The Adjunct Wage Gap and the War for the Soul of a Union



PSC protesters outside of Baruch College (where the CUNY Board of Trustees meet), October 2014, calling for wage hikes for adjuncts, faculty, and HEOs.

On Monday, 29 September, close to 1,000 PSC-CUNY members, including many contingent faculty carrying signs demanding $7,000 per course, rallied in front of the CUNY Board of Trustees meeting at Baruch College. Like so many union members before them they came together to stand in solidarity with one another and demand fair wages for fair work. Adjunct and HEO, assistant professor and department chair, they marched side by side to fight for a fair contract for all. But if the PSC gets what it’s asking for, this next contract will be anything but fair for adjuncts.

The problem is that the current union contract demands, as articulated by the union leadership, once again include nothing meant to address the growing wage gap between contingent and full time faculty, a moral cancer that has already created a vast underclass of CUNY employees and which, left unaddressed, threatens to split the union and the university in half.
Even as the PSC has finally mounted a public campaign of protests and marches to pressure CUNY to put an economic offer on the table, they have been working behind the scenes and within the union to rally the membership around the leadership’s key contract demands for faculty: across the board wage increases, courseload reductions for full timers, and job security for adjuncts. Though fighting for these demands is important, and though every member of the union deserves to see real wage increases and gains in this next contract, the structural issues of adjunct inequality and the huge wage gap between adjuncts and full time faculty once again seem to be either on the back burner or not on the agenda at all. Without a clear plan to dramatically increase adjunct wages, the new contract will almost certainly widen the already huge rift between what an adjunct and a full time faculty member earn for the same work.

The reason for this lies partly in the union leadership’s continued insistence that any percentage increase in wages be equally shared, across the board, by all union members. On the surface this approach seems reasonable, and in fact it is a good idea for workers who are performing the same job for more or less the same wages, or for workers in the same shop performing different jobs. But when you already have employees performing essentially the same job for vastly different sums of money, as you do between full-timers and adjuncts at CUNY, across the board raises only increase the disparity between the haves and the have nots, especially when there is little to no chance for workers to advance from one title to another. Although it sounds just, across the board raises actually increase the wage gap and—because such a gap makes using contingent faculty even cheaper relative to more expensive full timers—contributes to the further abuse and exploitation of contingent faculty.

To get a better picture of how this works, let’s compare two new CUNY hires. One is an Assistant Professor at Brooklyn College, and the other is an adjunct lecturer at that same college. The new full time assistant professor, making a starting salary of just $65,000 for a course-load of seven classes per year, would be earning approximately $9,285 for each course taught. The new adjunct making only about $3,000 per course. Of course, this number does not take into account the significant amount of service and research required of an assistant professor at a senior college, so let’s assume that only two-thirds or about 66 percent of this professor’s wages are going towards their teaching commitment. Even with such a generous amount of time given over to service and research, this professor would still be earning about $6,128 for each course taught. That’s a wage gap of $3,128 per class. Now, imagine that the PSC miraculously manages to negotiate an across the board wage increase of 10 percent for the four years of the expired contract. The assistant professor would now be making $71,500 per year. At two-thirds salary, divided by seven classes, this professor would now be receiving a compensation of $6,741 per course (only $259 less than the current demand of $7,000 per course being pushed for by many CUNY adjuncts). Meanwhile, under this new contract the adjunct would see their wages increase by a paltry $300 per course. This means that the assistant professor would then be earning $3,441 more per course than the adjunct—an increase in the wage gap of $313. Now imagine twenty years of these kinds of unequal raises and you can see why adjuncts make so much less per class than other faculty members and why they feel so cheated. By focusing on across the board wage increases, the union and the CUNY administration have allowed adjunct compensation to erode to almost nothing. It is important to note here that these calculations, however, do not even take into consideration the 24 credits of release time and the vastly superior benefits and pension plans available to new assistant professors.

More scandalous, however, is the fact that this wage gap increases even more the longer a contingent faculty member remains at the university due in large part to the fact that full timers earn more raises more frequently than contingent faculty. Though the individual wages of an adjunct may rise over time, thanks to the occasional step increase or the bump they might receive for earning a Ph.D., this is nothing compared the gains earned by their full-time colleagues. Based on the current expired contract, adjunct lecturers cap out after only four steps at a rate that is less than 25% more than the starting wage. Assistant professors, on the other hand, can earn sixteen steps, capping out at a rate that is almost 100% more than the lowest starting salary. And a similar disparity exists between contingents and full-time lecturers, who level off after sixteen steps at a rate that is more than 75% the lowest step. At this rate, an adjunct with five or six years of experience could be earning as little as $3,800 per course, while a full timer with the same amount of experience would be receiving a salary above $80,000. At two-thirds wage, that’s $7,542 per course, or a wage gap of $3,742.

But across the board raises and step increases are not the only things contributing to this growing wage gap. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that, despite frequent denunciations of the exploitation of contingent faculty, the union leadership has continually refused to directly address the problem of adjunct parity, and has instead pursued a policy of fighting for specific gains for each of the different faculty groups it represents. This has too frequently meant winning big economic gains, such as courseload reductions and paid maternity leave, that do not apply to contingent faculty. The result is that these gains have increased the per-class compensation for full-timers, while doing nothing to increase the wages of contingent faculty. And unfortunately, it looks very likely that the next contract will be more of the same. If the union manages to win a course reduction for full timers (and I sincerely hope they do) without some kind of equal reduction in workload or significant increase in wages for adjuncts, the wage gap will only increase. Winning such gains on the backs of the most vulnerable union members is the opposite of solidarity. Though it seems clear that the union is taking the issue of adjunct job security seriously, such non-economic gains are cold comfort for those adjuncts struggling to survive on the paltry wages currently on offer from CUNY.

