Josh Boldt

Information Architect at University of Kentucky

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Off Track: How to Bust an Adjunct Union

Full 01072014 unions

This is for college administrators who are dealing with the mounting strength of adjunct professors on their campuses.

In 2013, adjuncts across the country unionized in unprecedented numbers. Soon they will be strong enough to demand fair pay, benefits, and long-term contracts. Naturally, administrators fear this growing movement because it mean adjuncts are realizing their power and exerting it.

If adjunct unionization continues to catch on as it has in Washington, D.C. and Boston, it won’t be long before all major U.S. cities have active adjunct unions employing the “metro-organizing” strategy that the Service Employees International Union is currently developing in those regions.

In fact, the success of this metro-organizing strategy is already encouraging activity in other cities. SEIU’s Adjunct Action group has won victories in its Los Angeles campaign, creating a unique connection between adjuncts on the east and west coasts. Chicago appears to be the next major city in line for a unionization push, as the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors are gaining strength with adjuncts there.

These victories indicate that 2014 is poised to be the Year of the Adjunct. Contingent professors are asserting themselves and unions are pushing to unite these newly-actualized workers.

It’s only natural, then, that those who stand to relinquish some power are reacting negatively to this impending shift. Over the past few months, I’ve read many stories of university administrations that are attempting to quash these adjunct-union drives.

For example, there’s Seattle University, whose faculty members have been notified that “the school’s administration opposes ongoing efforts to unionize non-tenured instructors and [has] encouraged faculty to oppose joining a union.” Then there’s the particularly heinous case of Northeastern University, whose administration hired Jackson Lewis—a law firm which has a reputation as a union-busting powerhouse. Northeastern will likely spend more money retaining Jackson Lewis than the institution would spend giving its teachers a proper raise.

And these are just a couple of the more blatant attempts to bust union-organizing strategies among adjuncts. Add to that the subtle and not-so-subtle emails that often get sent to faculty members who are contemplating a union vote, and you’ve got a large-scale antiunion effort underway.

But these administrations are going about it all wrong. Fighting organizing attempts with more negativity feeds right into the strategy of unions. The meaner you are to your adjuncts, the more likely they will be to strike back. We’re talking about intelligent and motivated people here--people with pride and integrity. Trying to crush the organizing efforts of employees who are being abused is like poking a hornet’s nest with a stick. It just makes the hornets more angry and aggressive.

Remember Aesop’s fable of “The Wind and the Sun”? The Wind’s attempt to remove the traveller’s cloak fails because its strategy is to blow as hard as possible and force the traveller into submission. The Sun merely steps back and makes the traveller happy and comfortable, so he removes his cloak because it’s no longer necessary.

Aesop’s moral, of course, suggests that kindness gets more results than coercion. Treating a person with respect and empowering her to make her own decisions yields an employee who reciprocates that sentiment.

So here’s my advice to college administrators facing the threat of an adjunct union: The best way to avoid unionization is to treat your employees well and pay them a fair wage. The only guaranteed way to bust an adjunct union is to make it unnecessary. The harder you blow, the tighter your employees will pull their cloaks.

Conversely, the fastest way to drive your employees to unionization is to pay them poorly and treat them disrespectfully. Send out a form email about why they shouldn't unionize. Be sure to carefully explain all the “benefits” you offer them. Suggest their jobs are actually pretty great and then close your email by affirming that you really appreciate all their hard work. Finally, be sure to subtly imply that they can be easily fired and replaced if they ignore your friendly message. If you follow these steps, you can guarantee your adjuncts will start attempting to unionize immediately.

It all comes down to this: When people are comfortable and feel like their employers respect them both financially and personally, they very rarely have any desire to rise up against the system. When that system is perceived as being fair, people are generally pretty happy. They work hard and they're productive and they enjoy what they do. Rarely does anyone attempt to organize a mutiny against the management. And if someone does rock the boat, that person's coworkers will generally self-police the environment because they don't want someone to spoil the arrangement.

