For adjunct professors at Temple University, the ongoing attempt to unionize by 2011 just got urgent.
On Nov. 1, First Year Writing professors Mike Cihak, Frank Fucile and 23 others received an email from Rachael Groener, Associate Director of Temple’s First Year Writing Program. “Dear Colleagues,” the email begins, “I’m writing to let everyone know that all spring 2011 adjunct instructor positions have been given out in both the FYW and Undergraduate English programs. If you haven’t heard from me or Rose Wint, it means that we didn’t have a course to offer you at this time ... The ‘gradjunct’ situation has made available classes even more scarce … I wish the situation were different.”
The message came as a shock to many of those who’ve counted on Temple’s employment for years and expected to join the full-time professionals’ union during the Spring semester. In the meantime, contractual employees are still looking for answers as to how, and why, this happened.
“I don’t know if [the layoffs] are happening as a way to keep us from organizing, though that’s a certainly more romantic story,” says Cihak.
“Strictly speaking,” says Fucile, “it’s not in Temple’s budget interests to have grad students teaching … Perhaps the fact that they’re spending money to do it suggests it’s a union-busting tactic, because we know Temple is willing to spend money to do damage to unions, as we saw during the nurses’ strike.”
The “gradjunct situation” began in March—less than two weeks before the Temple nurses’ strike—with an email attachment. “On March 19, a policy change was made,” says Andrew Dixon, 32, English Literature Ph.D. candidate and Temple University Graduate Students’ Association (TUGSA) Staff Organizer. That change required all graduate students working as adjuncts to become, in the eyes of the university, graduate assistants. The policy afforded these new adjuncts-turned-graduate assistants all the benefits for which their union had fought: $15,000 per year if teaching 20 calculated working clock hours per semester, or two courses, and a health care stipend of $312 per month (up from $400 per year before organizing). According to Dixon, there are at least 900 graduate assistants at Temple.
That’s great for graduate assistants, but it leaves the 1,300 to 1,400 adjunct professors—who are currently the only employees on campus who do not have union representation and, therefore, no option of pay-raises, health care or job security for longer than a single semester—at the North Broad postsecondary institution scrambling for protection.
“When I first heard about the union, I thought, ‘OK, that’s cool if you’re into that,’ and at the time I didn’t really think there was a substantial need for it,” says Cihak, who’s been teaching since 2009. “I just didn’t think about it in a serious way. It wasn’t until [the layoffs] happened that I thought about it at all.”
Ralph Flood, veteran professor of American Studies and Latin American Studies at Temple, created the Adjunct Organizing Committee (AOC) in 2003 with help from Arthur Hochner, president of the Temple Association of University Professionals (TAUP), the full-time professors’ and other professionals’ union. Flood currently works with a number of adjunct professors from several departments, attempting to organize adjunct professors.
But the organization of adjunct professors has proven extremely difficult. Adjuncts aren’t allotted offices and therefore do not spend much time on campus. There was often a scramble in between classes to find adjunct professors as they were either moving to another classroom or leaving campus.
Regina Bannon, professor of American Studies and member of the AOC refers to potential union members as “moving targets.”
Fucile and other organizers would set up tables and hand out pamphlets on campus. In other instances, adjuncts would hold up rally signs outside administrative buildings on both the Philadelphia and Ambler campuses.
“We got some support from the American Federation of Teachers, and we got support from the Temple full-time union,” says Fucile. “But in general, it was all grassroots. We didn’t have outside canvassers from the American Federation of Teachers. That’s why it took so many years just to try and track people down.”
The AOC created a website in September 2007, which is maintained by TAUP. It includes organization updates, adjunct protest dates and times, downloadable authorization cards and leader contacts.
Eli Goldblatt, Director of the First Year Writing Program, believes there’s little that can be done about the cuts to adjunct faculty. Nevertheless: “The problem with the decision that it was made very quickly, it wasn’t made in consultation with anybody and it just popped into our email boxes,” he says. “And it was made at a very high level at the university.”
And though he lauds the university’s decision to give graduate assistants more benefits, he’s not sure if unionization would have necessarily stopped the layoffs.
“That’s the nature of adjunct labor,” he says. “And it’s a bad thing about adjunct labor, and it’s why I work with people to get them other kinds of jobs, because sometimes you have courses and sometimes you don’t … But can I tell you, definitely, that people in central administration weren’t thinking about the adjuncts unionizing when they made decisions? I cannot tell you that because I didn’t hear anything one way or another. The decision about gradjucts was made much further up the line.”
The Office of the Provost at Temple did not respond to calls for comment.
In light of the layoffs and unpredictable future, Bannon and Flood are still in high hopes to hold their election to unionize next semester—and believe it’s imperative they do so—but nothing’s been set in stone. “I’m especially concerned about young adjuncts, working two or three jobs at universities and trying to piece together a living of what they thought would have been a professional career, now having to eke out a living by shuttling back and forth. We’re like gypsies,” says Flood.