Why you should sign a petition calling for the Department of Labor to investigate contingent faculty working conditions

Guest Blogger Seth Kahn is a faculty member (composition and rhetoric; critical pedagogy; qualitative research methods) at West Chester University of PA. He’s a peace activist and serves in several positions for the PASSHE schools’ faculty union (APSCUF).

If you’re a Facebook friend or in my G+ network, you’ve seen me post a link to this petition calling for the Department of Labor to investigate the working conditions of contingent faculty in the US.

If you haven’t already, here’s why you should do this–

If you’re a contingent faculty member, it may (should?) benefit you directly. I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t sign it, especially because your local administration should never know that you did. It’s safe, and it’s potentially very helpful.

If you’re a faculty member who isn’t contingent, there are several reasons to do this. First, it’s an obvious act of solidarity with our contingent colleagues whose positions are untenable; even contingent faculty with the best salaries and benefits and access to governance and all the rest of it are still contingent. Second, if you believe that “we” need to be taking action on behalf of contingent faculty but don’t have faith in our professional organizations, unions, etc, this petition opens up another avenue for action. Third, there is simply no good reason not to call for this. I can’t imagine the world in which the conditions of contingency that our adjunct faculty work in are reasonable.

If you’re an academic administrator/manager, a successful petition to the Department of Labor may help alleviate the pressure on you to make changes, especially without any guidance from the law. At the very least, a successful petition will clarify what the rules are, and I don’t know any administrators who aren’t happier knowing that.

If you’re a student, or the parent/guardian of a student, you may not know how many of the faculty teaching in American colleges and universities are contingent, meaning they have mostly short-term (one semester, mostly, sometimes a year, very rarely longer than that) contracts, usually are compensated very poorly (the petition has plenty of the numbers if you need to see them), often don’t have access to reasonable offices or equipment or libraries or the resources all college faculty need to do our work. Individual adjunct faculty work against daunting odds and conditions to serve you well, and can only do better if they’re supported reasonably well. You can help make that happen–again, at no cost or risk to yourself.

If you’re anybody else, especially if you’re also a contingent (temporary, term, contract, freelance, etc) worker in any other field, you should sign this petition as an act of solidarity with contingent colleagues, and as a way of helping to build the network of contingent workers that can respond en masse to the exploitation happening everywhere.

As simply as I can put it, there is no good reason not to sign.

For those of you who are interested in the larger adjunct labor movement, I would also argue supporting this campaign is important because it opens up yet another new approach to fighting for equity. We’ve seen creative approaches growing and intertwining at a lively rate in the last few years: Josh Boldt’s Adjunct Project; SEIU’s Adjunct Action campaign; the New Faculty Majority; more recently the#mlademocracy campaign, which has successfully put forward a slate of contingent and contingent-supportive candidates to run for the organization’s offices; and the AFU’s petition to the Department of Justice to investigate Higher Ed writ large for denial of civil rights and collusion.

Those efforts, of various sizes and scopes, have met with varying degrees of success–just like any efforts do. I’ve supported or been involved (more or less tangentially) in all of them , including this one, and believe that supporting this petition campaign is important not only because it’s a good idea, but also because it represents another possible path to equity–and against the alternative, which is to do nothing, it’s a path well taken.

19 thoughts on “Why you should sign a petition calling for the Department of Labor to investigate contingent faculty working conditions

  1. Of course, the U.S. Department of Labor will not be able to investigate labor conditions for workers in public colleges and universities due to the states’ sovereign immunity under the prevailing interpretations of the Eleventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

    Likewise, the LMRDA (Landrum-Griffin Act) only applies to non-public unions. For a time, the DOL was able to investigate some financial reports, etc. in public unions that were intermediate bodies with at least one private sector local (e.g. AFT state affiliates, etc.) of private national unions (e.g. AFT, NEA, AAUP, AFL-CIO, etc.), but President Obama, shortly after assuming office, had his Secretary of Labor rewrite the regulations after the requisite perfunctory public comment period to eliminate even that small oversight of the public employment sphere.

