Sunday, October 13, 2013

Is Unionization the Answer for Adjuncts?

A large piece of the story brought to the fore by the death of Mary Margaret Votjko, and a piece that often is used by those who would table debate on the use and treatment of adjuncts, is the fact that the bleak circumstances of her last years and death only appeared to the general audience through the writing of Dan Kovalik.  Criticism of Kovalik stems from the fact that he is senior associate general counsel for the United Steelworkers union and has been working with adjunct faculty in the Pittsburgh area who wish to unionize.  Supposedly, Kovalik used Votjko’s case to further his own agenda—that of bringing union protection and bargaining power to the adjuncts, specifically those at Duquesne, where Votjko worked until her dismissal.  

This, to me, highlights what is now the new normal in America.  No one ever pays attention to any given situation that may be in dire need of work/attention/help/repair until catastrophe strikes.  Bridges and infrastructure in disrepair?  No one can find the money or be bothered until a bridge collapses or a pipeline bursts spewing either fuel or water onto people, homes, and land.  Anyone pointing out the problems beforehand, when some preventative measure may have been taken is a treehugging Communist or something else hardly patriotic.  We cannot be arsed to fix it if it isn’t entirely, devastatingly broken.

Well, it’s broken.

The situation of adjunct faculty use and their gradually worsening statuses is not new.  This developed.  Rather, this was allowed to develop over time.  At any point, faculty, administration, or governmental agencies (in the case of state funded schools) could have asked more questions.  When the dollar becomes the only thing that matters, people become commodities without names, lives, and histories.  They simply cease to matter except in terms of class coverage and, of course, how many students can be crammed into a class that will be covered.

In Mami's post "Adjuncts Should Do as Little Work as Possible," which I discussed on this blog earlier, I did not address her comments on unions that appeared towards the end.  She states, regarding the adjunct life, "I was stupid enough in the beginning to assume it was a problem at the particular school I worked at.  Unions are not the answer since I was represented by a union at all three schools.  To me this was a double whammy--1) Get paid next to nothing with no benefits and 2) Pay union dues."  When I first encountered these thoughts, I was more impressed that three schools allowed union participation for adjuncts.  I have now taught for four different schools in this area and only one has a union, of which I am still a member.  The others do not.  Or rather, if they did they were for full-time faculty only and I was never approached to join.  Even now, $22.81 come out of my check for my union dues.  I've begun to wonder what exactly that buys me.

As a full-time temporary faculty, this afforded even me the union eye and dental plan, first and foremost:  totally worth it.  Additionally, I voluntarily served on the union's temporary faculty committee, when it met.  The last two years that I've attempted to do this, I believe it has not met at all.  The chair of the committee is an acquaintance of mine, but is also a tenure-track faculty member, as are several other members.  Now, I do not fault them for wanting to help and showing concern for our causes.  I understand that some sort of permanence is needed since contracts are either yearly or semesterly for adjuncts there.  In fact, of all the other schools in our same system, we had seemingly the most organized efforts for adjuncts.  I know this because I helped this committee complete a system-wide survey a few years back.  While serving on this committee, we heard a few complaints but neither met the qualifications to be forwarded on to the membership.  Neither person fulfilled their responsibilities to work towards conversion to full time permanent faculty.

Just this term, the union asked for nominees for a temporary faculty member to attend representative council expressly to speak on our behalf and hold a permanent place at the table.  I could not apply to do so, for the meetings conflict with my teaching times at one of my schools.  I forget which one, I just know that they do because I checked.  I do not know what exactly this will mean for adjuncts at this school or in this union and system, but it seems to be a step in the right direction.  However, even though the union made an effort to protect us in the last contract negotiation with the system, going so far as to reject deals that would precipitate situations such as the non-full-time state I find myself in now, the union did not go far enough.  They did not add to the contract wording to protect us from our own departments!  Who knew?!  The only advice I received when presented with my current job offer there was to not take the offer because it had not directly violated the contract and there was nothing to be done.

The part of me that grew up learning about Mother Jones and the proud union history of my home state wants to believe that unionizing can only benefit adjuncts, if handled well, but it seems adjuncting has become a situation in which one must imagine and prepare for any possible assault to do any lasting good.  Taking a hard hit from so-called friendly fire likely never crossed the state leadership's mind.  It will now.  We have been made examples.

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