Once upon a time, American college professors were solidly middle class. While their salaries were relatively modest—particularly given the time and resources required to earn a higher degree, typically a Ph.D.—their standard of living was relatively high and, most importantly, due to the generalization of the tenure system following the Second World War, they were ensured stable employment. They also had considerable job satisfaction, thanks to their status as professionals, the meaningful character of their work, and the fact that they were contributing to one of the finest systems of higher education in the world.
In many ways, those days are over. And this is why the unionization drive currently been led by contingent faculty at Duke University matters to North Carolina, and the nation.
Those who are not in academia may find that it strains credibility to learn that many professors these days struggle to make ends meet. College has long been considered the gateway to professional and economic wellbeing; it is sadly ironic that the gatekeepers are struggling to keep a foothold in the middle class.
The rise of the adjunct
The rise to prominence of the American universities after the Second World War coincided with the adoption of the tenure system. Thanks to tenure, professors could at last think of themselves as professionals. The basic principle is that, after a probationary period (typically six years), after which they “got tenure,” professors would be guaranteed job security. Tenure safeguards academic excellence for at least two reasons: it ensures the principle of “academic freedom,” protecting professors from dismissal for teaching or studying controversial ideas; and it attracts talented people to the profession who might otherwise be disinclined to seek time-consuming advanced degrees without the prospect of stable employment.
Beginning in the 1970s, this system began to crack. Faced with a tougher economy and declining enrollment, university administrators insisted on the need for “retrenchment.” As they turned to models pioneered in the business world for governing universities, they increasingly began hiring faculty on non-tenure contracts, because of the “flexibility” this cheap and disposable academic labor offered them. By the 1990s, the use of contingent academic labor had risen dramatically.
It is now estimated that around 70% of faculty positions in higher education are off the tenure track. Generally speaking, contingent faculty members are poorly paid. A survey  by Adjunct Action/SEIU found that the average compensation for contingent faculty (in late 2014) was $21,510. At the same time, according to the same survey, 57% of these faculty members were working at least eight hours a day, with 19% saying that worked 12 hours or more.
A significant percentage of contingent faculty find themselves below the federal poverty threshold. A study  by the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, found that 25% of “part-time college faculty” are supported by some kind of public assistance program, such as Medicaid or food stamps. The death in 2013 of Margaret Mary Vojtko , an 83 year old French professor at Duquesne University on a contingent contract who made less than $25,000 a year with no health benefits, called attention to the plight in which many adjuncts find themselves (though their meanings differ slightly, “adjunct,” “non-tenure-track,” and “contingent faculty” all refer to the same kind of employment).
Teaching at Duke, struggling financially
Despite the reputation it enjoys as one of the finest private universities in the United States, Duke University, too, has experienced this trend. According to Duke Teaching First , the union organizing committee, nearly half of Duke’s teaching is now done by contingent faculty. In the spring of 2015, public forums were held at which these professors called attention to the challenges they face: inconsistent pay, inconsistent health and retirement benefits, uncertainty as to when and whether their (usually short-term) contracts would be renewed, and exclusion from shared governance.
At a “speak out” in October, MJ Sharp, who teaches in Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, reflected on her experience as a contingent faculty member at Duke: “When teaching a class as contingent faculty, one is paid a modest fixed sum to teach that one class only. Often, there is no guarantee of teaching again the next semester, and crucially, there are no benefits of any kind, including health insurance. …A few years ago my entire semester’s earnings for teaching one class went towards my very basic, very non-luxurious health insurance premiums for the year. In raw financial terms, I literally taught for health insurance.”
Sharp adds: “While the financial situation was lamentable, what felt even worse for someone who loves teaching as much as I do was the way my energies had to be continually divided between dedication to my current Duke students and the ever-present possibility that I would need to leave the university in order to survive financially.”
It was working conditions like these that led a group of contingent faculty to form Duke Teaching First. In a letter sent to their colleagues on September 9, they announced that they had taken the first steps to form a union and encouraged their peers to sign union authorization cards. Duke Teaching First is working to build the strongest authorization possible and hopes to achieve majority support. The next step (presuming that the legal minimum of 30% have signed authorization cards) will be to file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board, requesting an election that will determine whether a union will be formed.
Following in the footsteps of contingent faculty at Tufts, Boston University, Georgetown, and George Washington, Duke’s contingent faculty are organizing under the banner of Faculty Forward , a campaign launched by SEIU, the nation’s fast growing service-sector union. Faculty Forward reflects SEIU’s view that in an increasingly “right to work” nation, the labor movement must struggle against the trend towards poorly paid contingent labor at all levels, whether in the fast food industry, home care, or higher education.
Stopping contingency in its tracks
The premise of Faculty Forward, like the “Fight for $15” campaign, is that better living standards are possible only if the trend towards contingency is stopped in its tracks. Where the law makes unionization impossible (such as in public higher education in North Carolina), Faculty Forward is seeking to build a movement that can create a powerful momentum for change without relying on the labor movement’s traditional legal and organizational tools.
Justin Mitchell, a graduate student in Duke’s English department, completely agrees with these goals. He explains: “Establishing a union at Duke will give hope to contingent faculty throughout the state and the country and represent an important victory for the larger labor movement in this country. It doesn’t matter whether you work at McDonald’s or a prestigious university, you deserve a living wage. Workers have the same basic interests. Unionization allows us to see this and ensures that our voices are heard. “
The professors of Duke Teaching First emphasize that improving the condition of contingent faculty is in the interest of the university and, ultimately, higher education in general. As they stated in their letter  from September 9, “students have a right to teachers who can be fully engaged in providing them the best possible education without spending time and energy entering the job market every year and without being consumed by the preoccupation of making ends meet.”
The message is starting to resonate with Duke’s students. In mid-September, a student organization, Duke United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), gathered  over 400 student signatures for a petition in favor of the unionization effort that was presented to Duke President Richard Brodhead. Zoe Willingham, USAS’s president said: “As students, we want professors to be treated with dignity in the workplace and feel financially secure as well.”
Meanwhile, Duke’s administration has responded with a predictable gamut of union-busting strategies. On October 8, Provost Sally Kornbluth sent a letter  to Duke’s faculty, which was full of thinly veiled warnings of unionization’s dangers. While acknowledging that the issue of contingent faculty’s work conditions needed to be addressed, Kornbluth declared: “We believe these matters are best addressed in an open and direct dialogue between administration and faculty,” adding that “[u]nionization …changes the essential nature of that direct relationship.” The university has set up its own anti-unionization website , which notably tries to impress  upon faculty that signing a unionization card is fraught with risk. The slogan along the website’s masthead is revealing: it proclaims “you are your own best representative.”
Duke Faculty Forward’s next step is to garner enough support to trigger a union vote. But they have already achieved a crucial goal: drawing considerable attention to the conditions contingent faculty face across North Carolina.
Dr. Michael C. Behrent is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC.