and other non-tenure-track faculty are organizing as well. On campuses countrywide, they are raising consciousness, drawing attention to problems, and signing up members to new organizations. Since a critical mass of non-tenure-track faculty often forms in large cities with multiple colleges and universities, the first concerted action has taken place in urban academic markets In New York, CUNY Adjuncts Unite! organizes nontenure-track faculty and links their struggle with the assault on public higher education, which is particularly vicious there.

"CUNY's fulltime faculty declined from 11,300 in 1974 to 5,300 in 1998; the university system's 7,200 adjuncts now comprise 60 percent of the faculty but make up only 10 percent of the faculty union, the Professional Staff Conference (PSC)."[35]

In Boston, national activity and organization has promoted local activism. The AAUP and other faculty and labor organizations have helped to plan and fund the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL), a national network of activists which brings together part-time and non-tenure-track faculty with graduate teaching and research assistants. At the Third National Congress of COCAL in Boston in April 1999, faculty from a number of campuses in the Boston area founded the Boston Organizing Project to improve the working conditions of adjunct faculty and defend the integrity of higher education.[36]

The AAUP's Richard Moser describes the activity in Chicago and elsewhere:

"In Chicago, the NEA, after winning an NLRB representational vote among part-timers at Columbia College, has launched a citywide campaign aimed at part-time faculty. The AFT has registered similar success in organizing part-time faculty particularly in the New Jersey state system. In California, part-time faculty have organized the California Part-Time Faculty Association to lobby for legislative relief. North of the border the Canadian Association of University Teachers has also launched a drive to bring 'sessional' faculty into the union, claiming that their "inclusion is long overdue."[37]

In these organizing, lobbying, and educational drives, DEGREES OF SHAME has become an important tool. Hundreds of copies of the video are circulating in at least 40 states, and Barbara Wolf is making a follow-up tape to be released in 2000, looking at the organizing and other activities spreading around the country. Goals for adjunct unions include a minimum wage and improved benefits.[38] At the University of Massachusetts-Boston, unionized part-time faculty have won half-time status and full benefits. Here it has become clear to many that their long-range goal must be to remove the financial incentives administrators have for hiring non-tenure-track faculty in the first place: all faculty must be paid on a prorated basis, with benefits, for every course they teach. Administrators' complaints about tight budgets lose credibility as faculty and others examine institutional priorities, including subsidized commercial research and soaring administrative costs.[39] As Brodie Dollinger of the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students puts it,

"I will believe them about the budget when they hire the first part-time dean."[40]

The wave of adjunct and graduate assistant organizing is also creating other new institutions and prodding established ones to action. The National Adjunct Faculty Guild, founded in 1993, offers its members a job list, a magazine, the adjunct advocate, an e-mail discussion list, and an annual conference. While about 23% of full-time faculty are currently represented by unions, the figure is only about 10% for part-timers,[41] and the Guild has been debating whether adjuncts should form their own national labor union.[42]

Seventeen professional and disciplinary associations have organized the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW). This group seeks "to persuade accrediting agencies to articulate recommended ceilings for percentages of non-tenure-track faculty in specific departments,"[43] a variation on a strategy faculty unions have used at the bargaining table with limited success. In addition, CAW seeks to delineate more precisely the crisis' dimensions in particular schools and departments with a nationwide survey in a wide range of disciplines. Since the extent of teaching by faculty and graduate assistants who do not make a living wage can be embarrassing to colleges and universities, administrators often view it as a public relations problem. They are not anxious to collect, let alone publicize, exact current information about their exploitation of academic labor. As Virginia Wright Wexman, representing the Society for Cinema Studies on CAW, put it in an online letter to SCS members referring to part-time faculty,

"Up until now, we have had no reliable data comparing the number and nature of such positions at various institutions, and criticisms of prevailing practices that rely on anecdotal evidence in the absence of such data have had relatively little impact."[44]

Graduate assistants have founded Workplace: the Journal for Academic Labor online, published by the Graduate Student Caucus of the Modern Language Association. Impressively militant and incisive, its April 1999 issue includes a telling analysis of mainstream faculty unions' often complacent response to the crisis of academic labor. In a critique of a recent article in On Campus, published by the American Federation of Teachers for its higher-education members, Guest Editor Bruce Simon unpacks the paternalistic assumptions of even many faculty union members.[45] The point is not to attack allies but to show that faculty unions are not immune from the "prevailing model of business trade unionism which tends to focus on pacting with management rather than on broad mobilization."[46]

Organizing by contingent faculty should be seen in the context of new energy and militance in sections of the larger U.S. labor movement. There are attempts to reverse nearly half a century of atrophying union power since the A.F.L.-C.I.O. expelled communists and other leftists from its ranks in the fifties and accepted a secondary partnership in the mid-century social contact now broken.[47] A great opportunity will have been lost if the organizing energy of exploited faculty and graduate assistants does not reinvigorate the established faculty and education unions, the AAUP, AFT, and NEA, who need to put more resources into organizing the unorganized.

