NEW YORK – On a cold Saturday before Thanksgiving, the New School campus lit up Fifth Avenue like a festive ornament. Gaudy, out of place and yet oddly inviting, the private liberal arts school glittered in the waning daylight. Inside, figures gathered while putting on coats and slowly heading outdoors after enjoying one of the many events that fill the calendar of the world-famous design college.
From across the street, Lee-Sean Huang side-eyed the business-as-usual goings-on. Only a few hours earlier, the building had framed a jarringly different scene. After negotiations for a contract renewal broke down, unionized part-time and adjunct workers represented by ACT-UAW triggered a strike. Union members, students, faculty, and allies from at least four other New York academic institutions marched on the street. Signs proclaiming, “OUR WORKING CONDITIONS ARE STUDENTS’ LEARNING CONDITIONS” and “CUSTOMERS OR STUDENTS?” were thrust into the air while chanting, trucks honking in solidarity and makeshift drums could be heard from blocks away.
Huang, an adjunct professor and union bargaining committee member, peered inside the flagship campus building, checking that it wasn’t a class that had crossed the picket line. Satisfied, he moved on, heading to yet another scheduled negotiating session that would prove to be unfruitful.
Wearing a colorful sweater and jacket that isn’t quite warm enough for the suddenly chillier weather, Huang looks younger than his 41 years. He has a long history of working as an adjunct professor, which he began while still a graduate student at New York University. After grad school, he founded a design and branding business with his husband, relying on teaching masters-level courses while finances were tight and health insurance hard to come by. Nowadays, Huang teaches not because he has to, but because he wants to. “I have a full-time staff job in a design non-profit and I don’t need the teaching to pay the bills,” Huang said. “I’m doing it because I love doing it.”
In many ways, Huang’s career has been the paradigm of what adjunct professors are supposed to be: experts in the field, who offer their time to the next generation in exchange for the prestige of university affiliation. Yet over the past 50 years, academia has recognized the benefit of relying more and more on underpaying adjunct part-time workers. Fran Clark, director of communications at the City University of New York’s long-established union PSC/CUNY, explains it more extremely, “The low pay of adjuncts subsidizes the university; it allows you to operate with inadequate funding.”
Huang is acutely aware of his privileged position. He is able to pay his Rhode Island mortgage without his teaching salary. But for those who teach at higher education institutions as the main pillar of their career, this lack of pay parity with faculty professors is unsustainable, and cracks in the system have been widening for decades.
“We’ve seen this lessening of full-time positions,” said Scott Burkhardt, bargaining committee member at ACT-UAW Local 7902– adjunct union for NYU and the New School. “People come out of grad school, with the hope to teach at the university level, whether it’s Ph.D. or MFA candidates, and increasingly the only jobs are adjunct work. Then people are having to cobble together a number of courses to survive, and the rates of those courses have been beaten down so much.”
These highly skilled professionals are patching together a collage of hours at institutions across the city, and many are stretched precariously thin. “Some of [the adjuncts] are becoming very, very, very good teachers, and they deserve a teaching position,” Clark said.
One such professor is Rebecca Smart. At 55, she has been teaching for several decades, sometimes with as many as seven classes on her schedule in a single semester. Despite this, she is still living paycheck to paycheck. She has been effectively homeless on several occasions, and as a result, she once lost custody of her now 22-year-old daughter.
“I’ve taught at a lot of different schools, and it’s always been terrible pay, and that’s always made my life hard,” said Smart. “Maybe I should have found another job. But I really like this job. And I really have known since I was a graduate student that I don’t have these giant aspirations to do research and be tenured. I just love teaching classes.”
For both Huang and Smart, higher ed teaching doesn’t leave much time for a social life. Smart spends her limited downtime baking pumpkin biscotti, watching The Crown and staving off allergies to the cat that technically belongs to her daughter. She goes to bed early, waking up at 5 a.m. still exhausted, ready to traipse across the city to teach the same intro psychology class at multiple academic institutions.
Huang likes to call this gig-economy approach to academic tutelage the “uberification” of higher education. “When you look at the out-of-classroom time, people are spending five or 10 hours for every hour they’re spending in the classroom, sometimes to prepare, and to grade, and to do office hours and things like that,” Huang said, “So some people have done the math, and they’re making a little bit over minimum wage.” As a result, many take second jobs that don’t pay as well as Huang’s. Suddenly, Huang’s Uber analogy doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
However, recently, the cross-pollination of workers across institutions is serving to intensify union organization like never before. “We’re all the same labor pool in New York City, people that adjunct at CUNY, also adjunct at the New School, at NYU or at Fordham. When pay at one school increases, there is a need for the other universities to be able to compete,” Clark said. “So, in that way, the rising tide lifts all the boats.”
