When Adjuncts Go Union

From The American Prospect:

By now, Tiffany Kraft imagined she would be fully immersed in academia, putting her Ph.D. and passion for British literature to use on an annotated version of Irish novelist George Moore’s Mike Fletcher.

But her path to academia has not been as straightforward as she had hoped. She got her master’s when President George W. Bush was finishing his first term; her doctorate during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. Yet still, she finds herself in the purgatory of academia in which she’s been stuck since 2004: adjunct instruction.

“Adjuncting wasn’t great but there were no tenure-track jobs available,” Kraft says. “So I just thought I’d ride it out till the kids got through high school and I could move. Then after a period of time you’re sort of branded an adjunct if you don’t matriculate immediately—people wonder what’s wrong with you.” As an instructor of English and writing composition in Portland, Oregon, she’s cobbled together employment at four different higher education institutions in the metro area.


In a typical fall term, Kraft can secure up to six five-credit courses between three different campuses, ranging anywhere from $2,700 to $3,500 per course. In winter and spring terms, she usually can pull in three courses. For a single mother of two, these are not ideal circumstances. “I’m on fumes this term; it’s tight,” she said during the winter term.

She used to be able to find courses to teach in the summer as well. But now she says she’s seeing fewer summer opportunities at the colleges she works for, especially since many full-time faculty—who get hiring preference—are picking up extra courses.

“I just got a letter from my director and she said there is no summer employment for adjuncts. There were four slots, and they got filled,” she says.

Summer now holds a special anxiety for Kraft. She’s been forced to file for unemployment through the summer months. “Last summer was the first time I had to do that, and it scared me to death. I managed to get by but it wasn’t easy.”

The Affordable Care Act hasn’t made things any easier for her. University human resources departments are now hypersensitive to making sure that part-time instructors don’t work enough hours to require the universities to provide them with health insurance. Kraft’s previously stable course load at Portland State University was cut because of that. “HR red-flagged everyone that was above hours,” she explains. “That was a huge slam.”

Kraft’s tenuous situation is far from unique; in fact, it’s pretty much par for course.

Contingent faculty has become a subset of the new working poor—the subset with Ph.D.s.

Part-time. Contingent. Non–tenure track. Casual. Adjunct. Non-standard. Peripheral. External. Ad hoc. Limited contract. New model. Occasional. Sessional. Call them what you will, but these professors have now become the majority of college and university faculty. Their jobs are defined by low pay, limited instructional resources, tenuous employment security, and a complete lack of institutional support for their own research and writing. Contingent faculty has become a subset of the new working poor—the subset with Ph.D.s.

Kraft is just one of more than one million contingent instructors in the United States. Today, part-time and adjunct instructors comprise more than half of all faculty (not including those at for-profit institutions); another 20 percent are full-time without tenure. Just 30 percent are traditional tenured or tenure-track appointments. And the future is not looking better as tenure-track hiring continues to plummet, currently around one in four.

Since she began teaching in 2002, Kraft has been trying to better the lot of contingent faculty, reaching out to fellow adjuncts and her department chairs. Her efforts, however, amounted to just “banging my head against the wall,” she says. Her colleagues and bosses weren’t ready to have a conversation in which the problems of adjuncts, and solutions for those problems, were seen as collective. In 2012, she wrote an article airing her grievances, and in 2014, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) invited her to speak at a town hall event at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Read the full story here.