Adjunct professors: academia’s overstressed, underpaid labor force

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Like most adjunct professors, Mick Parsons, an instructor in Louisville, Ky., lectures at several institutions to earn a salary that works out to less than minimum wage, with no benefits. Adjuncts have short-term contracts and often must prepare for their courses without offices or even desks of their own on-site.

Adjuncts are joining together to organize for improved wages and conditions across the U.S., from Seattle and Los Angeles to Boston and Chicago. Many are working toward unionization. Faculty and supporters at more than 100 campuses held walkouts, teach-ins or rallies during National Adjunct Walkout Day on Feb. 25.

Parsons recently joined the fight at the local level. Nicole Troxell, herself an adjunct, spoke with him for the Freedom Socialist.

NT — What motivated you to get involved?

MP — Except for a few years in Arizona, all of my higher ed working experience has been as part-time faculty. I’ve watched the decline of an institution that has been good to me and to others. I’ve watched as an institution that is supposed to help people lift themselves out of poverty now buries people in debt. I’ve watched good teachers leave — not because they are tired of teaching but because they can’t teach and pay for basic necessities. There are adjuncts who are on SNAP [food stamps] and other forms of public assistance because the wages they earn are abysmal.

I think a lot about that Lucy Parsons quote: “Never be deceived that the rich will permit you to vote away their wealth.” The same is true of power. Waiting around for the power-mongers and bean counters in higher education to decide we should have a say in the conditions of our labor is a waste of time.

NT — What kinds of actions are happening in Louisville?

MP — I’m working with Kate Lafferty, co-organizer of The Louisville-Teach In, and others to form the Kentucky College Faculty Association (KYCFA). Our hope is that this group will help adjunct and contingent faculty organize across the region and the state. We’re interested in working with like-minded full-time faculty to create democratic change in higher education, which has become increasingly corporate and oligarchical.

The challenge with organizing education workers in Kentucky is that faculty in higher education here are barred by law from collective bargaining. Some interpret this as meaning we are not allowed to unionize, and many see a union with no collective bargaining power as pointless. We’re working toward convincing our fellow educators that unless we have a collective voice our work conditions will not change.

NT — How does this fight relate to other workers?

MP — We’re all workers. All work is noble and deserves respect. That includes us. That includes fast food workers fighting for $15 an hour. That includes Walmart employees. We’re all being pushed through this giant capitalist meat grinder, and being used up in the process. We’re all told we ought to be grateful just to have a job in this not-so-new neoliberal economy. We’re being told we need to work harder for less.

NT — What obstacles do you face?

MP — The pervading culture of fear and apathy in higher ed infects many adjuncts and benefits those who profit from our labor and don’t believe we are entitled to more. Many adjuncts are afraid that speaking up will cost them their jobs. That fear grows into apathy and acceptance of the status quo.

We have to address that, and break through with a simple message: there is more. We deserve more.

Not because we’re educated. Not because we’re teachers. We deserve more because all people — working, unemployed, underemployed, the homeless — deserve more.

The next obstacle is state law, and the impending doom that Rand Paul and the “right to work” people would level on this state. Our fight for adjunct worker rights is part of the larger response nationwide to adjunct issues, as well as the neoliberal anti-worker, anti-union sentiment that has taken hold across the country.

NT — What victories or achievements have you gained at the local level?

MP — The executive administration at Jefferson Community and Technical College has recognized that the institution needs to address these issues and has created an Adjunct Issues Task Force with adjuncts to correct inequities.

We’re gaining ground in other ways, too. Good things are coming.

NT — How can others support the fight and what kind of support are you looking for?

MP — It’s crucial that we keep this issue in the media. Ask about joining KYCFA. Drop me an email at We’re looking for faculty, concerned members of the community, students, and parents of students. We’re looking for anyone willing to step up to the line.

Also see other labor-related stories in this issue:

• Labor Weather Report

• The unstoppable fight for $15

• Closing the gender pay gap: what will it take?

• “Right to work” legislation threatens all unions

• Soapbox: I was a pieceworker for Google

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