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Contingent Faculty Bargaining Part Three

Five Ways To Organize for a Better Contract

When pushing for a decent contract, higher education contingent faculty—part-time and temporary employees hired without the chance for tenure—need to overcome doubt and fear. Beyond those obstacles, "contingents" need to break through isolation—from each other, other campus employees and unions, students, and the public. Here, from the experience of NEA higher ed affiliates and other unions, are five ways that contingent faculty can prepare to be a powerful force at the bargaining table:

1. Talk About Educational Quality

Contingents need to educate potential supporters that quality is compromised by a two-tier faculty system. When poorly paid contingents must rush among classes or second jobs, they are robbed of both contact time with students and opportunities to attend professional conferences. Staff continuity is undermined by turnover; students are denied the chance to grow with a faculty mentor. And academic freedom, the basis of inquiry, is undermined when academics without due process rights are afraid to take a risk.

2. Reach Out for Allies

Two-tier treatment can fracture a campus community, but it should not deter contingent activists. They can rebuild solidarity by reaching out to such potential allies as:

  • Tenure system faculty. Activists should identify tenured and tenure-track colleagues who support better contingent conditions. Arguments that resonate with tenure system faculty: Successful contingent bargaining "increases the pie" for all staff, at a time when working conditions and perquisites of all faculty are being eroded. And unless contingents' second-class status is reversed, tenure system faculty will face an ever-increasing burden of committee work, and faculty's overall voice in shared governance will diminish. Finally, it just makes sense to narrow the "cost advantage" between hiring contingents and tenure system faculty.

  • Other unions and the local labor movement, starting with office, technical, and service union locals on campus. It's never too early to build a campus inter-union council, focused on common issues such as health benefits, workplace health and safety, or campus parking. And it's important to reach out to other NEA affiliates in the region, representing K-12 teachers and education support professionals, education retirees, and NEA Student Program members.

  • Campus students and the larger community, starting with the highly influential student press. One way to provoke thought: Using one contingent’s low pay as a discussion tool, get students in a class to calculate how many of them it takes to pay that salary. Then ask students to speculate where the rest of their tuition money goes—and carry these same questions to administration negotiators at the bargaining table.

3. Put Contingent Traits to Work

Contingents, like tenure system faculty, relish participatory democracy. Hitch that urge with comprehensive union building—one-on-one recruitment, high rates of active union membership, leadership training, member issues polling, and continuous internal communications—and an NEA higher ed affiliate has the foundation for a decent contract. Throw in a finely-honed sense of justice, and the odds improve. "Contingent faculty share a love of teaching," says an Illinois NEA state affiliate organizer. "But their efforts are shamelessly exploited and they resent it."

4. Build Up the Pressure

Some of the best contingent contract campaigns involve members and supporters in incrementally contentious activities, "ramping up" from opposition research to direct action on campus and in the community. There's no single strategy for tightening the screws on decision makers, but here are some battle-tested tactics for the toolbox:

  • Link contract bargaining directly to member organizing and engagement, using this time of heightened awareness to develop new Association leaders, encourage member creativity, and promote grassroots self-sufficiency/organization.

  • Research the employer's political and financial connections, and conduct a "SWOT" analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats the union encounters. Then put together a strategic plan for a comprehensive campaign.

  • Communicate with members throughout bargaining, and keep negotiations as transparent as possible. Some NEA local affiliates even summarize bargaining notes online.

  • Use the institution's own mission statement—and its lofty public image—to craft a campaign slogan that contrasts those ideals with the reality of contingent exploitation.

  • Cultivate the media and stage dramatic public events that grab attention. To publicize their lack of office facilities, contingents at one campus met with students around garbage cans, using the lids as "desks." The press loved it, and the administration had much explaining to do.

5. Break Down the Isolation

It's difficult to gather highly mobile contingents in one place at one time, and job turnover can be high. But since 1983, the NEA-affiliated California Faculty Association (CFA) has won important contingent rights through organizing, bargaining, and legislation. Contract provisions now include one-year appointments after two semesters, salary increases after 24 units of teaching, and automatic, rolling three-year appointments after six years of satisfactory teaching.

The CFA formula: Break down contingent isolation through a vigorous statewide Lecturers Council, representing 23 California State University campuses—each with its own CFA organization of lecturer reps and alternates. CFA energizes its scattered membership through non-stop internet/print communications and continued recruitment and training of new grassroots leaders. CFA's bottom-up structure spreads out work, ensures representation on every campus, and—through well-planned statewide Council meetings—fosters camaraderie, "safety," maximum information sharing, and a bit of fun.

For more on contingent faculty organizing for a better contract, contact Valerie Wilk ( or Mark Smith ( in the NEA Office of Higher Education, Constituent Relations Department.

Other Contingent Faculty Bargaining Fact Sheets: