A Road Map to Organize Contingent Faculty in Higher Education

Neoliberalism has gutted higher education. Those conditions won’t change unless contingent faculty figure out how to organize and transform the American university system.

City University of New York (CUNY) staff members protest the exploitation of adjunct faculty in New York City in July 2016. (Erik McGregor / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Imagine you’re a university undergraduate attending your first class of the semester. You’ve been curious about this class, a requirement for your major. The professor welcomes you and the rest of the students and launches into her overview of the topic. She is engaging, the lecture is clear, the discussion lively. You see why your friends recommended that you take the class from her. Invigorated, you walk out into the afternoon sunshine and look forward to the rest of the course.

What you don’t know are three things. One, the professor is now hurrying off campus into her car and across town to a community college, where she will arrive just in time to teach another class that night. Two, she is an adjunct, making less than half of what tenured professors make for teaching the same class. And three, unless you are an unusually attentive and politicized student, you also don’t know that she is representative of a growing majority — the casual labor force on which rests the otherwise unsustainable edifice of higher education.

It’s not news that public higher education, once a robust engine for working-class advancement, has fallen on difficult times. Thanks to its de facto capture by market-oriented forces transforming a common good into something resembling a profit-making corporation, students pay more in tuition and fees for smaller menus of educational options; administrators without subject area expertise exert greater control over academic discourse; and faculty are bifurcated into a shrinking tenure-line professoriate with job security alongside a steadily growing contingent workforce unable to cobble together a decent living, often without the resources to teach students properly despite professional qualifications equal to (and often greater than) their tenured colleagues’.

One element of the problem is supply and demand: the overproduction of professors. Graduate programs knowingly pump out more brain workers than the job market can absorb, creating a reserve army of labor banging at the gates of the academy, helping to keep wages and working conditions somewhere between barely tolerable to abysmal among the precariously employed.

Then there are shrinking public budgets. Under pressure from lobbyists representing corporate interests and the rich, elected officials keep taxes lower than they must be to adequately support decent public services, including public colleges and universities.

Once upon a time, the GI Bill massively boosted college attendance for working-class students and powered an enormous expansion of public higher education. I attended the University of California, Los Angeles, in the early 1970s, the tail end of those flush times, paying just $150 per year for my tuition and fees — essentially a free education, as mandated by California’s visionary Master Plan for Higher Education in 1960. Today, with the free tuition part of the plan a dead letter, University of California students pay $14,000 per year, not including books, food, and rent. And I had very few contingent faculty teaching me because there were few teaching at the time.

The reasons for this decline in access for students and gutting of faculty working conditions are laid out in Joe Berry and Helena Worthen’s Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the Contingent Faculty Movement in Higher Education. Their overview of the problem, while succinctly told, is not new. The real contribution of Power Despite Precarity is its prescription for changing the situation, synthesized from their observations and, more importantly, their active participation in the contingent faculty labor movement.

The authors have been involved in contingent faculty union-building for decades in several states and many struggles. Worthen was a leader in the Community College Council of the California Federation of Teachers, serving as an elected officer and editor of the part-time faculty’s newsletter. Her background as a union staffer and labor educator supported her earlier award-winning book, What Did You Learn at Work Today? The Forbidden Lessons of Labor Education, a thoughtful reflection on power relationships hidden in plain sight in the workplace. Berry, like Worthen a longtime labor educator, previously wrote a well-regarded manual on contingent faculty organizing (Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education). So, the two are well-positioned to tackle the topic. (Full disclosure: I have known and periodically worked with the two of them on such campaigns over the years.)

The authors situate the current deplorable moment within the history of the US academy, which they sketch and periodize as involving four “transitions”: “Each transition is actually a re-set following a struggle, a temporary and reversible truce between two or more forces working out the social and historical dialectic.” They note that another transition is currently underway, within which workforce casualization or contingency plays a starring role.

Carnegie’s Standardization

The first transition was “Standardization,” a response by ruling elites to the rapidly expanding division of labor and personnel needs of industrial capitalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Playing midwife to the birth of the professional-managerial-technical class, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie commissioned a report on K-12 and postsecondary curricula and matriculation practices. It concluded that the pedagogical chaos spawned by innumerable state-based public education systems and private schools did not serve anyone well, and recommended a standard credit system with three-unit courses, based on one lecture hour and two study hours, framed within a fifteen-week semester.