    • Concomitantly, the Obama administration decimated the enforcement budgets of the U. S. Department of Labor and therefore the DOL staff — already predisposed to exonerate unions, the partners of university administrations in this devil’s bargain of contingent faculty exploitation — often let cases slide because they simply cannot keep up with the workload.

      Just some realities to keep in mind: as in most Federal agencies at this time, lip service is often the only service available…and even then, sometimes hard to come by.

      • While the Eleventh Amendment immunity of the states as it is currently interpreted by the Supreme Court does not appear to be justifiable from the literal language of the amendment itself, nevertheless, case law and the current law of the land is that states have sovereign immunity from prosecution under Federal laws unless they have voluntarily surrendered that right and consent to be sued or unless Congress expressly intends states to be subject to a specific piece of legislation.

        It’s all very complex; here’s a link to a Cornell Website on the amendment: http://www.law.cornell.edu/anncon/html/amdt11_user.html. Even the fact that the Fourteenth Amendment was passed after the Eleventh has been used as evidence that it does not abrogate states’ rights.

  2. Thanks, Seth, for your unflagging support of contingent faculty rights. And thanks to Lee and others who crafted the letter and/or signed it.

  3. P_a_l: That might be true (I’m not sure the law is that clear), but even if it is, I don’t think that undercuts the value of signing this petition. Why not? Because: (1) it still demands an answer from somebody, and that almost always invites more pathways for organizing/strategizing; and (2) if it turns out that we get directed to state labor boards instead, then at least we know that’s a viable option. Win/win, coming only at the expense of time, during which exploitative practices aren’t going to have fixed themselves anyway.

    • My intent was not to undercut the message of your posting but to indicate that the call for investigations strategy needs to be expanded to the fifty state public employment boards because the largest faculty numbers are likely in the public university systems. Labor statistics and information gathering is likely not as restricted as investigatory activity by the Federal agency.

      Of course, the AAUP Assembly of State Conferences could easily coordinate such an effort as you propose, precisely because it involves both the public and private sectors of higher education — that is, if the AAUP leadership had not transferred so much of its budget to the CBC’s organizing efforts (in protest of which the ASC Chair resigned last year). The ASC needs to stand up on its own constitutional feet and levy dues to the conferences if the AAUP national leadership continues to undermine its mission.

      Truth hurts. Dewey and Lovejoy are turning in their graves.

        • It is difficult to say what would help to catalyze AAUP into appropriate action. One need only read the hostile response of the AAUP leadership to Sean Kennedy’s “Open Letter to Barbara Bowen” posting at this blog site to see that “rocking the boat” and supporting the rights of contingent faculty is not the AAUP leadership’s priority at the highest levels of the organization.

          AAUP leaders are currently oriented towards fund-raising through the subjugation of AAUP to the AFT organizing hierarchy in large public university unionization drives — even raiding the ASC funds to hand them over to the CBC, the AFT, and those collective bargaining issues.

          AAUP members in the advocacy chapters are watching their dues siphoned from their interests to the interests of CB chapter organizing as the first priority. Thus it is no surprise that the membership in the private college and university chapters is dwindling as AAUP leaders chase after mandatory agency fees in collaboration with AFT. With mandatory agency fees union leaders need not be responsive to their members, as can be observed time and time again in AFT and NEA public sector unions — and already now also in AAUP.

          In light of all of the above, Dewey and Lovejoy are indeed turning in their graves.

  4. PAL: Many of us, like myself, work in private non-profit colleges under a private parent union. Any step toward helping our egregious working conditions is helpful.

  5. Enough excuses, already! When more people start filing EEOC complaints, those excuses and the people who perpetuate them will be exposed for what they really are.

  6. Thanks for posting this, Seth, and for your continued support. We need more tenured allies like you who understand how contingency threatens us all.

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  8. Thank you Seth for doing something, anything, to bring attention to the unfortunate reality of slave labor in our colleges and universities. Obstacles aside this petition is one of the few important movements that reaches out to our nation, to students, teachers, parents to expose the underground world of Higher Ed.Sign this and then shock yourself by doing a quick search for “adjuncts in Higher Ed”. You will quickly see that adjuncts aren’t –they are becoming the faculty.

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