What I learned at COCAL XI

[FYI: I had planned to write about COCAL already, but my union, APSCUF, asked me to write a piece for their blog. This is the piece I wrote for them, which will cross-post there. If you follow the APSCUF blog and want to talk about any of the issues here in terms of internal union discussions, let’s have that conversation there. –SK]

First, a loud thank you to APSCUF for sending me to New York City August 4-5 for the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor’s 11th biennial conference. If you’re unfamiliar with COCAL, the organization has emerged since the late 1990s as a–if not the–central venue in which adjunct activists collaborate to develop strategies and tactics to win better working conditions for contingent faculty. COCAL brings together contingent/adjunct activists from Canada and Mexico (both of which have hosted conferences) with their US counterparts, understanding contingency as a globalizing phenomenon.

I learned a lot at this conference, and before getting into the details, maybe the most important lesson is something I already realized (perhaps the most forceful statement of it by and for adjunct faculty comes from Keith Hoeller) but had reinforced more palpably than I could have imagined–

Lesson #1: While tenured and tenure-track faculty should and can be helpful advocates/allies for adjunct faculty equity, the real push for equity comes directly from adjunct faculty. I’m not sure how many other tenured/tenure-track people were there (I recognized a couple but expect there were some I just didn’t know), but the energy, talent, and commitment in the room were almost entirely adjunct-driven. If I could bring anything back to APSCUF from this conference, it’s a dose of that commitment for all adjunct members of the union; we know the talent and energy are here. The struggle for equity is everybody’s, including yours. 

Other people have covered the conference’s proceedings. This post from the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Vitae section offers a coherent overview of events. Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of the opening plenary session addresses the need to take direct action, including strikes (Stanley Aronowitz argued strongly for wildcat strikes; Cindy Oliver, president of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of British Columbia, contended that any public employee besides emergency responders has a moral right to strike) and better to articulate the (academic) labor movement in terms of non-financial issues. Other panelists and audience members considered tactics available to faculty in non-union states. The second plenary, which I’ll say more about below, focused on specific strategies and tactics (mostly in union environments) for gaining and protecting contingent faculty power. The third plenary focused on linking arguments about contingent academic labor to issues of contingency in other labor sectors.

At that second plenary, called “Inside the Academy: The Cutting Edge,” I learned about a variety of efforts that I think translate pretty directly into possible APSCUF positions/actions:

Lesson #2: We need to support in every way we can SEIU’s Adjunct Action campaign, along with similar AFT and USW metro organizing efforts, even in areas that don’t directly affect our members. USW has been working in Pittsburgh, and AFT is organizing across the Philly metro area as well as one campus in Pittsburgh. While APSCUF adjunct faculty are members of our bargaining unit already and won’t be targets of those efforts, there’s no reason that we can’t and shouldn’t offer support–to the extent that it’s welcome. Not only are better conditions for contingent faculty an obvious good, but often APSCUF adjunct faculty work at multiple institutions, and we’re benefiting them by working to improve those institutions. 

[Updated AUG 20: It’s also important that we support non-union contingent faculty organizing/activist efforts like the New Faculty Majority. NFM has been one of the driving forces behind Campus Equity Week; has been working at state and national levels on legislation (most recently Senator Durbin’s proposal to extend student-loan forgiveness eligibility to adjunct faculty who haven’t been able to maintain full-time schedules); and so on. 

Lesson #3: Genuine adjunct equity goes beyond compensation. Donna Nebenzahl, representing the Concordia University Part-time Faculty Association (CUPFA), described their successes on two important fronts. In their last contract, they negotiated a $240,000 (Canadian dollars, but still) professional development fund specifically for part-time faculty. The dollar amount aside, the key concept is the commitment the union and university have made.  I strongly call on APSCUF to make a similarly strong commitment to our adjunct faculty, as members of our bargaining unit. Likewise, Condordia part-time faculty have (to borrow Nebenzahl’s words) “permeate[d] the governance of the university” by winning representation on hiring committees, curriculum committees, and other governing bodies. APSCUF permanent faculty members need to support our adjunct colleagues in this regard–there’s simply no good reason not to. 

