Michael Batson, an adjunct instructor of history at CUNY's College of Staten Island, sees passion and commitment every time he talks to his fellow part-time instructors.
"Adjuncts in the hallways are always talking about teaching," said Batson. "A lot of the innovations in the classroom and ideas about pedagogy are coming from adjuncts. But it's hard to avoid the reality of hardship."
They are highly educated, and yet they often live like the working poor, with exploitive work conditions, low wages and no health benefits, retirement or job security.
"It's possible for someone to teach the equivalent of a full-time faculty load and come out earning $26,000 a year. They're not making a living; they're scraping by ... the elevator operator in my rent-stabilized apartment earns more money than I do," said Marcia Newfield of the Borough of Manhattan Community College.
Newfield, Batson and fellow adjunct professor Blanca Vazquez of Hunter College, all members of NYSUT's Professional Staff Congress and the affiliate's executive council, are among the unionists working hard to improve conditions for adjuncts. As their union continues contract negotiations, their mood is upbeat.
The PSC, which represents faculty and staff at the City University of New York and the CUNY Research Foundation, has just negotiated state-funded health insurance for adjuncts.
It's the clearest signal so far that the PSC's 14-year effort to get them the respect and the benefits they deserve is working, and one more benchmark in a statewide effort by adjuncts to turn their numbers — tens of thousands throughout New York — into strength. Previously, adjunct health coverage at CUNY had been provided through the PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund and, inadequately funded by CUNY, was in danger of being eliminated.
The new program "will profoundly affect the lives of dedicated adjuncts, many of whom have been teaching core courses for decades," said PSC President Barbara Bowen and CUNY Chancellor James Milliken in a joint statement.
The majority of adjuncts at CUNY and most colleges are classroom instructors, though some in the PSC are part-time laboratory assistants.
CUNY employs about 10,000 teaching adjuncts and another 5,000 part-time, hourly and contingent employees. Many take on additional unpaid tasks: supervising independent studies, serving on committees and helping students prepare for college admissions. PSC's priorities in this round of bargaining include job security and progress toward pay equity for these employees.
Those demands reflect an evolving image of adjuncts as "pillars of higher education," instead of as victims, said Newfield, the PSC vice president of part-time personnel.
NYSUT's efforts have yielded other adjunct victories.
United University Professions, which represents faculty and staff at the State University of New York, more than a decade ago achieved health benefits for adjuncts who teach at least two courses a semester at SUNY. UUP was one of the first unions nationally to secure this benefit.
"Contingent faculty and staff are crucial participants in the work we do in SUNY, and UUP understands the challenges our colleagues face," said UUP President Fred Kowal. "We strongly support their efforts to attain a more just work environment. That is why we fought so vigorously over the last 15 years to secure health, vision and dental insurance; access to grant programs and other benefits for them in our contract with New York state."
Kowal, along with other UUP leaders, attended the recent conference of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, hosted by the PSC.
Adjuncts at several community colleges are either already organized or are starting to do so.
Community college adjuncts sometimes outnumber full-time faculty. The Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College, for example, represents 409 full-time and 1,500 part-time faculty.
"I think any time you are organizing, you have strength, and adjuncts need to realize that," local president and NYSUT Board member Kevin Peterman said. "But most of them just don't have the time." He is heartened that several full-time faculty just hired at Suffolk started as adjuncts.
NYSUT is continually looking at opportunities to assist organizing efforts among adjuncts, and adjuncts at Mohawk Valley Community College are negotiating their first contract under NYSUT.
Recognition is a long haul, but the inequity of the adjunct's lot can galvanize an organizing fight, says Greg Sevik, an English instructor and adjunct spokesman at Cayuga Community College.
Of 266 faculty, 200 are adjuncts. The administration has not been willing to voluntarily recognize the unit, and the issue of the unit's determination is before the Public Employment Relations Board.
"I think honestly, at this point, the main reason we want to be organized is a matter of being recognized as a group, especially as we are the largest employee group on campus," Sevik said. "But we're just a group of atomized individuals the way we are now."
Online registration is now open for the Community College Leadership Conference Nov. 7-9 at the Gideon Putnam hotel in Saratoga Springs. Registration for local leaders can be found on the Higher Education Leader page of www.nysut.org.
The deadline to register is Oct. 8.