Finally, these beginnings in forming an academic labor movement can connect with student activism and town-gown coalitions to produce new synergies. The Center for Campus Organizing, a national organization of students, faculty, staff and alumni, unites progressives from many campuses around struggles against sweatshops, against homophobia, for affirmative action, organizing all campus workers, and a variety of other issues in an international context.

And the widely-publicized TA organizing at Yale, temporarily culminating in the brutally broken grade strike of 1995-96, taught important lessons about affiliations with low-status campus workers. The Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) at Yale affiliated with the university's clerical, technical, service and maintenance workers in Locals 34 and 35 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, and thereby confronted the long-term strategy of Yale's trustees, the aptly-named Yale Corporation, to drive down wages and bust the unions in New Haven. As the largest employer in New Haven, Yale exploits its near-monopoly position in regional labor markets, driving local workers to emigrate for better jobs while buying up cheapened property in the depressed industrial town. It is preparing to turn New Haven into "an Ivy League theme park for tourists to gawk at and for upper-income Connecticut to colonize."[48] In a letter circulated to all members of the Modern Language Association in February 1996, Yale Professor Annabel Patterson wrote,

"Yale is not prepared to negotiate academic policy, such as the structure of the teaching program or class size, with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union…who draw their membership from the dining workers in the colleges and other support staff."[49]

At moments like these the brutal class structure of hyper-capitalism emerges from behind the bland and pseudo-collegial face of the contemporary university. In order to build real solidarity, faculty, graduate assistants and students are going to have to abandon the illusions of status and prestige that compensate for a lack of power If we build technocratic unions that only protect our own interests, we fail. They can build education-labor coalitions not only by seeing ourselves as workers, but by representing the labor movement as educators and intellectuals. A union should have something to say about academic policy, about diverse political issues, and can itself be a public educator, historically, unions have done so.[50] The new national academic-labor coalition, Scholars, Artists and Writers for Social Justice, is one good start in this direction. And just the thought of unions running Yale is inspiring. Get a copy of DEGREES OF SHAME, look for its sequel, and use the tapes to organize.


1. I write as a faculty union leader whose union, the United Faculty of Florida, represents full-time faculty at universities and community colleges as well as teaching assistants, but not part-time faculty. As a former department chair, I also participated in the exploitation of many adjuncts to teach introductory courses.

2. Ernst Benjamin, "Improving Teaching: Tenure Is Not the Problem, It's the Solution," Table 3: Change in Faculty Distribution by Type of Appointment, 1975 and 1993. American Association of University Professors. <http://www.aaup.org/fnebta3.htm> (23 July 1999).

3. "The Status of Non-Tenure-Track Faculty." Report adopted by AAUP Committee G, p. 2, June 1993. <http://www.aaup.org.rbnon-ten.htm> (23 July 1999).

4. Benjamin, Table 3; "Status," p. 2.

5. Judith M. Gappa and David W. Leslie, The Invisible Faculty: Improving the Status of Part-Timers in Higher Education (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993) 125-128.

6. Benjamin, Table 3.

7. Benjamin, Table 3.

8. "Professional News," NEA Advocate, June 1998: 5.

9. "Part-Time Faculty: Quality Issues," NEA Update, Volume 4, Number 2, March 1998. Figure 5, page 3. <http://www.nea.org/he/heupdate/index.html> (5 August 1999).

10. On average, part-time faculty now spend seven years at the same institution. Remarks by Ernst Benjamin, Associate General Secretary and Research Director, AAUP, at Workshop on Part-time Issues, at the Conference of Scholars, Artists and Writers for Social Justice, Washington D.C., May 1998.

11. "Going Adjunct," Salon, p.2 (May 11, 1999), <http://ww.salonmagazine.com/it/feature/1998/09/17feature2.html>; Gappa and Leslie, passim.

12. "Status," p. 4.

13. "Going Adjunct," p. 1.

14. Elliott A. Krause, Death of the Guilds: Professions, States, and the Advance of Capitalism, 1930 to the Present (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996) 73.

15. Benjamin, p.2; "Statement from the Conference on the Growing Use of Part-Time and Adjunct Faculty," AAUP, 1997 <http://www.aaup.org/ptconf.htm> (23 July 1999).

16. Gary Rhoades, Managed Professionals: Unionized Faculty and Restructuring Academic Labor (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998) 136.

17. Benjamin, Table 2.

18. Rhoades, p. 136.

19. Benjamin, p. 2.

20. Gappa and Leslie, pp. 47-64.

21 AAUP "Statement from the Conference," p. 4; "Part-Time Faculty: Quality Issues," Figure 13.

22. Denise K. Magner, "'Postdocs,' Seeing Little Way Into the Academic Job Market, Seek Better Terms in the Lab," Chronicle of Higher Education 7 August 1998: A10-A12.

