COCAL–A Tri-National Contingent Workforce Self-Organizes to Abolish Contingency

By Joe Berry and Helena Worthen

Over 200 people attended the eleventh conference of COCAL (Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor) which took place August 4-6 at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of the City University of New York (CUNY) in New York City. The focus was on contingency–the damage it does to faculty, students, and the systems of higher education­–in the three participating countries: the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

The goal: To abolish contingency itself.

The “Outside” Part of an “Inside-outside” Organizing Strategy

Although most of the people who come to the biannual COCAL conferences are academics and union members, these are not typical academic or union conferences. Instead, they are the “outside” part of an “inside-outside” organizing strategy. Contingent faculty activists come “outside” their own workplaces to learn from each other as contingent activists and go home to organize “inside” their own workplaces, or unions. Planned as a form of popular education, the conferences serve as an educational event to spur positive movement. Contingent faculty leaders moderate discussions and draw out strategy from reports, thereby taking charge of the change.

While this is a risky “trust the people” way to run a conference, it has worked for COCAL. In fact, COCAL XI carried on the highest level of this popular education strategy through lots of serious analysis and planning, and less simple exchanges of experiences (though plenty of that too). Even the plenaries reserved most of their time for floor discussion and kept presentations to 5-10 minutes each.

The plenaries were on the state of higher education in all three countries, organizing among contingent academics, and developments among our allies and possible allies in workforces outside the academy. Then small group discussions were set up to build cohorts that met three times and delved into specific topics ending with suggested action plans to be presented at the final general assembly. These discussions tried to cover the range of ways we can do our work, from bargaining, to legal and legislative, to alliances with students, to media, and to building national agendas. Each discussion group submitted a summary statement to the final assembly to get a consensus affirmation of their work. The most specific was the call from one group for a Democracy Index to rate campus governance, especially as it related to contingent faculty. The final assembly also passed resolutions supporting Campus Equity Week again in 2015, to be spearheaded again by New Faculty Majority, and one supporting a general demand for a minimum pay of $7,000 per 3 semester unit class, or the equivalent.

Unions and Organizations Participate, but agenda is self-organized

All the work of putting on these conferences is done, and all the decisions made, by self-organized volunteers. While all the teacher unions (with the notable exceptions of national NEA (National Education Assoc. from the US and Canadian Association of University Teachers, CAUT from Canada, both of which had participated in the past) support the conference with cash and support for travel and housing for some participants, no national teacher union has an official seat on the organizing committee for the conference or a vote in the conference agenda. No foundations provided support, though there have been some small grants in the past. In this case, the hosting union, the Professional Staff Congress, representing faculty and staff at CUNY, provided significant in-kind and staff support as well as subsidizing many of there own members to attend.

COCAL itself does not have any paid staff or even much continuity of structure. It is, in fact, the evolving series of conferences that happen because volunteers are willing to do the work and come forward to do it. It has a COCAL website, a listerv, and a news aggregator COCAL UPDATES (email, and in between the conferences, volunteers meet in conference calls (in three languages if possible) as the International COCAL Advisory Committee. With each cycle of the conference, more new people get involved, a local organizing committee is formed, and more experienced people take on new roles.

COCAL XI was open to everyone at a cost of $225-250 for all three days, including most meals. The conference local organizing committee was chaired by Marcia Newfield, the VP for Part-time Personnel, of the PSC and a long-time member of the International COCAL Advisory Committee.

Highlights and Participants

This year COCAL welcomed the significant emergence of a membership organization, New Faculty Majority (now 4 years old), which can carry out year-round contingent faculty advocacy activities between the COCAL conferences. NFM has provided testimony at recent congressional hearings, started an unemployment insurance project, and sponsored Campus Equity Week (CEW) activities in the Unites States in 2013.

