The Chronicle of Higher Education
May 2, 2013
As Adjuncts See Their Hours Cut, Some Are Fighting Back
By Sydni Dunn
As more colleges cut part-time instructors' work hours ahead of a
federal mandate that will require employers to provide employees with
more health-insurance benefits, faculty unions and advocacy groups
increasingly are fighting back.
In one of the latest examples, a union for part-time faculty members at
a Michigan college has filed an unfair-labor-practice complaint alleging
that administrators violated a collective-bargaining agreement by
unilaterally reducing the number of hours that part-time instructors can
Elsewhere, faculty groups are holding protests and rallies to call
attention to the poor working conditions of adjunct faculty members.
The efforts are part of a broader push for more openness between
administrators and adjuncts as the terms of their employment are set,
said Craig Smith, director of the higher-education division of the
American Federation of Teachers. Part-time faculty members need to be
included in labor conversations, he said.
The health-insurance requirement, part of the new Patient Protection and
Affordable Care Act, is one of the factors driving those conversations.
Under the new law, which takes effect in January 2014, employees of
large companies who work 30 hours or more a week must receive health
benefits from their employers.
Before the law takes effect, some colleges have begun limiting adjuncts
and other part-time employees to no more than 29 hours a week.
The Michigan Case
The labor complaint in Michigan was filed with the state's Employment
Relations Commission on Monday by the part-time instructors' union at
Kalamazoo Valley Community College, the KVCC Federation of Teachers,
after it received word that, beginning in the fall, part-time faculty
members would be limited to nine "contact" hours a semester.
Contact hours are a measure of the time instructors spend face to face
with students, and vary from course to course. Adjuncts' work weeks are
now calculated by credit hours, and the maximum per semester is 11,
according to Catherine E. Barnard, a part-time instructor of psychology
at Kalamazoo Valley who is co-president of the KVCC Federation, an
affiliate of AFT Michigan.
The complaint accuses the college of violating Michigan's Public
Employment Relations Act, which states that "wages, hours, and other
terms and conditions of employment are subject to collective
bargaining." The union tried to bargain with the college, Ms. Barnard
said, but administrators would not rescind the switch to a new maximum
based on contact hours.
The change will reduce the number of courses instructors in some
disciplines can teach, Ms. Barnard said, forcing them to take a pay cut.
"I teach psychology, and my contact hours are exactly three per
three-credit-hour class," Ms. Barnard said. "But in the sciences or in
art, in addition to lecture time, they have four to five hours of
contact in labs."
According to an April 16 memo sent by a senior administrator to
department chairs, the number of contact hours for a course will be
calculated by its "strategy." For example, an introductory-level biology
course has a "4-3-3" strategy. Adding the last two digits, for lecture
and lab time, determines the number of contact hours—in this case, six.
If instructors are restricted to nine contact hours, Ms. Barnard said,
they would be able to teach only one class of that kind.
"This is going to affect a third of our members financially," she said,
noting that adjuncts are paid by the credit hour. The union represents
about 300 part-time faculty members, she said.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Michigan Employment Relations Commission
had not yet received the union's complaint, an official with the agency
said. When it does, the next step will be to evaluate the complaint and
determine a response.
Lynn Morison, a staff lawyer with the state Bureau of Employment
Relations, said complaints are reviewed by the director of the
commission and an administrative-law judge to determine whether an
unfair labor practice has been committed. If it has, a hearing is
scheduled, though "about a third of charges are settled before."
The KVCC Federation hopes that the complaint will encourage the
college's administration to negotiate, Ms. Barnard said, but so far the
union has not received any word from college officials.
On Tuesday, the day after the complaint was filed, about 45 union
members attempted to deliver a poster-size copy of the complaint to the
college's president, Marilyn J. Schlack, but she was unavailable. The
group left the large photocopy with her secretary.
"The only response I received was when the president contacted public
safety and they found me and told me I wasn't allowed to protest," Ms.
Barnard said, laughing.
Michael Collins, the institution's vice president for college and
student relations, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
The complaint filed by the Kalamazoo Valley union is among the first of
its kind, according Mr. Smith, of the American Federation of Teachers.
Though it's likely other unions are considering such action, the
national organization has not heard of any other part-time faculty
unions' filing a formal complaint, he said.
"We have been doing a lot of presentations and training and talking with
locals about different strategies," Mr. Smith said. "The primary
strategy is to deal with this at the bargaining table."
John W. Curtis, director of research and public policy for the American
Association of University Professors, said most unionized groups work
with the administration internally. Employees who are not represented by
a union must organize in different ways. Part-timers have called
attention to the behavior of university officials by engaging the
community through meetings and demonstrations, he said.
One example, he said, is the Ohio Part-Time Faculty Association, which
on Tuesday held a "Rally for Equity" on the University of Akron's campus
in response to a reduction in part-time employees' work hours there, he
said. Demonstrators were encouraged to attend the event, to wear a
scarlet "A" for "adjunct," and to broadcast the event through
Both the AAUP and the AFT said they would support the actions of any
local chapters, but they are not providing any blanket recommendations,
as every situation is different.
"Right now," Mr. Curtis said, "we're collecting examples and looking for
ways to act further."