The attractive suburban campus of Montclair State University, in Essex County, NJ, sits on a bluff overlooking the upscale commuter town of Montclair. As a state school, its students, many of them commuters, mostly come from less affluent communities in the surrounding area. Its arts program, the Department of Art and Design, combines visual arts with design and fashion, likely to make it more appealing as a practical major. Since July the department has had a labor dispute with its visual arts adjunct professors over reductions in studio class time that in effect cut their hourly pay. (Full disclosure: I am an adjunct working in that department.) As of this writing, the situation remains unresolved going into the start of the Fall 2020 semester.
Higher education studio programs cost a lot to run, combining small class sizes with expensive art materials and infrastructure such as kilns and power tools. That explains on one level why the pay cuts at MSU’s Department of Art and Design have parallels in state and local universities and colleges across the US struggling in the wake of COVID-19 with falling tuition and slashed state subsidies. But, as is the case in so many other sectors in the US economy, the labor problems at MSU and institutions of higher education elsewhere began well before COVID-19, a reflection of the declining job security of the US workforce, the limited bargaining power of unions under current laws, and a disintegrating public health infrastructure.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) issued a report in 2020 based on a 2019 survey of its contingent and adjunct faculty members titled “An Army of Temps.” The survey results for the respondents were not pretty: “nearly 25 percent [rely] on public assistance and 40 percent [have] trouble covering basic household expenses.” The effects of income inequality, accelerated by COVID-19, have already devastated the lives of low-income and working people, the so-called “essential workers.” It threatens to do the same with educators, but especially part-timers, from kindergarten through graduate school. The following account of what is happening at MSU in the Department of Art and Design is a reflection of that trend in microcosm.
In 2019, MSU adjuncts had been working without a contract while their union, Local 6025 of the AFT, negotiated a new one, as it had every three years or so, with the state and the state college/university presidents of New Jersey. Full-time professors at MSU have a separate AFT union, Local 1904. Established in 1998, Local 6025 had been an effective advocate. Sabine Eck, the representative for Local 6025 to the Department of Art and Design, and an adjunct in the department since 1991, noted that since joining AFT MSU adjuncts’ salaries steadily increased, and minor conflicts, such as parking and office privileges, got resolved. In January of 2020, adjuncts across the state ratified the new contract which awarded pay raises per teaching credit hours (TCH), the formula used to set hourly pay rates. The union had proved its worth, but one veteran adjunct who became an organizer in the current dispute (names of organizers are withheld in this article to protect careers), remembered thinking at the time, “I don’t know if this pay increase will hold.” Then COVID-19 hit, and MSU’s administration decided to shut down the campus and take courses online during its spring break in March. The university scrambled to adjust, and, one way or another, students, faculty, and the administration muddled through, bringing the spring semester to a close in May.
It was unclear whether MSU would ease the lockdown the following fall and what format courses would take: face-to-face, online, or a hybrid. Full-time professors and adjuncts alike were already revisiting their syllabi for the fall semester when, on June 2, Dr. Abby Lillethun, the chairperson of the Department of Art and Design, sent an email addressed to the “Faculty Per-course Instructors,” or adjuncts, teaching the 100 to 200-level foundation courses, as well as low level courses in photography and ceramics. In it she outlined 30 percent cuts in the hours for these courses, with a consequent 33 percent cut in pay. Her tone was appropriately sympathetic, calling the news “terrible” and “disruptive” in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis. Dr. Lillethun advocated raises to offset the cut in hours but couldn’t make any promises in the face of budget shortfalls. Her concern was understandable, given that the department has fewer than 20 full-time professors and about 80 adjuncts, on whom the bulk of responsibility fell for teaching the lower level courses.
Why did the department have so many adjuncts? Hiring adjuncts is a quick way to add new skills and energy to adjust to the demands of incoming students. But, as has been the case in the US economy generally for the last 40 years, it is also much cheaper to hire temporary workers that don’t get healthcare and other benefits. The AFT report, “An Army of Temps,” put it this way:
The decades-long crisis of contingent workers in our colleges and universities is in many ways the original “gig economy,” with all its attendant woes: low wages, few benefits, little job security, and the expenses of work being shifted from the employer to the at-will employee.
The reaction to Dr. LIillethun’s email was at first muted. However, the dam broke on June 12, when adjuncts began discussing the ramifications of her letter in a long email thread. Why was the department not distributing the sacrifice evenly? Full-time faculty also had to deal with the cuts to class time for studio courses but could make up for reduced hours by teaching additional classes, an option not open to adjuncts as they were only allowed six credits or two courses per semester. Even before the pandemic, to make a living adjuncts had to look for work at other colleges and universities. Worse, the administration decided to increase the cap of students per class to 25, whereas the cap had always been 19 for safety as well as pedagogical reasons. On June 16, the adjuncts got together on a Zoom call to draft a letter to Dan Gurskis, the Dean of the College of the Arts to list their demands.
