Unions would protect adjunct instructors [Commentary]

When I was first hired in 2003 to teach English courses at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC), I was startled to learn that community college employees in Maryland didn't have the statewide right to collective bargaining. Having recently moved from California, it was difficult to understand how a large swath of public workers could be deprived of this basic democratic right.

I'm hopeful that this outmoded situation is about to be rectified. The General Assembly is considering two historic bills — House Bill 490 and Senate Bill 749 — that would enable all Maryland community college employees to form into bargaining units, if they so vote. The bills are co-sponsored by numerous legislators, supported by a coalition of union partners and endorsed by Gov. Martin O'Malley.

As a full-time English professor at CCBC, I might not seem like someone in dire need of a union. I have a modest salary and enjoy a full range of excellent benefits and educational opportunities. Though teaching on a five-year contract with no tenure, I love my job and feel lucky to have it.

I should feel lucky. My job is an endangered species. The alarming national and state-wide trend is to eliminate full-time educators and replace us with adjunct professors who receive no benefits and who earn such abysmally low pay that it often puts many below the poverty line. In 1970, only 22 percent of U.S. professors were part-time. That national figure has increased to 68 percent. In Maryland nearly 80 percent of community college faculty are adjuncts. If this trend continues without any grassroots push-back, my job may well be slated for extinction.

In a country where equal pay for equal work has become a bedrock value, we should cringe at the two-tier compensation structure at our educational institutions. While adjuncts perform the same work as full-timers, they receive a fraction of the pay. When adjuncts get sick, they often can't afford a doctor. They have no offices, and they commonly commute to several different campuses to patch together a meager living. Though many teach college courses as a side job, a huge percentage rely on adjunct-teaching for their living.

In recent campus discussions, I have heard a few isolated voices saying that we don't need unions at CCBC because our administration provides such strong leadership. While our college president and administration are indeed admirable, they won't be here forever, and no constituency should ever blindly rely on the everlasting good will and competence of the higher-ups. Likewise, our administration shouldn't misinterpret our support for this legislation as a referendum on their popularity.

It is only natural that faculty want a voice in shaping the future of our institutions, and since we are the ones who work with students on a daily basis, we want to be in a position to effectively advocate for their needs. Community college students — disproportionately poor and people of color — should be guaranteed classroom instructors who are well-supported in their work. Retaining committed, well-trained teachers is the foundation of excellence in education.

Generally speaking, the union movement provides a natural framework for alliances with those who fight poverty and who are concerned about equal access. Community colleges are powerful engines of economic and social development in our state, but, as our administrators know too well, we are underfunded, according to the state's own funding formula. A fully-empowered faculty and staff could help our administrators push the state and counties to meet their financial obligations to us.

In the coming months, we will be bombarded with disinformation campaigns designed to discredit this legislation. We will hear exaggerated claims that unions will ruin higher education in Maryland. Most of these assertions will be made by people in positions of power. Reasonable people ought to step back and consider the facts: This legislation doesn't establish a single union; it merely sets the rules for union elections, contract negotiations and enforcement. And while unions aren't perfect, they remain one of the last vehicles for everyday people to have our interests represented in a political system that has largely shut us out.

Everyone in Maryland who cares about equal access in education, wage parity and a true democratic process should be tying up the phone lines in Annapolis, making sure their representatives are in the "yes" column on these bills. In and of themselves, HB 490 and SB 749 won't solve a single problem in our community colleges, but they will give faculty and staff the right to solve problems at the bargaining table as legal equals with our employers.

Kim Jensen is an associate professor of English at the Community College of Baltimore County. Her email is jensenkim@msn.com.

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