On the other hand, if everyone is disgruntled, it only takes one or two outspoken leaders to organize the workers in their discontent and take down the whole system. Therefore, managing an exploited workforce by fear and intimidation is actually much more dangerous to the health of the company than creating a culture with good morale wherein employees themselves work to maintain balance. Costs expended to suppress union activity will never go away, nor will the stress associated with that suppression.

Instead, give your people a solid raise. Get them up to a respectable income and save yourself all the unnecessary expenses and stress. The best way to bust a union is to make sure your employees never need one.

What are unions like on your campus? Let’s get a discussion going in the comments, or tweet me @josh_boldt.

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  • This essay, with its recommendation for Skinnerian positive reinforcement from college administrators to stop unionization by adjuncts, reveals the writer's inexperience and naivete with unionization. The reasons why college administrators abuse adjuncts are, at core, twofold: (1) they can do so legally (adjuncts are "at will" employees, vulnerable to dismissal on a whim), and (2) there's an ever-rising surfeit of adjuncts (a/k/a very cheap labor). The overtly simple concept driving this abuse of adjuncts is to pay as little as possible for them. So any recommendation to pay adjuncts more money and to give them better benefits and job conditions is arrantly absurd to college administrations profiting greatly from adjuncts' ongoing misery.

    Is adjunct unionization, in fact, sweeping across America? Too many Americans have been brainwashed into regarding unions as diabolic, superfluous, or both. In addition, college administrations will vastly overpay outside union-busters, laughably called "work harmony consultants" and other silly euphemisms, to prevent vastly underpaid adjuncts from unionizing. Moreover, the strong political push to establishing a monolithic "meritocracy" throughout America leaves no room for improving the plight of adjuncts, whose "merit" is usually, unfairly, and sadly tied to the smallness of their paycheck. In short, the victims are blamed for their own victimization.

    Finally, winning a union election, admittedly very tough to achieve, is but a day-at-the-beach prelude to the ensuing, far tougher negotiations with college administrations--advised by pricy lawyers and "work harmony consultants"--for better adjunct pay, benefits, and conditions. The Big Chill in academe has been replaced by the Big Freeze-Out.

    R J
    R J
  • "How to Bust an Adjunct Union"? Answer: Do Nothing. Adjunct Unions have done a marvelous job at eventual self-distruction. Just be patient. If truth be faced, organizing adjuncts is not (was never) a very good idea at all. But there are (were) a lot of adjuncts out there and to cash strapped unions, it was very low hanging fruit to gather up (easy dues money in union coffers). But in reality there is little "community of interest" (COI) in adjunct unions. COI is (has been) the essential bond that provides longevity to labor unions. As hard as they have tried COI cannot be successfully created synthetically in adjunct unions, as the organizers had hoped. Adjuncts are actually much closer to the legal definition of "independent contractor" than they are to a cohesive community of scholars. Moreover, adjuncts are maddingly transient - here today, gone tomorrow, providing very little stability to those unions who were foolish enough to believe they could be successfully organized. Moreover, organizing adjuncts has not been profitable for unions and it has brought the unexpected baggage of very tacky problems that are equivalent to wrestling bears - an activity the union finds exasperating, if not impossible. So organizing adjuncts has proven to be a steep uphill climb for unions on continuous unyielding slippery slopes. Just be patient, slowly but surely these adjunct unions will be jettisoned.

    William Connor
    William Connor
  • It is thanks to my union, a California Faculty Association affiliate, that I have almost a living salary, some job security through a seniority system, and health and retirement benefits. What I don't have is the right to teach more than two classes per semester (and thus make enough money at one institution to live), any guarantee of employment beyond the current term, and the respect of some colleagues as a fellow educator. Nor is my pay anywhere near commensurate with that of full-time faculty.

    I am deeply grateful to my union for making it possible to teach where I do. But I think that we contingent laborers of academia need unions with national clout. Together we represent the majority of instructors in universities today. The current system of exploitation is unsustainable. Changes are inevitable, but the shape of those changes remains to be determined. Adjunct faculty need strong regional or national unions to give us the power to negotiate those changes for the benefit of our students, our universities, and ourselves as teachers and scholars.

    Rebecca Gordon
    Rebecca Gordon