Many Be Called, But Few Chosen: Duquesne University Adjuncts’ Fight to Organize, Part One
October 4, 2012 10:30 am
By: Moshe Z. Marvit
In January of 2009, Josh Zelesnick found out that he would not be teaching his expected four courses the next semester, which was only two weeks away. At the time, Zelesnick was an adjunct, or “contingent” faculty member in the English department at Duquesne University, a small university in Pittsburgh founded by the socially progressive Catholic Spiritan Order. The university sits on a hilltop overlooking the Monongahela River on one side and downtown Pittsburgh on the other. Though in the center of Pittsburgh, its geographic position places it beyond the thoughts of most Pittsburgh residents.
Zelesnick had been teaching two courses per semester for several years at Duquesne. He had just finished interviewing to become an adjunct at the University of Pittsburgh in order to pick up a few more courses. By teaching a total of four courses a year at Duquesne – a full time course load for many tenured faculty – Zelesnick was making less than $12,000 per year and had no access to health insurance. In early 2009, Zelesnick realized that his low-paying jobs with no benefits were also precarious.
Though the University of Pittsburgh had intended to hire him, he was offered no courses for the next semester. Simultaneously, Duquesne decided to invoke a clause in the one-page contract it had with contingent faculty that stated that it could cancel a course at any time for “inadequate enrollment,” with the “University retain[ing] sole discretion in defining inadequate enrollment.” In this instance, Zelesnick’s course did not have low enrollment. A full-time faculty member’s course had low enrollment, and Duquesne designated Zelesnick’s course as having “inadequate enrollment” in order to take it from Zelesnick and give it to the full-time faculty member. The clause was being invoked here because there was “inadequate enrollment within the English Department.” Facing this reality of having his salary cut in half, Zelescnick went to work at Trader Joe’s as a part-time “crew member.”
At Trader Joe’s, Zelesnick stocked shelves and ran the register whenever he’d hear the bell ring, while still trying to teach as many courses as he could pick up at Duquesne. He also received benefits and higher wages than he was making teaching freshmen English composition and helping first-year students adjust from high school to college at Duquesne University. But Zelesnick describes himself as someone who “needs to teach” so, unable to imagine himself not teaching, he left Trader Joe’s after a year to continue teaching at Duquesne and the University of Pittsburgh and writing poetry.
Several adjuncts at Duquesne have pointed out the marginal place they have at the university. They describe the three main problems that they face: low pay, lack of access to health insurance, and lack of any job security. Many characterized the pay as “exploitative” and “unjust,” considering the total amount of hours that are required for each course. Adjunct faculty I spoke with describe how each three credit course for first year students requires an extensive amount of preparation, one-on-one time with each student, and grading of 18-22 students’ papers several times per semester. For each course, the adjunct faculty have been paid $2,556 (this year they received an increase to $3,000 when they began to organize). They are permitted to teach a maximum of four courses per year, meaning that at the current rate of pay they would make an annual salary of approximately $12,000. Most agreed that per hour they are paid approximately minimum wage.
The adjunct faculty are free to teach at other local colleges, and many pursue this option, often picking up an additional course or two at the University of Pittsburgh or the local community college. However, coordinating two schedules is difficult when each job retains the right to cancel an instructor’s contract at any time.
Additionally, the adjunct faculty are neither provided with subsidized health insurance nor allowed to buy into the university plan. Some have health insurance through their spouses, some buy individual high-deductible catastrophe insurance on the private market, and some just try hard not to get sick. Robin Sowards, an adjunct professor in the English department at Duquesne, describes this last option as the sad reality of many of the contingent faculty – made all the more difficult by the high stress, compromised immunity existence of the many undergrads they come in contact with. For many adjuncts, “if they get sick, they’re financially ruined.”
Beyond these core issues, each adjunct I spoke with described the continuous indignities they face as adjunct faculty. Clint Benjamin, a self-deprecating fiction writer in the English department at Duquesne, said it bothers him when the administration continuously refers to him as “contingent…ad hoc…transitory” faculty, explaining that this is his career. Benjamin has been a faculty member at Duquesne for over six years, and said that the treatment of adjuncts makes it so that a person never feels stable. He is proud to announce that he finally decided to adorn a wall of his shared office this year: “I put up a poster … of a rock and roll band. The Clash.”
Sowards describes how emails are addressed to “graduate students, adjuncts, and faculty,” as if adjuncts are a category apart from faculty. He points out that adjuncts deliver much of the curriculum, but they are not allowed to serve on committees for curriculum. In the English department, adjuncts are the only individuals with a copy machine quota – forcing many to have to travel to Kinko’s to make copies for their students. He personally has to share an office with 11 other adjuncts. According to Sowards, Duquesne mandates that issues of academic integrity must be discussed with a student in a private location, but adjunct professors – who currently make up almost half the department and approximately two-thirds of the university – are not provided a private space. “If you’re telling a student that they are going to fail the course for plagiarizing, and they’re going to be weeping and you’re going to be handing them Kleenexes, having two or three other people in the room, it’s humiliating for the student,” Sowards says. These small issues “wear you down…all kinds of little things that are difficult to do, and add up to a substantial impediment to doing your job.”
