Adjuncts Organize: An Interview with St. Rose (NY) Professor, Bradley Russell

Daniel J. Kelly I Labor Issues I Interview I November 19th, 2014

In late September, 2014, something happened at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY that hasn't happened often enough in recent years. Eighty percent of the approximately 300 adjunct professors at the private, liberal arts college turned out to vote to unionize. When the results were tallied the professors had voted by a margin of 175 to 61 to join Local 200 United of the Service Employees International Union. Local 200 is part of S.E.I.U's Adjunct Action, a nationwide project to organize adjunct professors. As many of our readers will know, the adjunct professor phenomenon is just another neoliberal strategy to disempower the workforce. By a policy of no benefits, no job security, and no raises the employing class atomizes another subset of workers. In other words, if they can fool them into thinking they're independent contractors they will be less inclined to act collectively to secure power in the workplace. This has been part of the neoliberal agenda for nearly forty years and for much of that time that agenda has worked, but not at the College of Saint Rose in 2014.

To get a better idea of how this unionization process unfolded, I met with Dr. Bradley Russell on Oct 2nd of this year. Dr. Russell was the chief instigator of this organizing campaign and the organizer who, along with help from S.E.I.U., pushed it to a successful outcome.

Bradley Russell is a man in his early forties with a strong personality. He earned a PhD in anthropology, with a concentration in archeology, from the State University of New York about a decade ago; his dissertation focused on the importance of Mayan incense burners. He has taught for several years as an adjunct professor at St. Rose where he also teaches a class called "Creating Social Justice." As a husband and, father of an elementary school age child, he has a personal interest in improving the working conditions of the adjunct community. He has also made a name for himself locally as an activist; (full disclosure: Russell and I met when we were both participating in the Occupy Albany movement in 2011 and I have since been a guest speaker in his "Social Justice" class).

I set aside an hour to speak with Dr. Russell at a coffee shop near the College of Saint Rose. When he walked into the shop he was immediately recognized by several people there including a professor from the State University and a local labor activist who congratulated him on the recent organizing campaign victory. With all the congratulations, it was a bit difficult at first to get his undivided attention but, we did finally settle down to the interview. It is my hope that the things he and I discussed that morning will be of some help to others who are exploring organizing campaigns in their own workplaces.

DK: So, let's start with a simple question: how did you come to the conclusion that organizing a union was a workable strategy for solving the problems of adjunct professors?

BR: I'm not sure I concluded it was a workable solution per se. I kind of concluded it was the only viable option. Basically, it was a function of doing things I'd always been told to do to get myself out of the conditions I was in: getting publications out there, getting grant money, ongoing research, getting a terminal degree. And then going beyond that by talking to my immediate supervisors, my department chair, my dean over and over again, semester after semester, and being told by them; yeah, we understand that the situation is really, really bad, and we feel terrible about it, but our hands are tied by the administration-we can't do anything. Finally, I just said something's got to change and as you know, having been one of those labor organizers in my "Social Justice" class, I started talking to people in the labor community, thinking about collective bargaining as a way to get the administration to actually listen to us. There was no way to get the provost or the president of the college to meet with us or consider any of our changes. So, bringing hundreds of voices to the table was the only way I could see for getting any of that done.

What were the first steps you took?

The very first thing I did, back in February, 2013, was to send out an article to our college listserv, actually two articles--links to two articles--on the national state of things in academia and the conditions adjuncts across the board were facing. I didn't comment on them. I didn't say much of anything. I just put these two links out and pretty soon we had 15 or 20 responses from adjuncts saying; "yeah, this is a real problem," and then I used those as a springboard to form an organizing committee. Based on the responses I'd gotten, I started emailing people saying, look I'm considering the collective bargaining option. Do you want to get on board with helping make that happen? So, really, I reached out through our school listserv as the first thing.

How did you eventually reach out to S.E.I.U.?

It was kind of a fluke actually. I just happened to be friends with one of the organizers working with the Adjunct Action campaign they're running. He and I were chatting about totally unrelated things and I brought it up the fact that I'm an adjunct over at St. Rose and he said, "Oh really, we've been looking to talk to someone at St. Rose. Do you have any interest in a union?" I responded, "As a matter of fact we're already discussing forming one so, let's get together." It was really a function of having a friendship with someone and having it pop up in conversation.

Did see any sort of discernable pattern form in the organizing process?

What do you mean a pattern?

Were there any specific steps, for instance, a step you had to take before you could take the next one, then another one you had to take before proceeding further?

