Using the Internet for contingent faculty organizing

by John Hess

I am an organizer. I work for the California Faculty Association which is the union and bargaining agent for all the faculty in the huge California State University system (CSU). The CSU has 23 campuses, about 23,000 faculty and nearly 450,000 students. The CSU is separate from California’s University of California system that includes UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz. The CSU includes San Francisco State, San Jose State, LA State, San Diego State, Fresno State, and Sonoma State. The CSU offers mostly undergraduate education plus some important professional masters degrees in area like education, nursing, engineering, social work, etc.

I am an organizer. In one part of my job I work closely with the CFA Lecturers’ Council. Lecturers, full and part time, have term appointments that are contingent on enrollment, budgeting, and other factors. They are now nearly 60% of the system’s faculty. In the last three or so years, the Lecturers’ Council has become deeply involved in the international movement of contingent faculty. I use the Internet to stay in touch with various individuals, groups, and organizations. A large network of discussion lists and websites has grown up around the movement and has become an important organizing medium locally, nationally, and internationally.

It is not uncommon for contingent faculty to find out about activists or activities on their own campus by reading about it on a website on the other side of the country or in Canada. The most difficult part of organizing contingent faculty has always been finding them. They are usually isolated from each other, distant from their departments, marginalized by the university, which counts on their isolation to keep them from organizing. The Internet has become one way to overcome this isolation. This little resource study is for anyone interested in the how the Internet can work as an organizing tool or with an interest in this issue, but it is particularly meant to help contingent faculty find their way to activists on their campus and also to encourage them to become active themselves.To begin with CFA has its own website.

Of particular interest is the Lecturers Handbook which gives some history of CFA and its work with lecturers. Most importantly, it sets out the rights that lecturers have won in our system:

We have been greatly influenced in our work by the community college part time faculty activists. In the mid-1990s, they formed an organization, the California Part time Faculty Association (CPFA) to lobby all the unions, senates and other organizations involved in the community colleges on behalf of the part time faculty. They have done a tremendous lobbying job. Their organizing skills, thoughtful development of issues and, perhaps mostly, their wonderful irreverence have been a major inspiration to CFA Lecturers.

The major intellectual center for the contingent faculty movement has been the Association of American University Professors. This page and its links will give a good sense of what is going on in this movement and collects AAUP’s numerous statements on contingent faculty:

The central document of this movement is an article by Rich Moser of the AAUP: “The New Academic Labor System, Corporatization
And The Renewal of Academic Citizenship”( 6/01):

The most important non- or quasi-organization for this movement is COCAL (The Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor). It is more than anything an Internet organization, that is, it exits mostly as Internet/email connections between various activists in the US and Canada. I am telling a little of its history to give a sense of how much this movement has grown in less than a decade.

In December 1996, the first National Congress of Adjunct, Part-time, Graduate Teaching Assistants and Non-Tenure Track Faculty was held in Washington, D.C. Concurrently, the Graduate Student Caucus of the Modern Language Association held a panel on “Making the MLA More Proactive” in part-time faculty issues.
In April 1998, the 2nd Annual National Congress was held at the CUNY Grad Center in New York City. The group renamed itself “The Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL),” and elected its first real steering committee.

The 3rd Annual conference was be held the following year in Boston (April, 1999), hosted by activists from the University of, Massachusetts, Boston (UMB) Part-time Faculty Committee of the Faculty-Staff Union (FSU). For a moment COCAL came to rest in Boston as Boston COCAL.

Leaders of the California Part-time Faculty Association (CPFA), linked with their East coast colleagues through Internet list serves and e-mail, hosted COCAL IV, the first West Coast National Conference on Contingent Academic Labor, in January, 2001, in San Jose. COCAL –Chicago was formed later that year:

Our primary purpose at this time is to develop strategies for improving the status, pay and treatment of contingent academic labor in Chicago and its suburbs and to support efforts by other groups in public and private universities and colleges to do the same.

COCAL V took place at Concordia University (CU) in Montreal. The CU Part-time Association successfully hosted the conference in Montreal. This was the biggest COCAL meeting yet and included a march against the host university. It was there that California attendees suggested founding COCAL–California. CFA played a helpful role in its formation in fall, 2002. It is a coalition of organizations representing contingent faculty in the UCs, the CSUs, and the community colleges. We put on a large conference on the UC Berkeley campus in May, 2003, to bring together activists from the UC system, the CSU, and the community colleges.