Across the nation, adjuncts are organizing and forming their own unions. At CUNY, the received wisdom, at least for the last decade or so since the New Caucus took power, has been that adjuncts fare better when they fight alongside full-timers and other professional staff, and any talk of forming a separate union has been quickly shut down. However, several years of more or less stagnant wages and increasing inequality have stretched such easy platitudes to their limit. Telling adjuncts to come out to fight alongside their union increasingly feels like asking the residents of favelas to come help build the houses of the rich because such mansions will improve the view. Though the New Caucus talks a good talk when it comes to adjuncts, the fact is there has been little to no actual movement toward greater parity between adjuncts and full timers. Indeed, there seems to be little reason anymore for adjuncts to continue to support a union which so brazenly and so consistently neglects to address the deep inequality and exploitation of the adjunct labor system. Whether full time or part time, HEO or research associate, such exploitation affects us all, for the longer we allow our adjunct brothers and sisters to be treated like second class citizens, the longer we turn a blind eye to their continued exploitation, and the weaker we are as a union.

When I started adjuncting at CUNY thirteen years ago, I was shocked by how little anyone seemed to care about me or my working conditions. Since then, thanks in large part to the hard work of CUNY’s small but dedicated cadres of adjunct activists, there has been a real change in consciousness around the issue of adjunct exploitation. Nonetheless, this change in consciousness has not translated into any real change in the system of exploitation that CUNY runs on. Now that I am an assistant professor, the difference in my salary, my working conditions, and in the amount of respect and support I receive is startling. Everyone who teaches at CUNY deserves to receive the same compensation and the same support and respect. This will only happen when the full time members of the union come together to say unequivocally that they will not accept another contract that increases inequality or a single dollar more from CUNY until the university commits to treating all of its faculty fairly and equally.

4 comments to “The Adjunct Wage Gap and the War for the Soul of a Union”
  1. In James Hoff’s analysis, he ignores the fact that the union won paid office hours for adjuncts teaching 6 hours or more, which was in addition to the across-the-board percentage increases. He also ignores the 200 conversion lines won for long-serving adjuncts by the union. He ignores the additional percentage increases added to adjuncts’ top steps. He also ignores the tens of millions of dollars contributed by full-timers to subsidize adjunct health insurance. And, he ignores the additional tens of millions of dollars won by the union from the State to place adjunct health insurance on stable financial footing. He ignores the fact that New Caucus leadership won several contested elections arguing for greater equity and, thus, organized broad-based support among the membership for equity demands. He ignores the fact that the first item for which the union leadership used its political influence with Mayor de Blasio was to close the deal on transferring adjuncts to the City Health Plan. Finally, he ignores the fact that thousands of full-timers joined the struggle along side part-timers to win all these victories. I believe a signal achievement of this union leadership has been to build support for adjunct demands (and equity demands of those in other titles) among the entire membership and to leverage the power of the entire union to make important gains for adjuncts. Yes, there are still major inequalities. These inequalities are the result of long-standing austerity budgets and austerity contractual settlements and these inequalities will not easily be remedied. Suggesting that adjuncts at CUNY would do better if they organized their own union shows that Hoff neither understands the victories won nor the depth of the political challenges posed by austerity regimes. The best chance we have to make progress on reversing the inequalities among our workforce and overcome austerity politics is to remain united.

    Steve London, PSC First Vice President

  2. The situation is very simple: economic inequality (that is, the difference in pay for the same work), between full timers and part timers has grown under the New Caucus precisely because the leadership believes in winning the same amount of gains for all of the different workers it represents, never privileging one over another. For instance, though adjuncts received the office hour, full timers got reduced courseloads and increased release time. This strategy seems fair on the surface, but it overlooks the fundamentally structural inequality that already exists between full timers and part timers, an inequality that allows CUNY to exploit a majority of the faculty with low wages and few benefits. This is not the result of austerity budgets, but of an unwillingness of the union to directly address the problem of inequality, which it can do if it wants to. Even if the economic offer from the state were bigger, distributing it equally among the faculty as a percentage wage increase would still not address the problem of inequality.
    Note that, in his response, Steve London said nothing about what the union plans to fight for in this upcoming contract to close the wage gap. That’s because they have no plan to close the wage gap. Their plan is to provide job security, which is great and important, but it does nothing to create greater “economic” equity, and that is where the inequality between faculty is most acute. When the union agrees to increase adjunct wages by even just 10% MORE than it increases the salaries of full timers, then they can claim to be doing something about inequality, until then I see no reason why they should expect adjuncts to turn out to fight for this next contract.

  3. Steve, I don’t believe James Hoff calls for the adjuncts to leave the union or form a separate union. His point at the end is a rhetorical one, and it is addressed to the union, to the adjuncts. The point is: it is the union’s job to prove to the adjuncts that it is in their best interest to stay with the union. Both you and James appeal to unity, except James’ appeal is a substantive one: as long as adjuncts are paid less money for the same work as full timers, the union will remain divided and weak. Your appeal, Steve, is a symbolic one. You ask adjuncts to stay with the union that prioritizes interests of full-timers and fails to address “major inequalities” because “austerity.”

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