This past August, I attended the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labour conference (COCAL XI) in New York City. The biennial event, which has been running since 1998, brings together adjuncts from around the world to discuss the challenges that face “adjunctification” in higher education. For those who are interested, the 2016 COCAL will be hosted in Edmonton, Alberta. Previous Canadian cities to host have been Quebec City (2010), Vancouver (2006) and Montreal (2002). For those not familiar with COCAL, it is not an organization but a movement that empowers local labour actors both inside and outside the academy, recognizing that labour fairness is a key principle of social justice.
Due to its international scope there are some acknowledged limitations such as labour laws, university and college structures, union coverage, and other issues particular to regions and specific institutions. To overcome these differences, the conference focuses on what unites contingent academic workers, and works to develop an array of tools and tactics in the spirit of collaboration and solidarity. The affectionately dubbed “COCAListas” – organizers and attendees alike – all share a strong belief in the value of higher education, resisting its commodification, and pushing back against the exploitation of our underpaid and too frequently unappreciated academic professionals. Issues of labour equity and academic freedom are treated as inseparable and essential aspects of the higher education mission.
Amidst serious and high-level policy talk there was also occasion for a collaborative poetry reading, a presentation of books written by and about adjuncts, and numerous “hallway chats” between sessions where attendees could discuss finer points not covered during the plenary sessions. Plenary speakers included representatives from New Faculty Majority (NFM), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Fédération nationale des enseignantes et des enseignants du Québec (FNEEQ-CSN), as well as several faculty unions from across Canada, US, and Mexico – a veritable who’s who of academic labour organizations – all dedicated to improving the working conditions of academic workers.
Several flashpoint issues were also discussed: the state of academic freedom at the University of Saskatchewan and Capilano University; the case of Steven Salaita being denied tenure at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign; the vote of non-confidence in the upper administration by faculty at the University of New Brunswick. Discussion of these cases indicates a growing concern among faculty of all ranks that universities are too controlled by upper administrations or boards of governors, who may pursue largely pecuniary-led policies at the expense of the university mission of providing excellence in teaching and research (for a prescient warning about the dangers of this, read Thorstein Veblen’s The Higher Education in America). Under these auspices, academic freedom is seen as being under attack, and too much decision-making power among faculty has eroded despite claims of the soundness of bicameral governance.
Another major takeaway from the conference was a resolution to stop using the term “poor adjuncts,” and to rebrand ourselves according to the real value we provide our institutions as “pillars of the university.” Between the sessions, contingent academics informally shared their experiences, good and bad, as well as various tactics they have successfully employed for change. Far from being a clearinghouse of complaint, attendees at COCAL developed real tactics and came away with several tools that they could bring back to their institutions and/or faculty associations. Other resolutions that came out of the general assembly was support for the “7k” minimum stipend for a one-semester course, and COCAL’s endorsement of Campus Equity Week 2015.
One new aspect at this year’s conference was the introduction of working groups, each tasked with a particular issue pertaining to adjuncts. I participated in the “Building National Agendas” working group where we suggested the creation of a democracy index. This index, which would function as a robust ranking of every institution of higher learning across the continent, would provide more information not evaluated by current university ranking bodies. Our working group developed a set of criteria by which institutions would be measured:
- Political democracy: the degree to which the institution abides by the principle of shared, collegial governance with faculty of all ranks.
- Economic democracy: a measure of the state of pay equity among all faculty, and recognition of the same among postdocs and student workers such as teaching assistants.
- Social democracy: the extent to which the institution provides for the public good, and the quality of alliances that are created between faculty, students, and the public.
- Knowledge democracy: to what extent institutional data about employment figures and budgets are transparent, as well as opportunities for faculty of all ranks to engage in opportunities for continued intellectual development.
- Labour democracy: a measure of both union democracy and degree of parity or equity among the ranks in any union organization.
No doubt, an oversight committee would have to be formed to take on this vast undertaking, and it is our hope that it would not only serve to improve the working conditions of precarious academic workers (faculty and students), but also precipitate major change in how institutions of higher education are managed, a situation excellently discussed by Brent Epperson.
It was three very full and productive days at the conference, possibly one of the most productive in COCAL’s 16-year history. The energy, commitment and resolve of the members in this movement has never had such powerful momentum, and we can fully expect that big changes in terms of academic labour justice are inevitable.