Alternating with the plenaries, the other major events at the conference were three breakout meetings of “interest groups” focused on specific strategic problems: working with media; negotiating equity; legal issues (Affordable Care Act; discrimination issues; etc); building a national agenda (working with unions and other organizations across institutions and regions); and organizing (with) students. The charge for the interest groups was loose, but the gist was to develop a short strategy statement, and if there was time to develop whatever tactical recommendations we could in order to operationalize the strategy. I joined the student group, learning at the beginning of the first session that organizers expected us to stay in a group for all three (I had planned on attending the media and national agenda groups as well, but deferred to the preference of the people who had done the work of putting the conference together).

I wasn’t able to attend the closing session at which all five groups presented their final results, but (with the permission of our group members and facilitators) I can share what the student group developed, and one member of the national agenda group has already blogged theirs, a project they call the Democracy Index. That group is undertaking an effort that resonates with and builds from what many contingent labor activists have been trying to do for years–develop a method for praising institutions that do well by their adjunct faculty, and just as importantly, calling out institutions that do wrong. There have been attempts in my field (Composition/Rhetoric/English) to push our professional organizations (MLA, CCCC, NCTE) to censure departments/programs with bad labor practices, and the response has always been that bylaws (and, they argue, laws about non-profit status) prevent them from censuring/punishing anybody. The Democracy Index doesn’t call for censure, specifically, but instead proposes to publicize rankings and reports on institutions’ treatment of adjunct faculty: compensation, but also access to professional resources, academic freedom, and shared governance (see Lesson #2, above).

Lesson #4: Throughout the conference (and certainly in other adjunct activist venues), one of the common tensions is over how to prioritize compensation vs governance and professionalization issues. Is it more important to make sure everybody can pay their rent and buy food first, even if that comes at the expense of governance rights, or do we establish governance rights first in order to demand compensation equity more effectively? The answer to that is largely local, of course. APSCUF does reasonably well in terms of compensation, particularly for full-time adjunct faculty, but adjunct access to governance rights and professional development is inconsistently supported. We must do better. 

The interest group on organizing with students produced a statement of Core Principles and Practices (click this link to download the file, which we saved as Student Strategy Document). Our conversations focused on the need to balance the ethics of democratic organizing (not coercing students into supporting adjuncts), the common issues that students and adjunct faculty face, and the needs of adjunct faculty.

Lesson #5: The work we did in the student group reinforces the need for our Student-Faculty Liaisons, at both local and state levels, to be involved in efforts for faculty equity of all statuses, including adjuncts. Many of our students already work contingent jobs. Many will graduate and, without a tectonic shift in the economy, find other contingent jobs. We can fight contingency in unison, without exploiting students to do it, if we’re careful and attentive to the ethics of what we ask for. 

Again, I’m very grateful to APSCUF for sending me to New York, and I’m grateful to all the organizers and participants at the conference for their welcome, their energy, and a commitment I hope I can share across the union and with adjunct activists and sympathizers everywhere.

I’ll end with this request, a campaign I’m involved in that garnered some attention and support at the conference too. A few weeks ago, the good folks at State APSCUF posted a piece I wrote about this petition to David Weil at the Department of Labor , calling for signatures from faculty at all ranks/statuses, managers, staff, students, parents/guardians, families, anybody with an interest in quality higher ed. As of August 10, we’re approaching 6800 signatures. Please sign and share.



3 Responses to What I learned at COCAL XI

  1. VanessaVaile says:

    Seth, by now I’ve pretty much seen/read them all but imnshouo yours is the best COCAL XI post/article I’ve read

    • sethkahn says:

      Thanks, Vanessa. In a lot of ways my writing task was easier than many people’s. Although it’s posted on my personal blog, I had a much more specific audience (my union members) to address than somebody trying to write more broadly. Anything people outside the union can extract from that I’m glad for.

      And, FWIW, a lot of what I would have written in the post I promised you about 2 months ago is in here, although probably cast a little differently. 🙂

      • VanessaVaile says:

        I thought it might be. Peter had a similarly specific focus — reporting back to UUP. Incidentally, Sándor John (I would guess from the student group), posted a good report in the CUNY Adjuncts open Google group.

        These, plus the higher ed media pieces, will help me make better sense of and organize the tweets ~ rather a chaotic jumble not always identifying sessions

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