There are any number of reasons that people are drawn to the “gig economy,” the contract-based, short-term employment model that gives everyone from freelance creatives to instructors to Airbnb hosts a way to make a living on a project-to-project basis. It can be the pursuit of a passion or the liberty of self-employment. The freedom can be rewarding, but it’s work on a constant precipice. A class falls through, a show cancels, a story gets scrapped, and the income you expected is—poof—gone.
“It’s like Saturday night for a musician, you have gigs,” says Andy Klatt, a part-time lecturer at Tufts University and an active member of its fledgling union. “Your livelihood is contingent [on] whether or not you get the next gig. It benefits the employer, and it’s a reflection of our modern economy.”
Universities have increasingly come to rely on educators who work gig to gig. In 1980, 32 percent of university educators in America worked part time, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By 2013, part-time and full-time professors were neck and neck, at 49 and 51 percent, respectively.
Some believe the rise of part-time professors, and their accompanying vulnerability, is a response to market disruption. Universities bring on more educators without tenure to increase flexibility and cut costs, according to groups like the American Association of University Professors.
But working without tenure is a game of insecurity, and it’s that anxiety that brought the part-time teaching staff at Tufts to organize. Unions have long been mainstays in manufacturing, in public schools and among service workers, but they are a relatively new sight among university faculty. Many feel the movement started at Tufts (at least where private universities are concerned). Adjunct professors—at Tufts, they’re called “part-time lecturers”—signed on with the local Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in September 2013 and entered into their first union contract with the university a year later.
The agreement offers job security, with three tiers of contracts. The first four years of employment are year to year, after which the adjunct can enter a two-year deal, then a three-year deal. The contract also gives adjuncts who are let go a grievance process and establishes a $25,000 fund for professional development work, which previously had to come out of pocket.
The agreement greatly increased the pay—in some cases, by 22 percent—in fields in which the university had traditionally invested less heavily. What was once a $6,000 humanities class jumped to $7,300. Before, classes in the sciences would fetch much higher payouts than those in the arts, says Klatt, who teaches Spanish and translates on the side. While pay is still not equal, he says it is more fair.
The deal came with intangibles, too. “We have a definite feeling that there’s a balance between us and the administration,” says Rebecca Kaiser Gibson, an English department adjunct. “We aren’t just sort of disposable—they’re not contending with us individually, they’re contending with a large ‘us.’”
Tufts adjuncts led the country in signing on with the SEIU. Seeing their success, professors at many universities in the area have begun to follow suit. Adjuncts at Northeastern just won their first union contract this year. At Boston University, adjuncts have begun the bargaining process after voting to unionize last February. Back at Tufts, full-time, non-tenure-track professors are still negotiating for a contract after voting to unionize last January. Bentley faculty voted for a union last February and are still bargaining for a contract.
Looking back, Tufts adjuncts say that before unionization, there was a sense that they were disposable.
“I heard people every semester sounding worried that this would be the year that, for whatever reason, they’d be let go,” says Gibson.
The professional life of an adjunct professor, like the life of any freelancer, is a series of puzzle pieces. Many work at multiple universities and hold other jobs in their field. They’re paid per class, and financial planning hinges on the number of classes they teach. Before unionization, adjuncts could receive no class assignments, or have their classes cancelled, with no opportunity for recourse. With housing, health care and living expenses to balance, having the rug pulled out from under even a single gig can cause a devastating ripple effect. It’s the instability, the feeling of a livelihood hanging in the market’s breeze—or at the university’s whim—that rallied Tufts adjuncts around unionization.
Gibson, for one, has taught English at Tufts since 1995. Every year prior to unionization, her course load was subject to change. For seven years, her compensation and that of other adjuncts stayed stagnant—even in years when tenured faculty saw increases. In all her time at Tufts, she never worried that she, personally, would be let go. But she saw it happen to plenty of part timers, and on an academic schedule, losing course work could mean six months to a year spent waiting for your next opportunity.
“There were a lot [of adjuncts] that didn’t know what they’d get until it happened,” she says.
Indeed, after unionization, Tufts tried to let five adjuncts go. But it wasn’t so easy anymore. The union had a grievance process, and they exercised it. The adjuncts got either another year of classes or a compensation package.
Unionization may touch on something more ephemeral than financial stress. The most recent American Association of University Professors survey found that “job insecurity in higher education harms the mental well-being of non-tenure-track faculty.”
The survey continues: “A substantial number report feelings of stress, anxiety and depression associated with their position.”
At Tufts, some of those fears have been quelled by collective bargaining.
“The union is a defense,” Klatt says. “We’re united; we’re much stronger.”
Bill Shaner is a non-unionized Scout contributor. Reach him at email@example.com.