Betting on the CPFA: A Pragmatic Solution to the “Perilous World of the Adjunct Professor”

By John Martin, Chair
California Part-time Faculty Association
Presented May 5, 2017
PAL Conference

In a December 2013 edition of the Los Angeles Times, editorial John Martincontributor, Charlotte Allen, offers an impractical and altogether implausible solution to the “penurious” working conditions of nearly forty thousand part-time faculty in the California Community Colleges System: QUIT.  That’s right. The “perilous, humiliating and distinctly un-remunerative world of the adjunct professor”, as Allen succinctly puts it, could disappear completely if only part-time faculty would smartly remove themselves from the academic system altogether, and allow the wondrous market place to work its magic.  “If you love to teach,” Ms. Allen suggests, “teach high school,” make teaching your hobby or step out of the way to allow your spouse to become the breadwinner. Whatever you do, Allen seems to say, just stop “victimizing” yourselves by continuing to keep the supply high and the demand for teaching low.  

While the fanciful notion that ALL part-time faculty should simply quit en masse certainly has its appeal, Allen’s “final solution” is unrealistic, to put it politely. However, to be more frank, her remarks are as maladroit to the ears of part-time faculty as it would be to tell African Americans that they should just leave the country if they don’t like institutional racism.  Historically speaking, this has been an all too common retort to proponents of civil rights in the United States, typically by racist white Americans. We could add that, the very few who actually followed this strategy did so leaving racism intact.

To further illustrate the absurdity of Allen’s proposal, allow me to digress a little. In a letter I wrote to California’s governor, Jerry Brown, last September on behalf of the California Part-time Faculty Association (CPFA), I urged him to support a recent senate bill, SB 1379. This is a bill that mandates that local bargaining units throughout the state negotiate explicit language regarding part-time faculty job security, seniority, rehire rights and due process. The bill also stipulates that this new language must be incorporated into all collective bargaining agreements by the 1st of July, 2017, or the districts risk losing millions of dollars in funding from the state. Governor Brown is a strong advocate for “local control,” which is a political view that any inequities part-timers face are best resolved through the normal channels of negotiation between local bargaining units and individual college districts. In an attempt to appeal to Governor Brown as a social liberal and someone who stood with Cesar Chavez for farm workers’ right to organize during the mid-1970s, I provided this historical example in my letter, which challenges his local control mindset:

The 14th and 15th Amendments have provided the constitutional basis for voting rights and due process since 1870; yet civil rights activists fought for decades against racist Southern state legislatures to put them into action. The “local control” political mantra, based on a racist belief system had succeeded in barring African Americans from the voting process. If it were not for President Johnson taking executive action and leading Congress to pass the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, Southern states could have continued to discriminate against underprivileged African American citizens. History thus conveys a powerful message: top-down government involvement may be necessary when “local control” fails to adequately protect all citizens according to their rights enumerated in the constitution.”

I should add that this particular historical lesson illustrates that intervention by the federal government was a critical step for the protection of disenfranchised people of color, gays and lesbians, and women. The point being that a historical precedent for top-down legislative action not only exists in the historical record, but also lends strong support for the argument that the local control process is not always an effective strategy for bringing about meaningful change in society.

Getting back to Allen’s assertion that part-time faculty just QUIT and let the market forces take care of any systemic injustices, I would reply that there is a more realistic and, historically, a far more effective path to take. The CPFA is not alone in recognizing that the fight for a more equitable educational system must be taken to the legislative level; and that working within the legislative process to affect change, as arduous as that may be, is preferable to jumping ship.

But how can we be successful at the legislative level? Before I attempt an answer to that question allow me to digress briefly one more time. Allen provides an example of an all too common experience of part-time faculty in their unions: union negotiations have resulted in salary increases for part-timers that amount to merely “a few hundred dollars more per course.” Which is correct. Unions advocate to provide any increase in wages across the board, meaning to both full-time and part-time faculty; thus under the mantra of “equality for all” faculty, union negotiations ultimately only end up increasing the inequitable pay gap between two tiers of employees. Currently, that gap is a 33 to 40 cents per dollar difference between part-time and full-time faculty salaries. The result is as Allen implies again: unions have had a strong hand in driving part-time employees into a “permanent second-tier faculty,” in other words, an underclass in the system.

Recent history thus provides us with a second important lesson: part-timers cannot depend on unions, as they have been operating for at least the last two decades, to bring about the kind of meaningful changes that are desperately needed by thousands of part-time faculty throughout the state of California.

That brings me back to the question I previously posed: how can part-timers be successful at affecting change at the legislative level? If the current unions cannot be relied upon to provide adequate support to the vast majority of their members who are still struggling with the same issues, where do we turn?

Now if you would permit the historian to get a little poetic, I would say that the answer lies in ourselves: part-timers need to start looking to other part-timers, to ban together, and start making their voices heard at the capitol.

This is where CPFA comes in. Now in its 19th year, CPFA, a non-union organization that prides itself as a professional organization, was established by a group of dissatisfied, disgruntled part-time faculty activists who decided to ban together to fight for their rights as equal members of the academic workforce.  CPFA’s members recognized that banning together was the only way to combat a system dominated by the privileged class, full-time faculty, who often in collusion with administrators, work through the union framework to keep part-time faculty marginalized and irrelevant. Early on, it was further realized that legislators and the Community College’s statewide Chancellor’s Office are often too eager to support full-time faculty in their efforts to keep part-time faculty voices from being heard at the table. Thus, it seemed obvious that the only way to change the status quo was to go directly to the Capitol to make the voices of part-times heard.