The drafting of the letter took several iterations and multiple Zoom calls, but in the process the adjuncts learned a few things. First, the cuts in their class time had been in the works pre-COVID. Under pressure from MSU’s administration, the full-time faculty had voted to reduce studio hours from four and a half to three for studio courses while preserving the three-credit status, thus reducing pay for adjuncts. The issue was not a decline in enrollment: It had been going up. The rationale for cutting the adjuncts’ time was to free up money for additional “lines,” or much needed full-time hires, to make up for multiple retirements. The cuts were meant to go in effect for the spring semester of 2021. And then came COVID, which made it possible to move the changes up a semester.
Second, when the adjuncts took their issue to Local 6025, they found it could not act on their behalf. Bruce Howard, the staff representative of the Council of New Jersey State College Locals , the entity that bargains with the state, put it this way in an email to the MSU president of Local 6025: “If the course running time has been changed via curricular governance, there is not much we can do. If the University was keeping the meeting time length the same and reducing the teaching credit hours, we would have a claim.” Because MSU had not changed the pay rate, there was no contractual violation. Many adjuncts wondered what the point of being union members was. Still, Local 6025 continued to supply unofficial support to the adjuncts in the form of advice and advocacy.
Third, the department was leaving it up to the adjuncts to notify their students that the class hours would be shorter in the fall. No changes had been filed with the registrar, so the course listings online were not reflecting the change. The department declared itself unable to make a general announcement to its incoming students to that effect. While not injurious in any financial way, the adjuncts felt demoralized as bearers of bad tidings and possibly taking the brunt of students’ discontent over studio time, to say nothing of the parents’ or guardians’ ire at paying the same tuition for less class time.
The adjuncts boiled down their final draft to three demands and submitted it on July 27 to Dean Gurskis. The letter had garnered over 60 signatures, including some retired full time faculty. The demands included a written statement from the administration giving adjuncts (who do not enjoy the same healthcare benefits as full-time employees) the right to teach fully online until the pandemic dies down; a restoration of the lower level studio class times to four and a half hours; and clear communication from the dean and administration on how they could support the Art and Design adjuncts with the increased workload of a quarter more students per class and added safety requirements for COVID-19.
Full-time professor Andrew Atkinson, the acting department head, informed the adjuncts via Zoom that while enrollment had gone up 6 percent at MSU in spite of COVID the department could not undo the vote on cutting studio class time. In response to the adjuncts’ three demands, he floated two proposals. First, to make up in part for the lost hour and a half hours’ pay, adjuncts could act as studio lab assistants at $60 an hour. Second, adjuncts could qualify for a merit-based pay increase if their careers met a certain threshold of accomplishment. The Brooklyn Rail reached out to Atkinson for the department’s perspective on the dispute but, as of the filing of this article in August has received no reply.
The consensus among the adjuncts was that neither proposal met their demands. The first was only available to adjuncts who were teaching on campus and did not address the fact that the pandemic made any on-campus activity a health risk to adjuncts—who, it bears repeating, do not have university health benefits—and their households. The second would only apply to a select few and did nothing to address the inequities between full-time and part-time professors. It could also divide the adjuncts into rival factions. Both proposals were vague on specifics, which to many of the adjuncts signaled that Dean Gurskis was not taking their demands seriously. As a next step, they decided to ask for the proposals in writing to gauge Dean Gurskis’s commitment to the negotiation process.
The adjuncts have yet to receive any direct communication from Gurskis, who has taken a hands-off approach so far, letting the department do the talking for the administration. Atkinson’s most recent communication, on August 6, neither mentioned their demands, nor relented on the department’s directive that the adjuncts were to inform their lower level studio class students about the reductions in hours. Atkinson did say in the email that MSU, while better off than many of its fellow colleges and universities, was in survival mode.
His bleak assessment of MSU could apply to the adjuncts in his department who are trying to keep their finances from further deteriorating during the pandemic. Workers don’t sacrifice their time and energy on a whim to agitate for better working conditions. As is happening to so many other workers today, the adjuncts are fighting because their backs are against the wall. The AFT report “An Army of Temps” painted a bleak situation, and that was in 2019 during the pre-COVID economy. What would a similar survey show today? The social effects of COVID-19 are a kind of monstrous X-ray showing in graphic detail the breaks in the bones of our body politic. The facts of the pandemic show what we have to do to repair systemic income inequality: living wages, job security, a public healthcare infrastructure, and a legal structure that allows unions more power. Workers in today’s gig economy have no alternative but to keep organizing until they get a system that meets their needs. As Thomas Piketty showed in Capital in the 21st Century, the fate of democracy depends on it.