UUP holds alternative to National Adjunct Walkout Day
By Connor Murphy
March 3, 2015
Green was a focal point at the United University Professions (UUP)-hosted event “Challenging Contingency: A Workshop and Discussion on Contingent Labor at UAlbany.” It was the color of the armband that represents a movement at the University at Albany, and the color of the currency that the movement is fighting for.
Nearly 30 faculty members attended the conference which was hosted on Feb. 25.
The event took place on what was known this year as National Adjunct Walkout Day. Started by an anonymous professor, adjuncts across the country (and world) that are fed up with unequal wages and other subpar conditions hosted walkouts in an attempt to spark change at their universities.
Because state workers in New York can be fired for holding strikes, UUP decided to hold an alternative to dissuade adjuncts from taking part in the walkout.
“We set up this forum as a way to begin a conversation,” said UAlbany’s UUP Chapter President and English Professor Bret Benjamin.
One of the keynote speakers, adjunct Lecturer Rebekah Tolley, spoke of raising awareness as the first step.
“We need to increase our membership. We have a stronger voice in the union if we’re backed by numbers. We need to find out who we are,” she said.
Tolley explained two ways they could accomplish these goals. One, a green armband or ribbon could show solidarity among the adjuncts. The other, a “food stamp” slip, could be handed out among faculty as a means of exposure.
Benjamin went through numbers from a survey he and others gave to contingent academic faculty members from November through December of last year. The response rate was 39 percent.
The data showed a 55 percent UUP membership rate among contingent faculty. This last number was a stunning contrast from the 87 percent who answered yes when asked on the survey if they thought they were union members. Benjamin stressed that this confusion over membership could be an easy fix.
Luis Clemente, a former adjunct professor, addressed the union while holding his infant child: “The way I see all of this is that the proof is in the pudding. As mentioned before, neither SUNY nor the University Administration are listening to some of the proposals that you have been advancing to them recently.”
Most members of the audience, however, seemed to agree that it was best to focus on their main goals and push aside any inside qualms.
“I should say it’s a privilege to have a union. I’ve been contingent in places where there is no union…we’ve got to prioritize our most vulnerable,” said Joe Creamer, a recently hired adjunct.
A large focus for the conference was honing in on what the real issues were according to the survey answers, and how to fix those issues. Benjamin stressed that these were preliminary proposals, although such issues as pay-per-course raises, health benefits, and more full-time tenured track positions were definite focal points.
The general starting base salary for an entry-level adjunct position is $2,800 per course. Benjamin called this number “unconscionable” at the conference, but further stated that what the real salary should be is a matter of discussion for the group.
“We need to take ourselves off of our addiction to cheap contingent labor,” he said. “We have to do that in a way that’s not only responsible for the university but in a way that’s responsible for the contingents… it’s a complicated process and will take a lot of work.”
It became clear throughout the conference that a certain stigma was attached to being an adjunct. One of the keynote speakers, Vincent Commisso, brought up a concept he called the “adjunct vortex.”
“Once you get stuck in there, it is almost impossible to get out,” he said.
He and a few others explained that colleges essentially uses these educators on a “play it by year” basis, eliminating any possibility of job stability, and discouraging many from advocating. One person in the audience claimed this was an administration tactic designed to pit professors against each other.
Benjamin explained that UAlbany had set up a committee, which some referred to in the conference as a “blue ribbon panel.” It was clarified that this committee was designed to establish the proper route for any proposals on adjuncts’ rights, and it was noted that some of the committee members attended this conference.
“We’ve been told by President [Robert] Jones that the idea was that the university was going to substantively address how best to utilize contingent labor on campus,” Benjamin said. “We look forward to meeting with that committee.”
Benjamin hopes this new national attention to adjuncts will have a lasting effect.
For more information on UUP’s Albany chapter, visit uupalbany.org and follow the union’s statewide twitter @uupinfo. To follow up more specifically on adjunct faculty at UAlbany, visit the Facebook page Supporters of UAlbany Adjunct Faculty.