This standard created the basis for measurable educational outcomes and a professionalizing academic workforce with nationally interchangeable skills. Carnegie’s foundation further solidified the shape of academic labor practices with its creation of a private, portable national pension system for professors that still exists, the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA). During this period, up to World War II, professors built associations to monitor and defend their disciplines.

Following the war, the GI Bill enabled returning veterans to attend colleges and universities free of charge, vastly expanding both the systems of public higher education and the previously negligible cohort of working-class students. As Berry and Worthen inform us, “The demand for faculty was so great that during the entire post–World War II generation, basically anyone with an advanced degree could get a job.”

In this transition, which the authors term “Expansion,” employment standards were drawn in much the same way from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)’s 1940 “Statement of Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure” as they had been from Carnegie’s report in the earlier era, giving rise to an occupation with forty-year sinecures, thanks to tenure and pensions.

But even in this relatively privileged moment, the ivory tower remained something short of a utopia. The authors here line up with a wave of revisionist contemporary histories of the New Deal, noting that, as with other New Deal programs, administrative details for the GI Bill were left to the states, with the result that minorities and women fared less well than white men in gaining access to the funding, the degrees, and the jobs. Despite lip service paid to academic freedom, McCarthyite pressures shrank the permissible boundaries of curricula, classroom discussion, and campus free speech, leading to intellectual witch hunts. The class consciousness or ideological glue of this relatively homogeneous white middle- and upper-class male professoriate, shaped within the intellectual horizons of the Cold War, later “would form an obstacle for union organizing.”

By the 1960s, these internal contradictions proved explosive in the “Movement” era. Worthen and Berry mark the beginning of this period with the North Carolina student lunch counter sit-ins of 1960. Their through line includes the iconic Berkeley free speech fight on the opposite coast, coalescing in a national campus push against the Vietnam War. They see these interlocking struggles around civil rights and the war as one with student demands, by the end of the 1960s, for greater access to higher education and changes in the curriculum to match the influx of different student demographics. Growing — if uneven — faculty support for these reforms took such unprecedented turns as previously quiescent unions and associations of professors joining demonstrations, teach-ins, and even striking alongside students.

The Neoliberal Contraction

With the end of the war and the mass social movements in retreat by the end of the 1970s, higher education found itself one battleground among others as the “Neoliberal Contraction” began to reverse the gains of the post–World War II economic boom for the working class and previously underserved student populations. This transition has been with us for four decades. But Worthen and Berry argue that before managers were able to run public universities like businesses, a precondition had to be met: the casualization of the faculty.

An academic workforce during the previous era estimated by the authors at 75-80 percent full-time tenure track had become majority contingent by the 1990s. The process unfolded more or less at the same time as unions were establishing a foothold among faculty at many colleges and universities. But due to the split between tenure-line and precarious faculty, most of these unions lacked the unity of class position and purpose necessary to mount a successful opposition to the neoliberal transformation of their workplaces.

All this analysis of the problem comes in the first third of the book. The rest is devoted to doing something about it.

The authors, while addressing academic precarity in general, return again and again to the California State University (CSU) system, its faculty union, the California Faculty Association (CFA), and the struggle of contingent faculty to find their place within both institutions. This case study constitutes one core of the book. Its argument for a class-struggle approach to building contingent faculty power is meant, say the authors, to create the kind of union that can win not only within academia but across other sectors of the neoliberal economy built on precarity.

Several times, the CFA’s lecturer contract is referred to as “the best in the country” for contingent faculty. Support for the assertion includes compensation heading toward equal pay for equal work and contractual provisions for a measure of job security, both made possible by a hard-won fight for inclusion in union governance. “An outsider looking at this contract can hardly begin to imagine the work invested in tooling and retooling the language of these articles” — which no doubt is why Power Despite Precarity dives deeply into that language and the work.

The authors balance the technical end of the bargaining history with anecdotes and interviews conducted with a number of the CFA rank-and-file activists, staff, and officers who pushed tenure-line faculty to listen and respond to their concerns. Foremost among these is John Hess, a lecturer in film studies at San Francisco State University, who originally intended to cowrite the book with Berry and Worthen before he became too ill with complications of Parkinson’s disease.

Hess, a scholar who cofounded the left-wing film journal Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media with Chuck Kleinhans and Julia Lesage, spent years as a key rank-and-file activist before being hired as CFA staff and helping to guide its work with lecturer members.

