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September 09, 2013 12:37 PM Unionization and the Adjunct Problem

By Daniel Luzer

A new focus of progressive higher education reformers is the organization of adjunct faculty in American universities. Adjuncts, who make up 76 percent of American college instructors, are often paid poorly and ineligible for health care or other benefits. Many of them are now trying to organize.

The Service Employees International Union now has a specific “metropolitan”organizing strategy to improve pay and labor conditions for adjuncts.

Jay Schalin over at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy argues this can’t work, explaining that “increased unionization of adjunct professors will distort rather than solve the underlying problems in the academic marketplace.”

His greater point is that the real problem with faculty positions at universities is structural:

Unionization is merely treating a symptom rather than a cause. There is no defying the hard, cold reality of market forces: the supply of people who are seeking work as professors is much greater than the demand. If universities “exploit” adjuncts, they do so because it is a willing exploitation on the part of the exploited. The academic life is a freely made choice; nobody pursues a Ph.D. in the humanities, arts, or social sciences because they have no other options in life.
Rather than rushing headlong to correct the effects of distorting influences in the labor market, such as tenure and excessive supply, by adding further distortions, such as unionization, it may be best to look at the problems’ original sources. Unfortunately, such a common sense approach that looks at academia’s fundamental operations and incentives will hardly gain much support in today’s academic and political climates. Instead, the unionization of non-tenured faculty is likely to become much more common in the near-future.

He’s onto something here. The reason so many university faculty positions are now adjunct is simply that universities just generate too many PhDs, creating an oversupply of aspiring academics. Unionizing the adjuncts won’t solve the major issue.

But then, that’s what labor organization is always about. If the market forces alone worked to produce high-paying jobs there would be no reason to organize.

There’s a good understanding here about the overproduction of PhDs, but the reason for labor organization is to distort (or, rather, change) the underlying problems in the marketplace.

More specifically, the immediate goal of the organization of labor is not always to solve the inherent structure so much as to help actual workers improve their job conditions and financial situations. There’s no reason we can’t have organized adjuncts AND address the structural problems that universities have been exploiting (and, well, causing) for so long.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

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