Finally, COCAL sponsors the most important listserv where contingent faculty issues are discussed. To subscribe to the COCAL listserv, send an e-mail to:

Put the following command in the body of the message (not the subject line):
SUBSCRIBE ADJ-L firstname lastname <emailaddress>.

Another important Internet organization is the North American Alliance for Fair Employment, an informational and solidarity network of unions and that links contingent workers from all sectors of the economy.

NAFFE is an alliance of a great range of organizations who deal with temporary workers in a variety of fields.

We stand for equal treatment (pay, benefits and protections under the law) regardless of employment status. Our work is part of the broader fight to ensure that working people have the right and opportunity to provide for themselves, their families and their communities.

NAFFE is important because it makes the connections amongst all forms of temporary workers, whether cleaning offices or teaching in universities .Currently, all these people and organizations are working on Campus Equity Week (October 27-31, 2003). It will be a week of protest against contingent working conditions and also a week of celebration of the contributions that contingent faculty make to their students and their universities.

In many ways it could be said that across the country, and in Canada too, it is the contingent faculty who are fighting to save higher education, while most of the tenured and tenure track faculty seem oblivious to the ever accelerating corporatization of higher education, with its attendant undermining of faculty working conditions (more for less) and academic freedom.

The AAUP has also published considerable information about Campus Equity Week along with practical ways to get involved.:
http://www.aaup.org/Issues/part-time/cewpage.htm. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which boasts on its website that it represents more contingent faculty than any other union, has a lot of information about what its own locals are doing, a booklet on good standards and practices that ought to be used, and an endorsement of CEW and an invitation to its members to get involved.

The other major education union, the National Education Association (http://www.nea.org/) with which CFA is affiliated, boasts that it represents more higher education teachers than any other union. However, from its website’s home page it is nearly impossible to gather that NEA represents any contingent faculty. Only by accessing “Publications and Multimedia” on the sidebar navigation tool and then going to “Higher Education Advocate,” an NEA magazine for higher education members, and then using the search tool to find “contingent faculty,” will you find out that NEA has sponsored several of the COCAL meetings and supports CEW. Looking under higher education policies, I was able to find one on contingent faculty:

On the more academic side, various of the disciplinary organizations have done various sorts of research, hand wringing, and moralizing about the situation of contingent academic labor, especially as it affects their own graduate students. An example is the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) (established in 1997) by disciplinary associations in the humanities and social sciences. CAW states it purposes as:

  • to collect and disseminate information on the use of part-time and contingent faculty members and its implications for students, parents, faculty members, and institutions;
  • to articulate and clarify differences in the extent and consequences of changes in the faculty within and among the various academic disciplines and fields of study;
  • to evaluate the consequences of these developments for achieving and maintaining quality higher education;
  • to evaluate both short-term and long-term consequences for society and the public good of changes in the academic workforce;
  • to identify and promote strategies for solving the problems created by inappropriate use of part-time, adjunct, and similar faculty appointments;
  • to strengthen teaching and scholarship.

In fall 1999, CAW commissioned a survey of staffing in higher education:

Seven groups—anthropology, cinema studies, folklore, linguistics, English, foreign languages, and philology—surveyed all departments in their fields. Three other groups—history, philosophy, and freestanding composition programs—surveyed a sample of departments. The surveys asked departments about who is teaching their classes and what the departments provide their part-time and adjunct faculty members in the way of support, benefits, and salaries.

CAW has done some valuable research on this issue and its impact on young faculty and students, but they seem unable to imagine, much less recommend any sort of collective action. Without that, it’s mostly hand wringing. The results of the survey may be found at <www.theaha.org/caw/>.
One can reach CAW via email at CAW@mla.org.

Finally, you will find “A Review of Web Sites for Contingent Faculty,” by James C. McDonald of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette:

By following links on the sites described here, you will find a wealth of information and further links. Email and the Internet are invaluable tools for reaching out to and organizing contingent faculty. It also helps the organizers stay informed, work together over great distances, share and develop ideas together. The dilemma we face, however, is that face to face conversation is by far the best way to organize, create relations with people and get them involved. Yet, the difficulty of doing that on college and university campuses is very great. Reaching most contingent faculty that way is nearly impossible and certainly very time consuming. That, of course, has always been true. The Internet and email have greatly improved our ability to organize people in an effort to bring about change.

If you are faculty at all, please join us for Campus Equity Week.