September 3, 2015 was a warm, sunny move-in day at Northeastern; campus had that special, start-of-semester energy, when everything feels full of possibility. But colleagues and I were on campus that day filled with frustration rather than optimism. Adjunct faculty had spent almost a year trying to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with Northeastern administration, and we were getting nowhere. To garner support from the campus community, we spent move-in day handing out information and talking to students, parents, faculty, and staff about the adjunct union’s efforts to achieve better pay, job security, and greater say in our working conditions.
Everyone we spoke with was friendly and almost all were supportive, but we were shocked by the uniformity of responses: blank stares.
Turns out, most students had never heard the term “adjunct” and had no idea that professors were not all considered equal, and most everyone was unaware that part-time faculty had been fighting the administration so hard for so long to reach a union contract.
Seven years later, a lot has happened, but a lack of awareness about adjunct faculty and their working conditions persists. So, let’s unpack this:
What is an adjunct?
Adjunct faculty at Northeastern are:
- “part-time” employees—even though some teach the same number of (or more!) courses per semester than full-time faculty.
- not eligible for the same benefits, such as health insurance, as full-time faculty and staff.
- hired for one semester at a time and, therefore, don’t receive University communications, about vital issues like COVID policies, during semesters we don’t teach.
- not listed as the instructor for a course until about a month before the semester starts, so students often can’t choose to take a course with a specific faculty member.
- paid per course; this means we’re not compensated for labor beyond what is required to prepare and teach our courses. So, if an adjunct serves on a committee, attends department meetings, or writes a letter of recommendation for a student, they are doing it on their own time, without pay.
What other kinds of faculty are there?
Other than adjuncts, the people teaching your classes belong to one of the following groups, representing a hierarchy of employment status from most precarious (adjuncts and grad workers) to most secure (tenured faculty):
- Graduate Student-Workers: Exactly as it sounds, these are graduate students at Northeastern who work for the University while pursuing their degrees; in the classroom context, they are Teaching Assistants or Instructors. Northeastern has continued to assert that graduate students are not employees, and therefore have resisted graduate workers' attempts to form their own union.
- Full-Time Non-Tenure-Track (FTNTT) Faculty: These faculty have annual or multi-year contracts (so, more stability) and are paid a salary (so, better compensation), but they do not have—and can never earn—the security or protections of tenured faculty. They have been working to form a union of their own, but Northeastern has repeatedly thwarted their efforts. (Notice the pattern?)
- Tenure-Track/Tenured Faculty: This is who you probably think of when you imagine university faculty. Tenure-track faculty are hired with the intent of becoming permanent faculty; they teach classes and pursue their own academic interests.
While there are some critical distinctions between the different “ranks” of faculty, we often teach the exact same class under vastly different conditions and for vastly different pay.
How did the adjunct union come about?
Part-time faculty realized that our voice would only be heard by the administration if we came together and presented a unified message, so we formed a union. Here’s a brief history:
|Spring 2013||Adjuncts begin organizing with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).|
|Summer 2013||Northeastern begins anti-union messaging and hires a union-busting law firm.|
|March 2014||Adjuncts file with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold a union vote.|
|May 2014||The NLRB vote count is held, and the majority votes in favor of unionization.|
|Sept. 2014||Contract negotiations between NU administration and the adjunct bargaining committee begin.|
|14 months of unproductive bargaining sessions lead to rising tensions…|
|Nov. 2015|| Critical student support for the union garners national attention.|
Adjuncts authorize a one-day strike, “A Day Without Adjuncts,” scheduled for January 19, 2016.
|Jan. 2016|| Three all-day federally-mediated bargaining sessions are held.|
After 16 hours of negotiations, ending in the early hours of January 14th, a tentative agreement is reached and the strike is called off.
|Feb. 2016||More than 90% of voting adjuncts vote to ratify our first Collective Bargaining Agreement, a 3-year contract.|
|Aug. 2019||After 5 months of bargaining sessions, a tentative agreement for our second Collective Bargaining Agreement, a 4-year contract, is reached.|
|Sept. 2019||Union members overwhelmingly vote to ratify the contract.|
How has the union changed things?
Northeastern has continued to fight the adjunct union at every turn. And while the University has full-time lawyers on staff, union members participate in all our work–meeting, planning, communicating with colleagues, ensuring the contract is being upheld, and negotiating contracts–on our own time, without compensation. We are supported by a staff representative from our union (SEIU Local 509), who acts as lead negotiator during bargaining sessions, but the fight is ours to win or lose. And, frankly, it’s David vs. Goliath.
Despite the significant imbalance in resources and power between the administration and the adjunct faculty, we have made impressive gains around core goals of fair pay, job security, and professional respect because the union gives us a seat at the table. Unlike any other category of faculty at NU, the University has a legal obligation to negotiate with us because of the union. That’s huge.
Key gains earned through negotiations include:
- An annual pay raise for all adjuncts. When bargaining our first contract, the committee agreed that raising wages for our most exploited colleagues was a top priority. Adjuncts who were paid the least (as little as $2,259 per course) before unionization received more than a 100% pay raise over the life of our first contract. In our second contract, however, the modest annual raises we secured have not been adequate to keep up with the soaring cost of living in Boston.
- Increased predictability and communication regarding course assignments. Our first contract established that adjuncts can earn Good Faith Consideration (GFC) for courses we’ve consistently taught. While this isn’t a guarantee of stable employment, it represents a step forward. Our second contract attempted to iron out some of the wrinkles in how GFC works as a measure of job security (or rather, how it doesn’t), but this remains a highly contentious issue.
- Subsidized professional development. Our first contract established a Professional Development Fund (PDF) of $25,000 per year; adjuncts can apply for up to $500 per person, per year to support research, scholarship, and civic engagement, as well as professional and artistic practice that contributes to their teaching. Our second contract expanded access to the fund, reducing the financial barrier to professional development opportunities for more adjuncts.
Where are we now?
While we’ve made critical improvements to our working conditions through collective bargaining and with the support of students, full-time faculty, alumni, and other campus and community members, adjuncts are still fundamentally treated differently than other faculty–from compensation to professional respect to job security.
Many adjuncts are still severely overworked and underpaid, which has been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic and increasing inflation. A refrain of our initial organizing campaign was “our working conditions are student learning conditions,” and that holds true to this day.
Our current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires June 30, 2023, so we will–once again–be at the negotiating table this spring. For questions about the adjunct faculty union, you can reach the union stewards at firstname.lastname@example.org. To join the student solidarity campaign supporting faculty in this fight, reach out to Northeastern's Progressive Student Alliance.