In a climate of severe inflation and political polarization, and with the unionization efforts of workers at Amazon and Starbucks at the forefront of political discourse, bargaining committees are fighting with unprecedented support–all within a few months. During the pandemic, many contracts were extended without renegotiation. As contract extensions expire this year, academic institutions across the New York City area, and indeed the nation—University of California graduates are also on strike–are finding unions more militantly opposed to what they consider to be sub-par conditions.
In early November, the ACT-UAW bargaining committee exited NYU negotiations with a transformative contract renewal–approved after the threat of strike brought meaningful changes to the table. A 34% raise, health insurance for dependents, and, most important for some, recognition for work beyond contact (in-class) hours, all made it into the landmark contract. In terms of remuneration, this still leaves NYU behind other private higher education institutions in New York City. However, many are lauding the increases as a benchmark for future higher education contracts.
NYU’s relative success sits atop a wave of favorable contract renewals. Committees associated with Barnard and Columbia renegotiated more equitable contracts last summer, and now the New School and Fordham follow on the heels of NYU. In addition, PSC/CUNY recently sent out surveys to its members, to gauge which demands should be prioritized when entering negotiations before the contract expires next February.
One overwhelming concern with handling adjuncts as disposable is the degradation of education quality itself. “We’re treated as kind of temp workers,” said Lizzie Olesker, Second Vice President of ACT-UAW. When PSC/CUNY’s survey came back, 95% of 9000 respondents had rated “Protecting the Quality of CUNY Education” as a top priority.
Yet glossy brochures, fancy slogans and endearing mascots continue to advertise universities as havens of top-notch learning. “That’s the extra hard thing,” Huang said. “Being that I’m somebody from a branding background, right? A brand is the physical and the visual manifestation of the identity of a company or an organization.”
The disconnect between the brand–the New School’s mascot, Huang explained with a laugh, is a “Non-binary narwhal who ended up in New York City due to climate change”–and the reality of the progressive university’s refusal to commit to pay parity at or even near current rates of inflation is fueling Huang’s involvement with the union. For him, it’s about standing by the message the New School claims to espouse, and by those adjuncts who have worked at the school for decades, but simply can’t survive on the unwieldy mosaic of jobs they’re forced to patch together.
Unlike NYU, the New School has claimed that a budgetary loss incurred during the pandemic makes meeting ACT-UAW’s demands impossible. Brian Allen, a staff member for the union, says this loss may be accurate, but he points to a “bloated” pay scale–with matching housing stipends–afforded to administrators as the reason he isn’t buying the New School’s “pleas of poverty”. Part-time professors make up 87% of The New Schools teaching staff. Allen hoped to apply lessons learned from contract renewals with NYU to their next steps with the New School, but it is unclear if they will have the same results come the time a contract is signed.
The New School’s claim of insufficient funds, whether founded or not, is a cry that has long been heard throughout academia. New York City has a rich history of adjunct strikes at higher education institutions. As far back as the 1970s, the CUNY school system–the largest urban network of schools in the nation–leaned on the underpayment of adjuncts to make up for austere times. In 1972, PSC/CUNY was formed, and the union today has over 30,000 members. Clark says that “The goal is to get adjuncts pay that is equivalent to what a full-time faculty member would make if they were teaching the same number of hours.”
Many teachers claim that providing pay equity across teaching staff protects the quality of education. If this is true, it won’t simply be professors who benefit from a shifting paradigm. As the slogan chanted by academic unions across the nation goes, working conditions are, indeed, students’ learning conditions.
Amid the stress felt by instructors, it is the students who often end up missing out. Smart emphasized exhausted instructors’ inability to produce results. When instructors are unable to lay down roots, she explained, they cannot form stable relationships with students. Asking for letters of recommendation, advice, or extra hours of help becomes impossible when instructors are halfway to the next campus to teach another classroom full of students they will barely remember. Follow-ups are missed, and grading becomes a monotonous race to the bottom.
“It’s a lack of stability, right?” Smart said. “When you talk about looking at a daycare [for a child], you look at how long the staff has been working there. And if they have a high turnover, that’s bad. And why is that bad? Because it makes the place less consistent. And that’s basically the same, all the way through in education.”
Clark pointed to Governor Kathy Hochul’s historic injection of $2.1 billion in increased funding for state education, much of which will go to CUNY and SUNY universities, as reason for hope. Yet for many like Smart, this change, while welcome, will come a little too late. In the most vicious of cycles, indicative of how the gig economy of academic labor has distanced itself from the ideals higher education is founded on, Smart, a teacher of CUNY undergraduates for over two decades, has been financially unable to help her daughter go to the very school she dedicated her life to.
“I’m just so mad. I work full-time for CUNY,” she said, expressing a frustration years in the making. “And yet, I can’t help my own child pay for CUNY.”