CPFA’s position is that legislators, their legislative aides and committee consultants need to be persistently apprised of the unfair working conditions part-time faculty are facing across California and the negative impact this has on the state’s student success rate. With a little perseverance, CPFA is confident that system-wide mandates can and will be achieved; ones that make our community colleges live up to the ideals to which the CCC system claims to be committed and upon which it was founded.

CPFA recognized that only by advocating, educating, and legislating with legislators and their aides, and the local unions can we slowly dismantle 2nd tier class status that oppresses us.  This top-down focus is a necessary step because seventy-three different districts, with seventy-three different contracts have seventy-three different ways to govern part-time employee working conditions, salaries, office hour compensation and hours of work per semester, if any are offered. This great disparity of standards across the state ultimately means that unfair, borderline discriminatory treatment of thousands of part-time faculty is rampant, varying from district to district and where local union priorities are too easily overrun by the privileged status of full-time faculty. Therefore, the most practical thing for part-timers to be doing is amassing power in their numbers statewide and positioning themselves to spearhead change at the Capitol where direct and wide-reaching legislative solutions can be obtained.

One big success of CPFA so far has been to get legislators to change the law to increase the 60% cap arbitrarily placed on the part-time workload by 7%.  How did we accomplish this?  By focusing our efforts on the inside of the legislative process. It was the strategy that we employed in 2007 to get Assembly Bill 591 passed; CPFA sent two representatives to Sacramento throughout the legislative year to work closely with a sympathetic legislator who was a “champion” advocator on a bill to raise the 60% workload cap. CPFA’s strategy was to shoot big: in its original form, AB 591 sought the ideal 100% workload per instructor per district, with health benefits for those who teach more than 40% or more of the full-time load.  Despite the full effect of the measure being blunted (eye witnesses actually report that this proposal was “shouted down” when a meeting was held in the legislator’s office with a lobbyist from the California Federation of Teachers and several full-time faculty leaders) there is nothing hindering us from continuing the push to increase this cap in the future. The success of a 67% increase is tremendous encouragement to continue focusing on the real progress that can be made at the legislative level. This foray at the Capitol has become our model for change; and CPFA strongly believes that if it worked then, it can work again.

Now, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that ALL of CPFA’s political efforts in Sacramento have been successful. However, a dedicated cadre of part-time faculty activists across the state have been emboldened and empowered by their membership in CPFA to push the message within their respective affiliations; and the powers-that-be in these district-level establishments (and their million dollar budgets, which include lobbyists and full-time staff) are finally starting to listen to their constituents. The CPFA message and our efforts are clearly picking up momentum; and although it may not be as fast as some of us would like, the recent senate bill, having been recently approved and signed into law by Governor Brown is evidence that the unified voice of part-time faculty is no longer being brushed aside.

Since 2006 and the small taste of success from raising the workload cap, the CPFA has been focused on establishing communication with a diverse group of legislators throughout the state. CPFA sends representatives to meet with concerned legislators and their staff. The CPFA “brand” is expanding and we’re confident that this will also increase membership. Once one local bargaining unit gets behind a true part-time-faculty-led coalition, CPFA will have the means to reach out to thirteen other part-timer-only bargaining units, who could boost our ranks by nearly 6,000. With a strong enough budget to compete with other power brokers in Sacramento, the big players in the educational arena will have to start paying more attention. CPFA is confident that there is a strong incentive for all stakeholders to come around to part-timer issues because way down deep in their hearts they can’t deny the critical importance of the perspective of over half of the faculty in the CCC system on how to improve education. CPFA is not going to let them push quality education and part-time faculty to the background any longer.

Clearly, CPFA has a lot of work ahead. Part-time faculty still lack actual offices and compensation for quality office hours with their students; they lack any opportunities for career advancement; even more fundamental, they lack any kind of job security, and without it there is just no such thing as academic freedom.  Unfortunately, many of the local unions and their statewide affiliations, the Chancellor’s Office, and a majority of legislators (so far) continue to ignore and often reinforce this inequitable and unethical system.  That’s why CPFA is a unique organization; there is no other professional group in the state that does what we do, and no other group that is 100% led by and dedicated to the issues facing all part-time faculty in California.

I hope that I conveyed you today that a few “underpaid, and overworked” academic laborers can, by banning together, make steps to effect widespread, meaningful change. It’s CPFA’s core belief that the most effective path to this kind of change is one that uses the existing political structure of our state. So your first step is to reach out to your fellow colleagues from your campus and across your state, and use social media to create your own group. Become assertive in communicating what you see and hear. Be observant and honest about how you and your colleagues are treated, clarify what you know about your rights as faculty. If you can excuse my urge to be poetic one last time: only if you can shed some light on injustice, can justice shed some light on you.

I’ll end it here with the hope that during our Q and A session I will be able to answer your questions and elaborate on the nuances of part-time politics in California.

Thank you.


For more of my views, see my previous IMHO column in the spring 2013 edition of the CPFA Journal.

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