The precursor to our modern unions were the guilds of craftsman in medieval and early modern cities and towns. Often local, they still wielded great power when it came to setting prices and practices for their respective skill. If you hired a baker, you knew what the price was going to be, regardless if it was down the street or across town. In many ways the modern skilled workers unions act the same way, if you need iron work done, regardless of where or what the project is, the scale is the same. The workers are guaranteed a rate for their labor.
However, in many areas, this isn’t the case. The power of the industrial union was great at one time, but no longer. Instead of being a unifying force for an entire industry, the unions instead opted for a shop by shop, or company by company negotiation to occur. There were similarities in the contracts but overall the union was balkanized by employer.
Unfortunately, the latter practice is what is currently going on in higher education. Campus by campus, adjunct and non-tenure track instructors are unionizing, ironically, independently of one another. Each union drive is campus specific, with its own caveats and circumstances. What’s more, one of the leading unions in this drive, the SEIU, isn’t what one would call a traditional education workers union. It’s a union of service employees. Also, it has a bit of a corruption problem. It is more of a marriage of convenience than anything else.
The industrial union model is a bad fit for contingent faculty. What is needed is something broader, more industry specific than employer specific. Academics need to create a guild. It would be similar in construction as the Actor’s Equity and Screen Actors Guild. The idea is that across the region, and hopefully across the country, a system of payment, benefits and protections would be established, scaled to the amount of work done by each individual. Like an actor with a part in a play, if a person taught a class at Loyola, the person at DePaul would be paid the same. Variance across different markets would be adjusted for, a person in Ames, Iowa shouldn’t (nor need) the same dollar amount as someone in Chicago. The same benefits and job protections should carry across all locales.
Look, according to the leftist magazine Forbes, over 70% of college courses are taught by contingent faculty. This isn’t going away any time soon. While the drive for a collective voice is a good impulse, the adjunct faculty and in some cases non tenure track instructors are thinking too small. A greater movement is needed to make for real change.
The great problem is uniting people across various institutions. Americans in particular have never been very good with general strikes. Getting the faculty at one university to stage a walk-out is hard enough. I can’t even imagine trying to get multiple campuses to participate across a city or region. Then again, if the Actors Equity can herd those cats called actors, it should be possible in other professions.
In the end, this would be a great solution for everyone. The colleges and universities would have a stable and predictable pay scale with a relatively compliant workforce. That workforce would have a combination of security and freedom to pursue various opportunities and have a better idea of what to expect. Most of all, students would benefit from a stable professorate at their given university of college.
It would also help address one of the main complaints about the whole part-time ethos, namely it is meant to be part-time, not a full time job. But we don’t make the same distinction for actors or writers. Why should we ask it for people wanting to be teaching scholars, or scholarly teachers? As one full-time faculty member remarked to me, “if you teach part-time for two semesters, maybe it’s time to give it up and find a job.” That flies in the face of all the platitudes laid on college students about finding their passion, working in something they love, etc. As the model of tenure-track and collegiate instruction continues to change, those precious positions are going to continue to fade away. If the 70% don’t do something innovative, the idea of being a scholar and a teacher will fade as well. Like so many things in the United States, teaching in higher education will continue to revert to what it was at the turn of the century, the twentieth century. It will become a place only for those wealthy enough to pursue it.