Some of the hot topics of conversation were the establishment of the Contingent Faculty Caucus at the recent AFT convention, the growth of the Metro Strategy organizing model focused on the private (mostly unorganized sector) in Pittsburgh (Steelworkers), Philadelphia (AFT), and many other cities (SEIU), and ways people in more advanced places can usefully help people in more hostile areas. There was also some criticism of the conference, expressed by the meeting of an “After COCAL” gathering. However, the open grassroots nature of COCAL was demonstrated by the fact that even the critical gathering had its flyer inserted in the official conference folder. It seemed to many people that if the rest of the labor movement, including the teacher union movement, looked and felt more like a COCAL conference, we would all be in much better shape.

Besides many who were members of American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Education Association (NEA), and American Association of University Professors (AAUP) locals, there were participants from United Auto Workers (UAW), United Steel Workers (USW), and other unions in the sector. SEIU (Service Employees International Union) was present for the first time, reporting on its Adjunct Action organizing work in Boston, St Louis, Seattle, Los Angeles, SF Bay Area, and the “mother” of the SEIU effort, Local 500 in the DC area. There were also folks from places without union representation, but where people are organizing nevertheless, like Ohio and the Ohio Part-time Faculty Assoc., Florida with the South Florida Adjunct Assoc., and Colorado, where many folks are organizing under the auspices of the AAUP.

The range of activities and conversations can’t really be expressed in a short report. One very successful mealtime program included a round robin reading of poetry about contingents written by Vicki Moss of SUNY’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Another included a report from NFM’s Craig Flannery on the October 2013 Campus Equity Week actions all over North America. We even had a book session with some of the many contingent faculty who are also authors presenting.

The Importance of the International Perspective

Of all the “alt-labor” or non-union worker groups that have emerged in recent years, the contingent faculty group is one of the few that has become intentionally, self-consciously international from the bottom up. This reflects both the internationalism of research and publishing in academia and the global shifts to re-make higher education, parallel to neoliberal reforms in K-12 systems. It is also reflected in the emergence of the Tri-National Coalition In Support of Public Education, which many from COCAL have participated in. COCAL has been hosted in Mexico City, Quebec City, Chicago, Boston, and Vancouver, among other cities. Translation is always a challenge, both to arrange and to pay for, but those of us from the US are learning, albeit too slowly, both the importance and value of making sure all 3 languages have full access to the discussions. As word spreads, surprises like the previously unannounced appearance of a faculty union activist from Argentina (who was given the chance to address the entire group) is expected to become more common. This follows on the precedent of a Korean contingent speaking in Mexico at COCAL X. The real limit is funding, both for international travel and translation services, which will be one of the main preoccupations of the International Advisory Committee in the coming year.

The effort required to work across borders is worth it because contingency is doing damage to higher education in all three countries that send participants to COCAL. The academic workforce in all three countries is similarly precarious, underpaid, and vulnerable. In the US, over 70% of this workforce is contingent. In Mexico, it is 70% or more, and in Canada, it approaches 50% (The Canadian government refuses to collect the relevant statistics.). Under these conditions, the practice of academic freedom is a struggle. This shared struggle becomes expressed as a movement, of which the COCAL conferences are a focal point.

The next COCAL, in 2016, will be somewhere in Canada, to be determined by whatever local organizing committee steps forward to do the vast amount of work required.

For a compilation of all resolutions, reports of each small group, pictures, and other information about COCAL, past and present, or to contact COCAL, go to

Joe Berry is a member of the AAUP Committee on Contingency and the Profession and is the author of Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education (2005, Monthly Review Press). He is on the COCAL International Advisory Committee and is retired (as a contingent) from U of IL and City College of San Francisco in Labor Studies/Labor Education.

 Helena Worthen is emerita Clinical Assoc. Prof. from U of IL Labor Education Program and is a longtime contingent faculty activist and labor educator. She is the author of What Did You Learn at Work Today: the Forbidden Lessons of Labor Education (2014, Hardball Press). 




5 thoughts on “COCAL–A Tri-National Contingent Workforce Self-Organizes to Abolish Contingency

  1. This is a very well written and informative summary. Thanks to Joe and Helena for putting it together and to all who helped make the conference a success. With such high rates of contingency, we can see how important this sector is to future organizing efforts.

  2. This is a great summary. I just wanted to add that although CAUT did not participate this year, other Canadian labor groups did such as Fédération nationale des enseignantes et des enseignants du Québec.

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