In January of this year, adjunct professors at Washington University in St. Louis voted 138 to 111 in favor of forming a union. Discussions began some two years ago when SEIU Local 1 approached multiple St. Louis-area universities about unionization. This was part of the SEIU’s Adjunct Action campaign, through which they have unionized nearly 20 universities to date. While, as of yet, no contract has been signed with the university, this is an important step forward and gives the adjunct professors a fighting chance to win better conditions.
Adjuncts are part-time professors at universities, often teaching courses that full-time faculty members do not want or have no time to teach. Adjuncts typically work on semester-long contracts offering no job security. They frequently teach between two and four courses per semester, and are paid per course. Should a particular course not have enough students enrolled, the professor for that course will simply not be paid. This means they stand to lose between 25% and 50% of their income based on factors they cannot control. Similarly, if at any point in the semester a full-time professor opts to take over a course, they can take it from the adjunct, leaving them in a rather humiliating position. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch estimated one adjunct professor’s annual income to be around $22,000, for which he had to teach at both Washington University and Webster University. These are the pitiful conditions to which professors across the country are reduced—at a time when tuition fees and university administrator pay have soared.
According to Washington University’s web site, more than half of their revenue goes toward faculty pay. The site also suggests that each credit hour of tuition generally costs $1,965, and the average class size is 15. Now, for a three-credit hour class with 15 students, total tuition for the course would be $88,425. If the adjunct professor teaching such a course were to make half of that, a single class would earn them $44,212.50. Something obviously doesn’t add up. Those doing the actual work of teaching these classes are not making anywhere near half the revenues brought in.
Far from being an anomaly affecting only Washington University, this is the situation nationwide. The website “Adjunct Action” estimates that about 44% of professors are employed part time and 78% of professors are not on a track for tenure. This is therefore not an isolated phenomenon, but is part of a general tendency toward deprofessionalizing higher education and transforming universities primarily into profit-making businesses. By making more and more faculty members transient and poorly paid employees, this is an attack on the entire profession of teaching at a university. College tuition and attendance are at an all-time high. The exploitation of these part-time professors (and most professors generally) is taking place on an enormous scale.
Recently there was a similar experience at Tufts University in Boston, which was also organized by Adjunct Action. Adjuncts there were able to win a 22% pay increase, longer contracts, and preference when full-time positions become available. This could very well be replicated at Washington University should the union fight for a similar contract. And should the union at Washington University win similar increases, it could provide further impetus for unionization efforts elsewhere. Interestingly, much of the energy from the adjunct movement was spurred by the Fight for 15 movement of fast food workers, and some Washington University adjuncts are directly involved in the Fight for 15 movement. This shows how the interests of workers in all sectors of the economy are interconnected, and can be improved only through unity and struggle. Victories can be contagious, thereby cutting across the hesitance many feel about joining a union, after many years in which union struggles and successful outcomes have been relatively few and far between.
Of course, merely winning a few concessions and union recognition will not be the end of the struggle. It is an important step in combatting the generalized attacks on working and living standards in the universities and elsewhere, but it does nothing to change the fundamental dynamic of capitalist exploitation, which is based on production for profit in an anarchic market system. The only way to fundamentally address the related questions of quality and access to education, worker pay, student debt, and so on is to nationalize higher education into one unified and democratically administered system.
Free education for all is possible on the basis of the resources at society’s disposal. Student debt could be written off and loans abolished. And if there aren’t enough facilities or professors to provide for everyone’s educational needs and interests, we would just build more facilities and hire more professors and staff, all at union wages, with strong labor protections, full pensions, paid holidays, job security, and everything else that would be possible once the profit motive is removed from the equation. Combined with a universal health care system, free, efficient transportation, quality housing, and more, learning would be a pleasurable and lifelong endeavor, allowing everyone to explore many careers over the course of their lifetime, and to reach their full potential.