Part-Time Professors: Little Pay. No Pensions. No Health Care. No Seniority. Now Organizing Unions.

One at a time, the teachers came out of the sub-zero January cold and into the lobby of Wayne State University’s McGregor Hall in Detroit.  By the time the board of governors meeting began — where the teachers had three minutes total to detail their concerns — they were together in force.

Before they went inside, staff organizer Bryan Pfiefer held out a green folder full of names.  These were the part-time teachers who lost work last fall when the university cut its humanities department and interdisciplinary studies program.

“We had a teacher who was here for 10 years, and they told him his class was cancelled the day before the semester began,” said Pfiefer, who organizes contingent faculty for Michigan’s American Federation of Teachers (AFT) branch.   “Without a union, what can you do?”


The part-timer phenomenon has its roots in the 1970s, when college administrators suffering from funding cuts scrambled to reduce costs just as demand for post-secondary education rose.  Campus populations were changing, as “non-traditional” students appeared in classrooms, struggling to find a place in the weak job market.

Reclaiming the Ivory Tower“Schools could no longer project how many sections of English 1A they needed to staff, and they lived in terror of the fact that full-time faculty might go idle,” said Joe Berry, a labor educator at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of Reclaiming the Ivory Tower

To stay flexible, schools began to hire more contingent faculty and reduced tenure track positions.  The result was a new workforce employed for lower pay and fewer benefits, with precarious job security.

Four decades of lean management in higher education has produced a nationwide reliance on contingent teachers.  Full-time non-tenure track professors and part-time adjuncts form a majority of faculty in higher education.  Contingent instructors rose from 43 percent of the workforce in 1975 to 65 percent in 2003, according to a Department of Education report.


Southeast Michigan has been an epicenter of part-time faculty organizing.  Contingent instructors are the fastest-growing segment of the Michigan AFT.  Part-time professors at Wayne State, who outnumber full-timers four to one, voted 445 to 58 to form the AFT-affiliated Union for Part-Time Faculty (UPTF) last spring.

As they negotiate their first contract, teachers are holding community forums and visiting each other in classrooms to break down the isolation between overworked contingents.  Amanda Hiber teaches English at Wayne, where two-thirds of her department is staffed by adjuncts.  “I did not know many of my colleagues,” she said.  “We didn’t usually have time to talk to each other, but now we have some community.”

Many of the 1,000 part-timers at Wayne responded to UPTF’s surveys, revealing the sordid details of life as an adjunct: no pensions, health care, or seniority system.  Pay is not prorated with tenure-track faculty, and varies by department.

University President Irvin Reid, however, made $394,000 last year — a 63 percent raise.  But teacher salaries don’t make life in the ivory tower cushy.  “If I taught the teaching load of a full-time professor at Wayne,” Hiber said, “I would make less than $14,000 a year.”

At other Michigan universities, contingent teachers are organizing, and seeing results.  The Lecturer Employees Organization at University of Michigan built a union to represent most of the non-tenure track faculty on all three of its campuses.  LEO’s one-day strike in 2004 secured pay raises, health benefits, and sick pay for 1,200 teachers, an agreement that was renewed late last year.


Nearby Henry Ford Community College recently voted for a union and full-time non-tenure track professors at Michigan State University in Lansing are organizing, while Wayne State hammers out their first agreement.

Local organizing is growing, but Berry says national solidarity is a must.  The Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, a loose network of activists, works to forge these ties by highlighting common struggles.  Late last year, the Chicago COCAL released a guide on unemployment insurance, which has been consistently denied to contingent faculty on a university’s claim to give “reasonable assurance” of employment.

When San Francisco Community College teachers won a class-action appeal for the right to unemployment benefits in 1989, California part-time teachers organized around this legal precedent.

Though different regulations exist from state to state, the victory in California informed organizing strategies elsewhere.  The Washington AFT in 2001 carved out a legislative provision for contingent faculty at two-year colleges to secure eligibility for these benefits.

Teachers have joined the growing ranks of the part-time, flexible labor force as corporate cost-cutting models have seeped into the university.  But the spread of contingent teachers also represents a potential for organizing.

“In the last 30 years, the rate of ‘yes’ votes for part-time faculty unions has been huge,” Berry said, “But it hasn’t been enough to change standards across the board.  Now it’s a matter of building a critical mass nationally.”

Joe Berry’s book Reclaiming the Ivory Tower, can be ordered at

Paul Abowd is an intern at Labor Notes (

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