The biggest thing was getting information on how to find adjuncts. We're such a transient population that it was pretty impossible to track us all down at any one point. We went through the semester to semester class lists to see who was teaching and compare those to the website to see how many of those had been eliminated or were now full time. We'd reach out to the ones how didn't seem to be full time. The outreach by far was the biggest thing we had to do. Pretty quickly we moved to a point where we publically announced what we were doing. That made the outreach easier because we could just go ahead and make big public announcements across the listserv and encourage people to contact us. The biggest thing by far was definitely getting ahold of this transient population of professors. Once we did that the sell was really easy. Our conditions were so dismal--ARE so dismal--that we had very few people who didn't express interest right away. There were a few people who were just ideologically opposed to unions and rejected our overtures but, for the most part, 75-80% of people were clearly supportive from the get go.

Were there any other obstacles besides outreach and ideological resistance?

Well, there were really two forms. The people who did resist weren't interested, let me put it that way. There were really two classes: There were the people who were just ideologically opposed. Unions just did not fit their politics, but there were also a lot of people who were just fundamentally afraid. We have no job security at all. We can be removed from our jobs any semester that comes along. They just don't offer us a contract and, that's it, we're done. A lot of people were afraid there would be push back from the administration, their department chairs, or their deans would retaliate against them despite labor laws that protect them. You have a certain amount of protection but, if a violation occurs you're still out of that job until you can get some legal finding that puts you back on the job. That's a huge hassle; some people were simply not willing to stick their neck out like that. The thing that I think offset that the most, that did the most good in that area, was that we had really solid support from our full time faculty and, they posted regularly to the listserv encouraging unionization and encouraging people to step up. They clearly supported us and made it clear that there were whole departments voting in favor of supporting unionization so, the likelihood of retaliation on the individual level seemed to decline for a lot of people as the campaign went on.

My next question is kind of an opinion question. Would you say adjuncts are exploited? I'm going to clarify that by saying clearly adjuncts as underpaid and administrators have rather large salaries. Would you characterize that as exploitation and, if so, how would you go about communicating that to other sectors of the workforce?

It's definitely exploitative. In the business model that colleges across the country are using right now they've clearly decided that there is a class of workers--they have frankly created a class of workers--that have little job security, and are so desperate to work they will accept unbelievably low pay, no benefits, no respect, limited access to offices, other facilities, photocopying, printing. A lot of this stuff is coming out of pocket for us which is absurd when we're paid so little to start with. It's definitely an exploitative model. A lot of people have referred to it as the academic caste system. I think that's a pretty good descriptor because people end up in a situation where they're locked in. There are so few full time jobs left at this point. They've eliminated so many of them that there's nowhere to go. There's no movement upwards. There are no options for promotions, no options for raises. We didn't get a raise at St. Rose for well over a decade--still haven't. We'll get one with our first contract. They've clearly created an underclass with a tiered system of pay and it's absolutely absurd. We're essentially doing the same work; we're not doing the committee work, we're not doing the same advising necessarily but in terms of the teaching it's exactly the same. As a matter of fact, a teacher takes a sabbatical or paid time off and an adjunct invariably fills in for their class. They're the same exact classes in some cases but we do it for a tiny fraction of what they pay the full time faculty.

What did you say to colleagues who thought that because they are professionals they don't need a union?

We didn't really hear that much. In the discussion nationwide you hear that position and I think, to some degree, generally that might be an attitude. I can't say that I can think of anybody [at St. Rose] who said that to me. What we got much more often was people who would say, "I'm afraid this is going to change the tone of our relationship with the administration," which was funny since there was no relationship with the administration. It didn't exist as any type of communication, so I'm not sure what relationship they were worried about. There were people worried that some sort of adversarial relationship would develop. But I think that was mostly just rhetoric. There were a certain amount of people that did buy into the administration lie that we have a new president and now that we've gotten to the point where they've heard us, (because we've mobilized like this), we don't have to keep mobilizing because now they've heard us and they'll take care of it. I think that was a weirdly hypocritical stance to take because it was predicated entirely on the fact that we were already taking collective action. Somehow because we've taken collective action we don't need collective action! So, I pushed back pretty strenuously on that notion on the basis that if we hadn't stepped up like this we wouldn't see them acknowledging that there's a problem, more or less talking about maybe finding solutions, but we needed those solutions to be in writing, so we could count on them occurring and not just trust that they'll do it. Those were really the biggest lines of resistance we had from the people who were "anti."

Were any of the classic union busting strategies coming from the College itself?

