Why We Fight for a #LivingWage (And You Should, Too)

by Leonard Jacuzzo and Bruce Simon, for the SUNY Fredonia Contingent Employment Advisory Group, October 2015 Fredonia Newsletter

As we move on from a rather disappointing negotiation of Fredonia’s Handbook on Appointment, Reappointment, and Promotion (HARP), the Fredonia UUP Chapter’s Contingent Employment Advisory Group (CEAG) is turning our attention statewide.  This is the first in a series of articles that will articulate our demands in advance of negotiations for a new contract between UUP and the State of New York.

CEAG is a group of contingent faculty at Fredonia whose function is to advise the Officer for Contingents and the rest of our chapter’s Executive Board as to the concerns and conditions of contingent faculty here at Fredonia.  Why should UUP focus its efforts on contingents?  To us, the answer is clear:  the sustainability of higher education in the U.S. is at stake.  How many top undergraduates in the U.S. would be willing to pursue a terminal degree if they became convinced that the future of employment in post-secondary institutions was such that they wouldn’t be able to live stably and comfortably as professors?  The professorship will die out in our lifetimes if trends toward the underfunding, casualization, and exploitation of academic labor–and their undermining of faculty professionalism–are not reversed.

Another important reason for UUP and tenure-stream faculty to fight for income equity for all is that the increasing dependence on contingent academic labor devalues tenure-track professors.  As a majority-contingent faculty in the U.S.–roughly 3 out of 4 professors nationwide are working off the tenure track, in conditions that don’t befit their standing as professionals–becomes the norm, decision-makers and stakeholders start to wonder why society needs tenure.  As Michael Berube and Jennifer Ruth have recently argued, if tenure-stream faculty don’t organize to reprofessionalize their own colleges and universities, they will be complicit in the end of tenure and the academic freedom it is designed to secure.

Furthermore, as more and more qualified candidates apply for fewer and fewer tenure-track jobs, national job searches become a virtual lottery.  Luck is playing an increasingly significant role in obtaining a living wage in academia.  What’s more, participating in academia as a contingent is often a black mark on a C.V.  Though many people insist that tenured faculty have done something special to earn higher compensation, job security, and due process protections, the evidence for this is scarce.  Many tenured faculty got their positions in an era when tenure-track positions were more readily available than they are now.  Tenure-stream faculty enjoy the structural advantage whereby they are compensated for building their credentials by their employer, while their contingent colleagues have to research voluntarily as they try to make ends meet and find more secure and better-compensated academic or other employment.  With adequate compensation for contingent faculty they would not be forced to take on the workload that prevents them from devoting time to research.  If administrations don’t have to pay contingent faculty a living wage, there will be no reason to hire tenure-stream faculty.  Contingency will continue to spread as tenure is squeezed out.

The most pressing issue faced by contingents at Fredonia and across the country is a lack of fair compensation for the services they provide.  There has been some success made in this regard as Fredonia recently set a minimum wage for part-time contingents at $2700 per 3-hour course ($300 less than the UUP Chapter demanded).  CEAG and the Fredonia UUP Executive Board have joined and endorsed the Mayday Campaign, which calls for a statewide minimum wage of $5,000 (well below the roughly $7000 the Modern Language Association advocates for).

One key rationale for this kind of living wage is that contingent faculty make up a significant percentage of faculty at Fredonia and add significant value to the institution.  They design and deliver many successful courses here at Fredonia.  Since the “product” that Fredonia sells is student education, it seems only rational to adequately compensate the people who produce and deliver this product.  Many contingents have been serving this institution for many years and deserve fair compensation for their commitment to its success.  Failing to pay contingent faculty what they deserve devalues the very experiences, challenges, and credentials Fredonia and other American universities offer to prospective students.  Of course, it could be remarked that Fredonia is simply paying what the market allows.  Indeed, there is a glut of people who would love to be a contingent.  Wouldn’t courses be just as good (or almost), no matter who teaches them?  The answer to this is ‘no’.  More than a few contingents here at Fredonia have decades of invaluable experience educating the students here at Fredonia.  They have honed their teaching skills and have an appreciation for the Fredonia culture and the educational needs unique to Fredonia students.

What’s more, all Fredonia contingents are members of the same union as tenure-stream faculty.  Unions, by their very nature, function to militate against market forces that devalue labor and prevent people from obtaining fair working conditions.  If a union does not act strategically to increase compensation and protections for its most vulnerable and exploited workers, its legitimacy and efficacy are called into question.  At a time when the Supreme Court is contemplating arguments in the Friedrich case that directly target unions, UUP needs to demonstrate that solidarity matters–and gets results.

Therefore, CEAG requests that the statewide UUP and its Negotiating Team make obtaining a fair and living wage for all of its members a priority in this cycle of negotiations.  Let Governor Cuomo know that his hypocrisy of fighting for a $15 minimum wage while refusing to grant its equivalent to part-time contingent faculty is obvious.  CEAG understands the futility of campus-by-campus efforts to substantially improve terms and conditions for contingent faculty in SUNY.  That’s why we’re calling for system-wide solutions to statewide problems.  The fight for a $5000 per course minimum wage to recognize quality teaching is everyone’s fight.  

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About @NatM4Equity

The National Mobilization for Equity is a coalition of organizations committed to alleviating the present staffing crisis in higher education: three-quarters of the teaching jobs in American colleges are held by underpaid, precarious and poorly-supported contingent faculty. Our long-term goal is to end contingency as the norm. The current untenable situation not only adversely affects all faculty members, both contingent and tenure-track, it also negatively impacts our profession, our students and the quality of their education.

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