Academia's Low-Wage, Exploited Workers Map International Strategy Toward Equity

Updated: October 2, 2015
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Trinational Conference of Adjunct College Professors Comes to NYC

COCAL XI, a conference of adjunct and other contingent faculty activists from Canada, Mexico and the U.S., kicked off Monday, August 4 at CUNY’s John Jay College with a welcome from labor leaders representing academic workers from throughout North America and a poem from a work entitled Ivory Tower Anthology.

“Twenty adjuncts and I share an office…Four times we’ve been evicted from similar digs…When I had no office I kept my papers in my car,” read Vicki Moss, poet and adjunct professor of English at Fashion Institute of Technology.

Moss was one of 200 activists at the eleventh conference of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL), a three-day event hosted by the Professional Staff Congress, the union representing faculty and staff at CUNY, including 15,000 workers who are adjuncts, hourly workers or other types of contingent employees. The coalition, formed in 1996, gathers for biennial conferences to devise strategies to improve higher education through collective advocacy for contingent academic workers, a growing underclass of college educators who work for low-pay with no job security, meager benefits and poor working conditions. The conference title is Shaping an Equitable & Democratic Future for Higher Education: The Way Forward.

“The COCAL movement provides the opportunity for diverse contingent faculty from three North American countries to come together, not only to discuss the challenges of our working conditions, but to assess the plight of higher education,” said Maria E. Peluso, a veteran adjunct professor and adjuncts’ union leader from Concordia University, Montreal, Canada.

“Part-time” adjuncts now make up more than half of the teaching force at U.S. colleges and universities; in 1975, they were only a fifth. When all academic workers hired on a contingent basis are accounted for, their share of the U.S. teaching force is a whopping 75%. In Mexico, contingent faculty make up 76% of the professoriate. In Canada they make up 34%. These contingent faculty can be treated as disposable workers, even after decades of experience. And their course assignments often come without access to computers, without an office to meet students in and without a voice in curriculum or campus governance.

“COCAL’s goal is to build the movement among contingent faculty and ultimately abolish contingency, thereby improving both our teaching conditions and the students’ learning conditions,” said Joe Berry, a member of the International COCAL Advisory Committee and author of Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education.

Adjuncts and other contingent academic employees have achieved a new level of visibility on campus, in the media and even in Congress over the last several years, thanks in part to COCAL. Its conferences have given rise to the New Faculty Majority, a visible and successful advocacy group for contingent faculty, and Campus Equity Week, an annual week of coordinated events organized throughout the U.S. The New Faculty Majority has testified before Congress about the effects of health care reform on contingent faculty and is the force behind the Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act, a bill recently passed in the House of Representatives that would require colleges to disclose their dependence on part-time and contingent faculty. Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, was a COCAL XI panelist.

Contingent faculty from all three nations discussed progress made through political advocacy and union organizing at the conference. Since the COCAL X conference held in Mexico City in 2012, they have been organizing new local unions, strengthening established unions, and building new connections across international borders.

“In this age of globalized capitalism we need a global labor movement, and COCAL is a step in that direction,” said Niloofar Mina, an adjunct who teaches music history at New Jersey City University and serves as lead negotiator for adjuncts at her union, AFT Local #1839. “COCAL’s international reach helps us address the global assaults on academic labor and focus on the phenomenon of contingency in academia,” said Mina.

Adjuncts and their unions were invigorated after hosting the COCAL X conference, according to Maria Teresa Lechuga, a contingent faculty member and union activist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “COCAL is very important to us now. A lot of organizations and unions know about it, and because of that, more teachers can attend COCAL XI,” she said. “We have the intention to make COCAL strong in our country, and we are forming a Mexican version of the New Faculty Majority.”

COCAL XI organizers planned the conference to give a similar boost to its attendees. Divided into five interest groups, the conference-goers met to devise campaign and strategy ideas addressing the following subjects: legal issues and legislative advocacy, students, media, building national agendas, and bargaining for equity. At the end of the conference, they will have action plans that follow a collective strategy but can be adapted to local situations.

“COCAL gives us courage to make our voices heard, support each other, and fight to transform higher education to serve humanistic values,” said Marcia Newfield, coordinator of COCAL XI and vice president for part-time personnel of the Professional Staff Congress/CUNY. “We’re aiming high for ourselves and our students.”