Benjamin joked, “The adjunct position is great for those with lower self esteem because you’re really regarded as a second-class citizen. It’s good for the humanities because you’re constantly asking ‘am I good enough?’ and then you see your paycheck and realize well ‘maybe no, no you’re not.’”
Asked how they planned to get full-time employment, each adjunct I spoke with described how they’re trapped in a vicious cycle. Their course-loads are so heavy that they have little time to pursue their research or publish. However, in order to get a tenure-track position, you have to have publications. Furthermore, the university where you’re teaching has no incentive to offer you full-time employment because they can get you for cheap. One adjunct described how after several years “you start to get the stink of the adjunct on you,” and other places start to assume that there’s a reason that you don’t have full-time employment.
Josh Zelesnick was the first to raise the issue of organizing a union, and this idea appealed to Sowards almost immediately. Sowards’s research looks at the ways that quantification has affected poetry, and this connects directly to his political beliefs that a body’s structure directly affects the way that its members are treated. He makes this connection to Duquesne by noting, “The people who run it are far enough from the consequences of their actions that they can do things that are morally wrong without any deliberate malice.” Sowards sees the amplified voice and presence of a faculty union as a method to counter this structural problem.
The issue of faculty organization has been fraught with problems for over three decades. A 1980 Supreme Court decision, NLRB v. Yeshiva University, held that faculty at private universities were not protected by the National Labor Relations Act to organize a union because they were “endowed with managerial status.” However problematic that description may have been for full-time faculty, Zelesnick stated that it would be absurd to categorize the adjunct faculty as managers.
Zelesnick had met several union organizers and lawyers in 2009 when he tried to stop the multi-billion dollar, multi-hospital University of Pittsburgh Medical Center chain from closing a community hospital in Braddock, a struggling post-industrial town about ten miles down-river from Duquesne University. The effort failed and Braddock lost its hospital. A year later, the mayor of Braddock was arrested when he tried to initiate a dialogue with UPMC by going to its headquarters with a sign, and refusing to leave without a meeting. This summer, Braddock residents watched as UPMC opened a quarter-billion dollar hospital in a neighboring affluent community. At the protest, Braddock resident Jim Kidd told the local NPR affiliate that the reason he was still rallying against UPMC after the Braddock hospital had already closed was, “a closed mouth never gets fed, so we are out here opening our mouths and saying things about the way we think things should be.” Realistic about the difficulties ahead for the Duquesne adjuncts, Zelesnick appears to have learned this lesson from Braddock.
Zelesnick sent out an email to each of the part-time faculty in the English department in order to see if others were interested in trying to organize a union. He started to get positive feedback, and a group of adjuncts went to discuss the issue with Dan Kovalik, a lawyer with the United Steelworkers and activist who worked on the Braddock hospital campaign. The Steelworkers were interested in helping the adjuncts, but told them that they should first discuss the issue with other unions to see if there was a better fit. The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, which represents all of the city’s high school teachers, told Zelesnick that they thought that the Yeshiva University decision barred the adjuncts from organizing. The American Association of University Professors, which has a variety of faculty unions, was interested, but the conversations did not develop.
The newly formed organizing committee returned to the Steelworkers, saying that they would like to be affiliated with them. Duquesne University President Charles Dougherty expressed concern about the faculty choosing the Steelworkers, stating: “[T]he Steelworkers appear to be opening a path that could lead to the compromise or loss of our Catholic and Spiritan identity. None of our faculty are steelworkers. We are not aware that the United Steelworkers has any prior experience representing faculty in Catholic universities. The purpose of Duquesne is education and the advancement of our mission. We do not want to run the risk that the Steelworkers would seek to influence issues at the university far beyond pay and other working conditions.”
The adjunct faculty I spoke with explained that they felt that the Steelworkers were a natural fit. Sowards described how the Steelworkers are “an enormously diverse union,” representing a wide range of workers. He pointed out that they are headquartered in Pittsburgh and have a real interest in helping Pittsburgh workers. Furthermore, Sowards said that the Steelworkers have a successful history of organizing adjunct faculty in Canada, where they also have a large presence. Sowards added that one of the most important qualities about the Steelworkers was that they have a “strong tradition of being a very democratic bottom up kind of union.” This point was echoed by several other adjuncts in describing why the Steelworkers were chosen, saying that the union gives locals a great deal of autonomy, which would be important in an academic setting.
This is part one of a three-part series. Read part two here.
Moshe Z. Marvit, an employment discrimination and labor attorney, is the author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice.