by Sara Gregory
Amidst the rise of privatized, for-profit colleges and universities, and deep slashes to education budgets, adjunct professors offer a cheap solution for many schools: a large, qualified, and desperate class of laborers working for contingent courses and poverty wages. A recent report done by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) investigated Florida’s higher educational system and its impact on adjuncts—part-time, non tenure track professors employed on a course-by-course basis. What they found was a crisis in higher ed.
The report, Florida Colleges in Crisis, states that “seven in ten professors in the Florida College System are adjunct professors,” meaning 70% of all professors in the state are part-time, contingent employees. It also means 70% of all professors in the state make a medium income of $17,000 a year (at a max class load). The federal poverty level for a family of four is $25,750.
But in a red right-to-work state, more than half of all Florida adjuncts professors have either formed or filed for their union. In two and a half years, 9,000 workers said yes at Hillsborough Community College, Broward College, the University of South Florida, Seminole State College, Lake Sumter State College, and Miami Dade College along with Santa Fe, Saint Petersburg College, and Valencia College currently preparing for their union elections.
Most recently in March 2019, Miami Dade College joined SEIU Faculty Forward’s ranks as the largest adjunct union in Florida and the largest single-school adjunct union in the country. Adjunct faculty at MDC faced a harsh boss fight against administration, who at one point recommended that struggling professors instead sign up for Medicare. The adjuncts won in a narrow victory; just fourteen votes made the difference between the status quo and the power to bargain for better wages, job security, and healthcare.
I spoke with two higher ed field organizers who hustled to make this historic win happen— Tim Tia and A, who wished to remain anonymous. They speak on the challenges in higher education, the statewide movement for unionization, and the labor movement more broadly. For transparency, I also worked alongside Tim and A during the MDC election, as we three were all employed by SEIU during that time.
Give me an overview of the Miami Dade Campaign. What were the conditions like for adjunct professors at MDC?
A: I prefer to call them ‘professors’ rather than adjuncts, no matter how much colleges want them to be called a synonym for “marginal.” They are part time professors in colleges who are paid roughly equivalent to babysitters. These professors are pretty fed up and see their struggle as working class. The strongest committee members I knew were the kind of people who wanted to stop living with their parents, lived in cramped 400 square foot studios with a pull-out bed, or just wanted dental care.
MDC is a standout among Florida colleges because it comprises around 25-30% of the entire teaching workforce in Florida. The campaign expanded to include seven organizers with two experiences leads and a coordinator. We divided turn between the seven organizers, so we each had about 400-700 workers to organize.
The boss fight workers faced was intense. Management’s illegal, coordinated campaign to repress their workers freedom to associate was both typical of dirty employers but also unusually aggressive for colleges. They hired a union busting lawyer with quite a bit of experience in steamrolling union organizing in hotels. They liked to fight with the gloves off.
The MDC administration sent out upwards of 50-75 letters and emails telling adjuncts to call the police on organizers and report their colleagues [who expressed interest in the union]. There were several incidents where campus security physically confronted workers who were standing in public spaces and signing in support of the union. They were instructed to leave public buildings and even the sidewalks where they were standing.
These incidents culminated in the police illegally detaining an organizer. Management called the police to report an organizer who was leaving campus, and the police held the organizer at gunpoint before handcuffing him. This obviously intimidated workers. As Stephen Lerner says, every moment of management’s campaign is intended to reinforce one message: “The company is powerful. The union is weak.” So how did the workers beat that?
Workers won their union by forming a large, active, and diverse committee of worker-leaders (approaching 40 at one point, which although small for many campaigns, is large for an adjunct organizing campaigns).
Workers won through strong public support, clear and consistent messaging at Board of Trustees meetings, media coverage, and by spreading support through consistent departmental outreach. The campaign consisted of several thousand class visits, several thousand home visits, and probably tens of thousands of phone call attempts. I would estimate that we contacted at least 1500 workers at least once, and probably made at least 4000 contacts overall. Pretty intense, then, to win by 14 votes. There was one day where me and one other organizer signed up 14 workers to the union. One day. If that organizer and I would’ve taken a pass that ONE day, we would’ve lost the election. Who knows how many other people’s critical contributions there were.
What does it mean for Florida, and Miami specifically, that adjuncts at MDC have their union? How has unionizing changed the dynamics between adjuncts and the administration?
TT: Unionizing Miami Dade College is a huge step towards improving conditions for adjunct faculty across the state. MDC is the largest community college in the country employing about 2,800 adjunct faculty members within 1 year – this comprises about 1/6th of the adjunct faculty in the whole state of Florida. That means a lot when it comes to the broader state-wide goals of changing the Florida state college system and higher ed as a whole. Having only worked on the MDC election period, I can’t speak on the specifics of how the dynamics between Miami Dade adjuncts and administration has changed but winning an adjunct union election now gives MDC adjuncts a democratic voice and the legal ability to bargain collectively for improved working conditions.
Fredrick Douglass has a quote “power concedes nothing without a demand, it never did and it never will” – a good way to think about unionization is it gives workers a legally recognized vehicle to make demands. The hard work to bargaining a strong contract, and the shifting of power dynamics at MDC are still to come, but winning the election was definitely the first step. I expect that as MDC adjuncts continue bargaining their contract, making gains, and facing continued obstruction from the administration, they will hopefully develop a worker body that is actively engaged in advocating for themselves and continue gaining a voice in their workplace.
How has organizing adjuncts in Florida affected you personally? Has it shaped your politics?
TT: I’ve been interested in organized labor for a few years now, but all of my previous experience was with unions that have been established for decades. Being on the forefront of an external organizing campaign has been eye opening for me. I’ve gotten a first hand look at how workers in the 21st century see themselves and their labor, how they think about collective action, and about the possibility of change.