23. James Sterngold, "Betwixt and Between: Are teaching assistants employees or are they students? That is the question," The New York Times, Education Life, 1 August 1999, 17-18, 20.

24. Andrew Ross, "The Labor Behind the Cult of Work," Will Teach for Food: Academic Labor in Crisis, ed. Cary Nelson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997) 137-143.

25. Mark Zepezauer and Arthur Naiman, Take the Rich Off Welfare (Tucson: Odonian Press, 1996) 6-10.

26. Zepezauer and Naiman, pp. 115-116.

27. In his mordantly amusing analysis of this situation, Bill Readings argues,

"University administrators, government officials, and even radical critics now more and more often speak of the University in terms of 'excellence' instead of in terms of 'culture'…"

My argument is that this new interest in the pursuit of excellence indicates a change in the University's function. The University no longer has to safeguard and propagate national culture, because the nation-state is no longer the major site at which capital reproduces itself.

"…The University thus shifts from being an ideological apparatus of the nation-state to being a relatively independent bureaucratic system. The economics of globalization mean that the University is no longer called upon to uphold national prestige by producing and legitimating national culture. The University is thus analogous to a number of other institutions — such as national airline carriers — that face massive reductions in foreseeable funding from increasingly weakened states, which are no longer the privileged sites of investment of popular will."
— Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996) 13, 14.

28. Vincent Tirelli, "Adjuncts and More Adjuncts: Labor Segmentation and the Transformation of Higher Education," Chalk Lines: The Politics of Work in the Managed University, ed. Randy Martin (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998) 186.

29. Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974).

30. June Nash, preface to Anthropology of Work Review 15, No. 1 (Spring 1994): 1, qtd. in Tirelli, p. 186.

31. Tirelli ,p. 188.

32. Tirelli, p. 188.

33. Sterngold, p. 17.

34. "Footnotes," Chronicle of Higher Education 2 July 1999: A12.

35. Ali Zaidi, "Adjuncts Arise," Z Magazine October 1998: 19.

36. Richard Moser, "The New Academic Labor System and the New Academic Citizenship," Radical Historians Newsletter Number 80, May 1999:13.

37. Moser, p. 13.

38. "What is COCAL?" 1999.
<http://omega.cc.umb.edu/~cocal/whatis.htm> (23 July 1999).

39. Lawrence C. Soley, Leasing the Ivory Tower: The Corporate Takeover of Academia (Boston: South End Press, 1995).

40. Zaidi.

41. "Status," p. 6.

42. "Coverstory," The Adjunct Advocate: The Magazine for Adjunct College Educators May/June 1999. <http://www.sai.com/adjunct/coverstory.html> (24 July 1999).

43. Virginia Wright Wexman, letter to Society for Cinema Studies members, SCS-L July 1999 Mailing: Part 1, p. 11. <http://www.cinemastudies.org> (21 July 1999).

44. Wexman, p. 11.

45. Bruce Simon, "Introduction to Striking Back: Academic Labor in Action," Workplace: The Journal for Academic Labor, Volume 2, No. 1, April 1999. <http://www.workplace-gsc.com/workplace2-1/simon.html> (6 August 1999).

46. Zaidi, summarizing a speech by Barbara Bowen of the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY during a labor conference at the CUNY Graduate Center in April 1998.

47. Moser, pp. 1, 12.

48. Ross, p. 138. See also the other essays in "A Yale Strike Dossier" in Nelson, ed., especially Rick Wolff's economic analysis.

49. Michael Berubé, "The Blessed of the Earth," Nelson, ed., p. 158.

50. Ross, pp. 142-143.


In addition to sources listed in the notes, the following are useful:

Order DEGREES OF SHAME from Barbara Wolf Video Work, 1709 Pomona Court, Cincinnati, OH 45206. Phone (513) 861-2462, fax (513) 861-6723, or e-mail <bwolf@altavista.net>. Prices are $15 for adjuncts, $20 for other individuals, $50 for institutions, and $60 for institutions using purchase orders.

The Coalition of Graduate Student Employee Unions, e-mail <cgeu@mgaa.org>.

The Center for Campus Organizing, 165 Friend St., #1, Boston, MA 02114, phone (617)725-2886, fax (617) 725-2873, e-mail <cco@igc.org> and web site <www.cco.org>. The Center publishes an excellent magazine, Infusion.

Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice (SAWSJ), c/o Labor Relations and Research Center, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 125 Draper Hall, Box 32020, Amherst, MA 01003, phone (413) 545-3541, fax (413) 545-0110, e-mail <sawsj@lrrc.umass.edu> and web site <www.sage.edu/html/sawsj>

The National Association of Graduate-Professional Students, 207 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, Washington, D.C. 20003, phone 888-88-NAGPS, e-mail <nagps@neteom.com> and web site <www.nagps.org>