They hired a lawyer that promotes himself as representing the management side of labor disputes, working to defeat unionization. He played a very predictable playbook. Our provost put out a series of memos and each one was essentially right out of the traditional playbook: "they're going to charge you dues. Why do you need dues?" They played the third party, "You don't need a third party. Why don't we have a direct relationship with each other? Why do you want to interject this third party?" All the kinds of things that you would expect. They tweaked it a little bit and they followed the tactics that were used at St Thomas [College] where they recently defeated a unionization effort. Their [St. Thomas'] argument was very similar to this one that I already mentioned; that "we have a new president. She's really concerned about this. You've just got to give us some time. Trust us." The trust thing; they played that trust card a lot. It went very poorly for them because every time they would try this the full time faculty, who aren't unionized, would push back and say; "look, we've been told we need to trust this deal you offered. We took that deal. You failed to live up to that. You offered us that deal. We took that deal. You failed to live up to that one. Trust is not the answer. The answer is a contract-a binding contract". So, I don't think that the trust thing went well. The other thing they tried was a phrase that we don't even use any more. It used to be one of the school's official slogans; The St. Rose difference. "What about the St. Rose difference?" It got to be kind of laughable because they would say, "What about the St. Rose difference?" and we would say, "What St. Rose difference? We're in the same boat as adjuncts at every other school. If there was a St. Rose difference wouldn't it already have fixed this?" This notion that we're somehow fundamentally different than the other schools was played up all the time. It was like saying, "Where is you school spirit?" That's essentially what the argument was, "where is your school spirit?" I don't give a crap about "school spirit". I give a crap that we're being exploited and used while, at the same time, administrative salaries continue to go up. The number of positions in the administration continues to rise. They continue to build incessantly on campus-new dorms, new offices, etc. Meanwhile they're telling us there's no money; we have to tighten our belts. They seem to find money for all their priorities but none for ours and, it was just time for them to stop.

What sorts of things are students saying in response to this process? Also, have you found that the attitudes of students toward what the adjuncts have done since you first started organizing has changed?

I think if there's one thing I wish we had done better is to educate the students about what adjuncts are. This is really a huge problem in academia and one of the reasons it's been allowed to persist is that students and their parents really don't know this is happening. They don't know that a huge percentage of the professors at the colleges are part time, low paid, with no benefits. I've encouraged other adjuncts to explain this their students every chance they get. In the cases where I've explained that to my students they're clearly outraged. They can't believe what they're hearing and it's a real eye opener for them.

I actually tried to show Megan Fulwiler's and Jen Marlow's film; "Con Job: Stories of Adjunct & Contingent Labor," that deals with this, [Fulwiler and Marlow are English Composition instructors at St. Rose]. It's a fifty minute film and I had a fifty minute class window to show it. I got 20 minutes of it shown because there were so many questions from the students--hands just kept popping up. If there's one thing that I wish we had done better, it would be to do outreach directly to students. That wasn't feasible because a lot of the organizing we did was over the summer when they weren't around. The vote came so soon that there wasn't a lot of time to do that direct outreach. It cases where we were able to do that it was very effective. People were really surprised to find out about the conditions we were operating in and wanted to see a change.

Have you begun organizing the committee that will negotiate for a contract yet?

We haven't yet. We're having our first membership meeting on the 15th [of October] and we will take nominations at that point for the three officers; chair, vice chair, and shop steward. We're also going to be looking for representatives from each of the schools who will be direct liaisons with adjuncts in their departments to bring their concerns and issues to the forum for when we're putting together the negotiating objectives

Do you see yourself becoming an officer of the local?

I think so. I've clearly been a major voice up to now. I was sort of the person who got the ball rolling in the first place and I feel like I need to see that through at least to a contract and I am going to be looking to have that chairman position. I've been discussing with some of the other people on the organizing committee about the vice chair and shop steward position. I think we're the people who've been here along and I think we're the best people to carry the movement forward at this point. That said, I do look forward to a little bit of peace and quiet at some point so, once we actually negotiate a contract and get it ratified, I might be prepared to step aside and give that position up to somebody else. I might even be eager to do that. We'll see.

Do you see contract negotiation unfolding in an easy way or do you think the college might dig in its heels?

From the kind of language that was coming from the memos I think they've telegraphed that their plan is to dig in, drag it out as long as possible, and make it as difficult as possible. The tone that they took in their messages was sort of twofold. First, there was that trust issue that we talked about "trust us, we'll fix it. We understand we hear there are real problems." Yet, simultaneously they were saying; "These union contracts, they're adversarial and they take a year at least to negotiate and, we don't have to give anything that we don't want to give." So, it was a carrot on a stick: on one hand don't vote for the union and we'll give you raises and we'll fix the situation, (in whatever ways they deem appropriate), or if you vote for the union we're going to make as difficult as humanly possible.

Last question, what kind of support would you like to see from the local organized labor community as well as from the local activist community as a whole?

That's a really tough question. It's going to depend on how the negotiations are working out. If there is the kind of resistance that I'm anticipating I expect that we might be doing informational picketing and applying other types of pressure to the administration to bargain in good faith. If it comes down to those kinds of efforts then definitely some on the ground presence from other members in the area would be much appreciated. Logistical and negotiating advice from people who have a little more experience with negotiating contracts would definitely be appreciated. General solidarity is always appreciated. It kind of depends on how the campaign plays out as we get to the negotiating table. We really hugely appreciate the amount of support we've already gotten from the local labor community, from the full time faculty, from our students, and in a lot of cases, from local community leaders such as the mayor, state senators, and state assembly members. That's really made all the difference in this campaign and made it successful.