It’s easy to dream big about the need to revitalize the labor movement or to build a mass working class movement, it’s another thing to actually do the work. How do you get a professor in today’s capitalist, individualist economy, to organize collectively if they’ve never experienced the benefits of unionization in their field? There are no easy or right answers to those questions – we only learn to get better at it through praxis.
As a socialist, at some level I think the demands of unionism are too moderate: sharing power with the boss and playing by the rigged rules of the NLRB (or in Florida’s case the Public Employees Relations Commission) rather than empowering workers to the full value of their labor – all power to the workers, that kind of thing. However, my year working across the state on this campaign has cemented in my mind how far we have to go in order the build up the labor movement in the United States, the necessity of organizing in the south, and the need to have clear, actionable short term goals in organizing the working class. I don’t think we can talk seriously about building a mass socialist movement in this country until sufficient models of workplace democracy already exist. In that respect organizing new markets/units (like adjunct faculty in Florida) provide measurable short-term, and achievable goals that improve the lives of workers and contributes to much larger national/international labor movement.
With respect to education it’s definitely been disheartening to see the state of higher ed in Florida up close. It’s clear that education in this state and across the nation has been drastically devalued, corprotized, and privatized – we see that not only in higher ed, but also in K-12 public schools. Hopefully with the rise of teachers strikes across the country, and campaigns like Faculty Forward in Florida we’re taking the first steps in fighting back and changing that system.
What are some of the biggest roadblocks in the labor movement? How do they apply to organizing in higher ed?
TT: SEIU is known for the aggressiveness and ambitiousness of its’ organizing – and that ambition is admirable, necessary, and worthwhile as a part of the labor movement – it’s something that is lacking from many other unions. However these union campaigns in Florida cost significantly more to run than they will take back short term dues – that’s probably true of most ambitious external campaigns. I don’t think that’s necessarily bad – unions and working class power have value that can’t be quantified by a dollar figure. However, it does mean that these kinds of campaigns probably aren’t enough to sustainably shift the tide in the union movement. The number of unionized workers in the US grows every year but union density still drops. It might not be possible for union power to grow as fast as the American economy using these models.
How can the average worker – those not represented by a union or in jobs that won’t likely be part of a union campaign – engage actively in organizing their workplace? Is there a way in which we can build class consciousness and make labor a national issue on the forefront of people’s minds? A movement in which millions of average workers are trying to improve their working conditions and have a say in their workplace? I don’t have any answers on what that would look like, but in order to revitalize the labor movement and break current trends it will require grassroots imagination and initiative.
A: Right-to-work and organizing in the south are not the central roadblocks of workers in the United States, when you take the national view. And I’m not going to talk about higher ed here because—honestly—the change in perception, thinking, and action we need is a lot broader than any one industry. I joined higher ed organizing because it’s one of the pitifully few places unions are still running real-deal majority elections.
Organizing in the basic industries is the central challenge of the labor movement. Our task (“our historical task” if you’re not terribly embarrassed by utopianism) has to be to take the key fields of economic activity and create “a” labor movement (not “the” labor movement, but “a” labor movement— recognized, felt, real.) One that has the ability to totally disrupt the normal functioning of those industries and create a whirlwind moment, a real social movement.
By basic industries, in the US right now I’m talking about retail and logistics, health care, and public service. But if you want to measure a social movement, just look at the numbers. How much support does it have? How many lives does it touch? If organizing is important, then the question is, how many people are even getting the chance to get organized? To vote to form a union?
In 2018 only 73,000 private sector workers had the opportunity to vote for or against a union. Look, for god sakes, we live in a country with 160 million workers, and 85% of those work for the private sector. That’s 130+ million private sector employees. Only 73,000 of them voted last year on whether they wanted a union. That is 0.05%. At that rate, you do the math. How many years it will take to create a social movement that’s even the slightest bit relevant to the great majority of humanity? If 0.05% doesn’t spell irrelevance to you, we’re speaking different languages, it ain’t just a difference in dialect.
How many of those votes were in the majority industries? Retail, logistics, health care, unorganized public services? A very, very small amount. Walmart has one million workers, and in the 50 years of the company existing UFCW has only ever brought a vote TWICE. Who is in charge of this shit? It’s like people don’t even want to try and change the status quo… much less fundamentally change society. Six out of ten workers in all NLRB elections voted for a union. Six out of ten Americans state in public polls they want a union.
The problem is that we only brought that choice to 0.05% of people. The question is, how are YOU going to help build a supermajority for fundamental and societal change?
Anonymous was raised in the Northeast and became involved in activism through international solidarity and racial justice campaigns before turning to labor organizing. They have since been involved in several worker centers, including hotel and farm workers initiatives. A joined SEIU to focus on worker campaigns.
Tim Tia began organizing in 2015 for the Bernie Sanders campaign. Since then, he’s organized with the Alachua County Labor Coalition, University of Florida students, and UF’s Graduate Assistants Union (GAU), and United Faculty of Florida (UFF). Tim grew up around professors; his father is a full-time engineering professor and union member and his mother was briefly a mathematics adjunct professor. Tim has worked with SEIU Faculty Forward campaign since September, 2018.
Sara Gregory is a lesbian writer and union organizer. In addition to editing and reviewing for the journal Sinister Wisdom, Sara most recently curated the 2020 Sinister Wisdom Calendar, which celebrates lesbian and queer histories as creative, incendiary, and ongoing. Sara now works in the labor movement and organizes in higher education. She has been published in Jezebel, Bitch Media, Autostraddle, The Establishment,Lambda, and The Rumpus, among others. Follow her on twitter @sgregory91
Thanks for this incisive analysis and gutsy discussion