Four trends behind the adjunct faculty labor movement

Adjuncts want more protections, representation

According to the National Labor Relations Board, at least 35 private institutions have seen faculty unionize between the 2013-2014 and 2015-2016 academic years. 

It's no accident that the adjunct labor movement gained so much momentum recently, workplace law experts Michael Bertoncini and Thomas Dorer write for University Business. The two identify four industry changes that may have contributed to interest in adjunct labor rights.

Changing demographics

Non-tenure-track positions for both full- and part-time staff now make up 76% of all instructional staff appointments at U.S. institutions, according to the American Association of University Professors

Related: The 5 biggest instructional cost drivers on campus

Unlike adjuncts of previous decades, many adjuncts today have terminal degrees and are working toward full-time faculty positions. They also tend to take on assignments from several institutions without full benefits to make ends meet. These professionals are at the head of unionization efforts, putting together organizing drives and voting in elections.

Job stability

Many institutions don't collect comprehensive data about adjunct instruction, according to Bertoncini and Dorer.

But without this information, Bertoncini and Dorer argue that it's difficult for college leaders to know if they are in fact providing adjuncts with the "good faith consideration" in course assignments that many unions require. Thoughtful course assignments can provide adjuncts with significantly more job security.


Wages have become a major point of contention between adjunct unions and institutions. The unions often argue that adjunct compensation is lower than equivalent, prorated salaries of full-time faculty members. Colleges and universities contend that full-time faculty have research and administrative duties on top of their teaching responsibilities.

Adjunct voice in shared governance

Many adjuncts feel like they are undervalued in higher education, say Bertoncini and Dorer. They write that adjuncts often report having limited access to office space, office equipment, and important meetings. Bertoncini and Dorer say these issues can become rallying points, which unions may use to highlight the gap between tenured and adjunct faculty (Bertoncini/Dorer, University Business, accessed 9/13). 

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