11/18/2014 04:23 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

Dr. Adjunct or: How I Learned to Stop Suffering and Love Collective Bargaining

The air was thick with the smell of rolled deli meat, slices of multigrain bread, potato salad, a bowl of chips, and two plates of chocolate chip cookies spread across a white-clothed table at the back of the classroom. Cans of Diet Coke were arranged like a cluster of bowling pins with "friend" or "bff" displayed vertically in red against each silver side.

Lunch was provided by the university administration, represented at the collective bargaining meeting by the director of human resources, the assistant provost, the university legal counsel, and an outside labor attorney who sat in a row of desks facing us -- 12 adjuncts (representing hundreds), an Adjunct Action organizer, and a labor attorney from the SEIU.

I hadn't planned to be an adjunct.

Three years earlier, after almost a decade of exemplary reviews as full-time non-tenure track writing faculty, I lost my position at a well-respected college due to what was explained to me as "term limit policy." I was told I could re-apply for my position, and I did. But I wasn't selected.

"We have another candidate who's more qualified," said my boss, the search committee chair. The candidate hired to replace me was a recently graduated MFA student from our department, someone I'd been responsible for training to teach.

Until then, I had only a peripheral and uninvolved view of the reality adjuncts suffered. But then, unable to secure another full-time teaching position, I began to live their predicament.

I learned that the words "full-time" and "part-time" were used by universities only to describe compensation; a full-time workload and a part-time workload were frequently equal, as were the credentials necessary for serving in either type of faculty position.

I accepted adjunct work at three different universities, but still I failed to make ends meet. When one department head asked me to take on a full-timer's load for part-time pay, I asked if the university would hire me as temporary full-time faculty. The answer was no. I could take what they offered or leave it, and I was told there were many others waiting who were willing to take the teaching assignment if I didn't.

I was single and 37, an age when most of my peers were well-established in their careers, married and raising families. As an adjunct, I earned an average of $3,000 per course, give or take a few hundred dollars depending on the school, approximately one-third of the equivalent wages per course for a "full-timer." As a "part-timer," I wasn't given health insurance, benefits, paid sick leave, vacation time or job security. I did not have a spouse to supplement my income or provide coverage for a doctor if I got sick. I lived in substandard housing run by a slumlord. When I approached a realtor in my search for a better apartment, I was asked to state my income.

"Is that dollars per week?" the realtor asked.

My rental application was denied.

In graduate school, I'd fallen in love with a profession praised by Parker J.Palmer--"To teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced"--but as an adjunct professor, I became disillusioned by it.

In April 2013, NBC News reported that the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) found that 76 percent of teachers at colleges and universities were adjunct or contingent faculty. In January 2014, the U.S House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce Democratic Staff released The Just-In-Time Professor: A Staff Report Summarizing eForum Responses on the Working Conditions of Contingent Faculty in Higher Education, which detailed how a once middle or upper-middle class career had become a poverty-level job.

Today, the majority of faculty at colleges and universities are adjunct professors. Their students, who currently pay skyrocketing tuition, expect the same level of instruction and mentoring as they do with full professors. Yet adjuncts are not seen in the eyes of administrators as people of value.

I attended the collective bargaining meeting at the university where I was an adjunct to see if I might have a future as faculty there. In my hands, I held a copy of the union-proposed contract, which had been red-lined by the administration. First on their agenda: striking the preamble, which had set a tone of shared mission. Second was their refusal to agree to mandatory union dues payroll deductions. They said they'd require it for new hires but not current adjunct faculty, yet 80 percent of the current adjunct faculty had voted for the union, understanding they'd pay union dues. For the next half hour, a heated discussion ensued.

"What do you care how we spend our wages?" one adjunct asked.

"You don't understand," the university legal counsel replied. "We'll have to fire people who don't agree to have dues taken out of their paychecks."

Fire: a threatening verb.

Next, the administration protested our request for access to photocopiers, printers, and office space. This made me doubtful of a positive response to the more vital issues, such as our requests for "equal pay for equal work," health benefits, job security, and advancement.

I noticed a large sheet of paper taped to the wall behind the administrators, titled "Ground Rules, Prof Smith's Education 101 Class":

1. Be as attentive as possible.
2. Keep the class engaged.
3. Be respectful of thoughts and ideas.
4. Maintain discussion direction.
5. Be mindful of the needs of others.
6. Create space for questions.
7. Practice appreciation.

Reading this list, I contemplated how I could continue to work in good faith for a university that embodied the antithesis of the very principles of education extolled in its classroom.

Teaching was not just a job to me -- it was a vocation.

The university administration's attitude was adversarial and pejorative. They weren't interested in being "friends" or "bff" or even colleagues--their gestures were empty. To them, contract negotiations were risk management, while to the rest of us it was about cultivating a real relationship.

If university administrators continue to cling to Wall Street principles of financial greed, then faculty unions are essential for the survival of teaching and citizenship.

We must find a way to respect each other as human beings. We must work together, in solidarity, to get back to the substantive heart of higher education.

Tracy Strauss is writing a novel about the lives of adjunct professors. Learn more at