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Speaking Out

Recruiting Contingent Faculty

Most non-tenured/contingent faculty do not voluntarily join their unions, which creates a paradox: without contingent membership, unions are less likely to be very staunch defenders of contingent interests. But if unions do not defend contingent interests, contingents have all the more reason not to become members.

As it is, contingents often have reasons for not joining. Some fear joining a union could interfere with their aspiration for a tenured position or their chances of being offered future classes.

Others, given the meager improvements in workplace conditions over the years, have become fatalistic and complacent about the possibility for change and consider union involvement a waste of time. Some hold their unions partially responsible for the lack of job security, unequal pay, limited workload, and spotty benefits. There's also expense: for those at or below the poverty line, even a discounted membership fee may seem excessive.

Since standard appeals used for recruiting tenured faculty to join the union don’t necessarily work with contingent faculty—Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes to mind—the key to recruiting contingents is to speak directly to their needs, the primary one being job security. More important than higher wages, job security makes contingents feel a part of the system and more inclined to involve themselves with it.

Going hand in hand with job security are two other cost-free measures: establishment of a contingent faculty seniority system, which is important even without assurance that it will impact personnel procedures, and vigorous promotion of unemployment benefits for contingents who are unemployed between semesters through no fault of their own.

Contingents are the majority faculty in U.S. higher education; the absence of a strong contingent presence in faculty unions deprives contingents and weakens unions.

Unions can begin to come to grips with the pronounced differences in the two-tiered system by establishing job security for contingents and related non-cost issues as reachable, practical goals for bargaining and legislative advocacy. After all, workers who perceive little commitment from either their employer or their union cannot be committed to either. Only when contingents are invested in the system can there be hope for tenured and contingent faculty to stand in genuine solidarity.

Jack Longmate is an adjunct instructor at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington and serves as vice president of the college's NEA-affiliated local. He can be reached at

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