Instead of simply losing Hess as a coauthor, Berry and Worthen use him as a narrative touchstone throughout the book. His stories — often in his own words — clarify the fraught relationships between contingents and administration, contingents and tenure-line faculty, and contingent organizations and unions.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than during a discussion of contingent faculty experiencing “imposter syndrome” resulting from the cognitive dissonance of a high-status job crashing against “flexible” employment:

John Hess captured this when he said that none of us — no contingent — “is more than three seconds away from total humiliation.” Walking down a hallway, having just taught an excellent class or graded a set of thoughtful, exciting exams, one can cross paths with a manager, who says, “Oh by the way, there’s no place for you on the schedule for next semester. Sorry!”

Hess’s experiences also serve as concrete examples for the point Berry and Worthen make about the role of leftists within unions that need to change but haven’t managed to get there. They note that radicals bring two important elements to labor struggles: the courage to step forward when few others will, and “at least the rudimentary tools of organizing to move from individual complaint to collective action.”


A number of small but annoying errors mar Power Despite Precarity. California’s collective bargaining law for K-12 and community college faculty passed in 1975, not 1977; early Chicago teacher union leader Margaret Haley is misidentified as Margaret Healey; Gray Davis was not governor of California in 1994; and John Hess — without diminishing his secure place as an insightful film critic and coeditor of Jump Cut — was not “one of the founders of the academic field of film criticism,” a discipline that predated his work by many years.

A more substantial question might be raised about the authors’ claim that the CFA’s lecturers possess the “best contract and the best working conditions for contingent faculty in the US.” I’m not in a position to judge this assertion; there are a lot of contingent faculty collective bargaining agreements out there. But according to other observers, the characterization is only partly true.

Mike Rotkin, a former leader of the University of California — American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT), thought that his union, following a 2002 strike, negotiated the best agreement in the United States for lecturers who have taught at least six years, as it stipulates a real measure of job security in the form of continuing three-year contracts, barring program cutbacks:

Under this system, lecturers who successfully complete a sixth-year excellence review can only be terminated either for cause (a significant decline in the quality of their teaching) or if they are laid off because there is no longer a need for the lecturers to teach the kinds of courses they have been teaching. And post-six lecturers can no longer be replaced by new lecturers.

Of course, as with most precarious employment, the UC-AFT contract is connected to circumstances that undermine it — such as the 25 percent churn each year of the contingent lecturer workforce throughout the UC system. And the inadequacies of UC-AFT’s current, expired collective bargaining agreement are made clear by the resounding 96 percent strike authorization vote of the membership this summer.

Worthen and Berry argue that bargaining successful contingent faculty contracts boils down to two elements of content: job security and wage parity. But as they show, layers of tactics and strategies, not to mention theoretical and practical considerations, complicate the organizing that must take place to bring such a contract into being.

A lot of nuance floats through these pages, as in understanding that academic freedom for contingents is not guaranteed even if the CBA includes an article explicitly outlining the right, as self-censorship inevitably accompanies job insecurity. The authors argue that such a right — essential if the professoriate is to deliver quality education — can never be fully established via bargaining, even within a strong regime of contract enforcement. Achieving full academic freedom will ultimately depend on ending contingency.

Berry and Worthen offer a central theoretical position from which contingent faculty might survey their situation and act effectively. With reference to Antonio Gramsci’s dual embrace of the “war of position” and the “war of maneuver,” they note that an inside/outside strategy is the approach most often arrived at by contingent faculty, consciously or not: “It means organizing ourselves inside whatever overarching body (like a union) we are part of, outside of (in the sense of different from) the existing official structures.”

Insights and Nuggets

There is no room in this already lengthy review to fully enumerate the insights and nuggets of wisdom scattered throughout Power Despite Precarity. We find familiar labor history but repurposed in relation to the topic; personal anecdotes illuminating organizing theory; inside baseball in regard to the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, AAUP, and a number of contingent faculty groups; explorations of the contradictions in the goals pursued by groups of faculty; delineation of union structures that protect and encourage active participation by members and those that inhibit it.

That said, Power Despite Precarity makes abundantly clear that there is no magic bullet for contingent faculty seeking to organize. The penultimate section, consisting of seven short chapters, plumbs “troublesome questions” that the authors understand have no fixed answers but nevertheless must be confronted in order to move the struggle forward — questions like, “What gets people moving?” and “Who is the enemy? Who are our allies?” This approach might be the authors’ most important contribution. By the time we finish reading the book, we have a roadmap to thinking and acting like organizers.

While Power Despite Precarity may not be as pithy as Joe Hill’s admonition, “Don’t mourn, organize,” it enables us to follow his advice.