When we published The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done to Improve It earlier this year, author David Weil was a professor at the Boston University School of Management. This spring, though, Weil was sworn in as Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) of the United States Department of Labor, tasked with making sure that people are paid fairly and in accordance with the law.
As Weil told the Boston Globe, that mission is significantly more challenging now than it was just a few decades back. “The difficulty is the workplace has changed dramatically in the last 20 years,” he said, and ensuring compliance with U.S. wage laws “has become a more and more complicated thing to accomplish.” The sweeping changes of these past 20 years—extensive reliance on franchising, subcontracting, and global supply chains—are the very focus of The Fissured Workplace, and so Weil’s appointment offers him the immediate opportunity to enact the systemic improvements he proposes in the book.
Fast food workers, custodians, and manual laborers may come to mind when considering the declining wages, eroding benefits, and unhealthy workplaces of today’s economy, but one of the workforces whose composition has changed most dramatically over the past several decades is the teaching staff of our colleges and universities. Anyone in contact with American higher education is aware of the ever-growing reliance on contingent labor, with adjunct professors now making up more than 70 percent of all college and university instructors. So, while “professor” remains an august position in the general public imagination, a significant majority of them have no health care, retirement plans, or benefits, and earn an average income of $25,000 a year.
Now a growing group of adjunct faculty and their supporters are calling on David Weil to investigate higher education’s labor practices. Since being posted on July 11, their Change.org petition has received nearly 6,000 signatures and has been the subject of attention from PBS, USA Today, Inside Higher Ed, and more. “In light of your recent appointment to the Wage and Hour Division and your policy change of targeting investigations toward industries and sectors rather than just addressing individual complaints,” they explain, “we the undersigned are writing to urge you to open an investigation into the labor practices of our colleges and universities in the employment of contingent faculty, including adjunct instructors and full-time contract faculty outside the tenure-track.”
The petition continues (emphasis in original):
In a momentous but gradual change over the last 30 years, the proportion of full-time, tenured, and tenure-track professors to contingent professors has reversed itself. Now, approximately 76% of college professors are contingent labor, predominantly hired on a semester-by-semester contract and making an average of $2500 per 3-credit course. The average yearly income of an adjunct professor hovers in the same range as minimum-wage fast food and retail workers, with many of the same labor problems: lack of job security, inability to find enough working hours to support themselves, lack of health or retirement benefits, periodic unemployment, and outright wage theft. Most adjunct faculty are paid only for the actual hours in the classroom and not the much longer time spent outside prepping, grading, or meeting and communicating with students, among other unpaid duties. When that time is factored into the remuneration rate, many adjunct faculty are making minimum wage or only slightly more, an average of $25,000/year as highly educated—and deeply debt-ridden, thanks to the cost of education—professionals.
They go on to detail the coinciding leap in the number and pay of administrative positions in higher ed, the strain created by spreading departmental responsibilities among fewer and fewer full-time tenured faculty, and the impact of these changes on the attention and education that students receive versus the rising tuition and fees that they pay. The petition, which closes by urging Weil to help “make the university once again a fair and just place to work for faculty and a great learning environment for students,” runs through September.
Weil’s appointment faced fierce opposition from such trade groups as the International Franchise Association, Associated Builders and Contractors, the International Foodservice Distributors Association, the National Association of Home Builders, the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors and the National Franchisee Association. One wonders whether college and university administrators may soon join their ranks.