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United Academics: Local Adjuncts Labor Union Seeks Rights for Non-Tenured Professors

Anna Neighbor is an adjunct professor, a job title with surprisingly low visibility despite accounting for more than 50 percent of instructional staff appointments in higher education. The distinction between an adjunct and a tenured professor is not, it seems, commonly understood.

16143793_1395298173837056_690198028439835314_o  “We’re hired and fired at the end of every semester. We don’t have contracts. We’re essentially seasonal workers. Social services sometimes has a hard time wrapping their heads around what kind of workers we are once we say we’re professors and we work for a university.”

  Adjuncts are paid significantly less than tenured professors and have very little job security. They must, in effect, be rehired every semester by their institution in order to teach their assigned classes, only to be fired again when the semester ends.

  Fortunately, in Philadelphia, there is a burgeoning organization — a labor union — designed specifically to protect the rights of adjuncts (also know as “contingent faculty”) and to educate these workers on those rights. Founded in 2013, the United Academics of Philadelphia (UAP) is a local union under the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Formerly headquartered in Brewerytown, the UAP recently moved their offices to 12th and Spring Garden Streets.

  Because many adjuncts teach at several different schools the traditional labor organizing model of mobilizing at a central workplace wasn’t a good fit for UAP. They have instead adopted a city-wide organizing model in which employees from institutions across Philadelphia gather, communicate and organize. Since UAP’s inception, similar city-wide unions have appeared in Chicago and Houston, but are still exceedingly rare considering the proliferation of this type of work across American higher education.

  “I teach at Penn, Moore and Rowan,” Neighbor said. “That’s why the UAP initiative is so important. It’s about recognizing that a lot of us are these transient workers, almost like freelancers. Because we’re split across multiple employers, there’s a real kind of lack of connection to these institutions. The union really sees itself as a way to connect adjuncts, create a professional network and open up possibilities for professional development — things that really fall through the cracks with contingent workers in these schools.”

  Because of the tenuous and fragmented nature of their work, most adjuncts qualify for unemployment. Neighbor has led workshops on how to navigate the complicated bureaucratic process involved in qualifying for financial assistance.

  “We train our adjuncts on how to advocate for themselves so that they can get access to the resources they deserve,” Neighbor explained.

  In 2014, UAP started working toward unionizing Temple University. As a result, all adjuncts have representation there. Currently, the UAP is involved in a similar effort at Arcadia University in Glenside. The vote for that union will happen on March 28th. Across the city’s colleges and universities, UAP members are laying the groundwork for further unionizing.

  Zoe Cohen is a visual artist and adjunct professor who has taught at University of the Arts, Moore College of Art & Design and the Tyler School of Art. She’s been a member of UAP since it began and is now a part of its Membership Growth Committee, a group of members who work on reaching out to their networks to help build the membership of the union, separate from campaigns for specific campuses.

  “UAP is a union that any adjunct in the Philadelphia region can join,” Cohen said. “We want to make sure that people know that and are encouraged to join.”

  In addition to organizing work, UAP practices community involvement in the neighborhoods where their members teach. This includes coalition building for “Fight for $15” (an initiative to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour), joining picket lines for other teaching unions, including the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (which represents public school teachers in the city), and holding student debt clinics to help contingent faculty better understand how they can have their student loan debt significantly relieved. UAP recently held a Faculty of Color Soirée to help create more camaraderie and visibility for faculty of color. They are also building a job bank, an online list of word of mouth openings — as adjunct positions are rarely listed on traditional job websites.

  “There are two goals,” Cohen said. “One is to build community and support among adjuncts in the region. The other is to create bargaining units, to actually set up adjuncts at Philly universities that have a bargaining unit at each school. If we were just doing one or just doing the other it wouldn’t be as impactful.”

  More information about UAP can be found on their website at unitedacademicsphilly.org

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