Asli Peker
6 min readMar 15, 2021

Why a Contract Faculty Union?

Striking graduate student workers picket outside NYU’s Bobst Library in 2005. (Photo: Steve Fletcher)

When I first came to New York University more than twenty years ago as a Ph.D. student, there was already an ongoing effort among graduate student workers to unionize. One of my early memories at NYU is from a meeting with fellow Ph.D. students to discuss the merits of unionization. The discussion got a bit heated at one point and I remember one student, who had a young child (and a spouse who was also a Ph.D. student), protesting that he could not support his family with the meager stipends we were all getting paid and another student responding with “who told you to have a kid while you are still a Ph.D. student?” Having just embarked on a whole new journey in a new country, getting married and having kids were the furthest things from my mind at the time, but I do remember feeling a bit struck at how unaccommodating the academic profession was to having a family. Despite the heated discussions that day and the resistance from the university, the union drive was successful and we were unionized, at least briefly, until the Bush-appointed National Labor Relations Board overturned the decision to recognize graduate student assistants in private universities as workers. In time, my relationship with the university has changed from student to full-time continuing contact faculty, but the graduate student efforts to unionize continued, and succeeded once again eventually, and from what I can tell, have resulted in substantial improvements in the lives of graduate student workers, compared to the days when I was a Ph.D. student.

The university, and U.S. higher education more broadly, have changed a lot in other ways in those twenty-some years too. On the one hand, as is well documented, tenure and tenure track faculty positions have been shrinking in proportion to full-time contract and part-time adjunct positions. Universities are relying more and more on faculty who are paid less, have fewer benefits and less job security to carry a larger portion of the teaching and administrative load, in the process creating an academic underclass. On the other hand, the demographic composition of these two groups of faculty are also becoming increasingly different. I am relying mostly on unsystematic observations here, but the better paid, senior, tenured faculty seems to be mostly white, male and aging, while the contact and adjunct faculty (and to some extend junior tenured and tenure-track faculty) are (unsurprisingly) younger and more diverse, particularly including more women, people of color and immigrants. As a result, the challenges those of us in the second group face are also quite different; not only are we paid less and lack the job security that comes with tenure, but many of us have younger children and substantially more caregiving responsibilities, we live far away from the campus and have long commutes, and we are less connected to the formal and informal networks and resources that the university has to offer, most of which are centered around the campus.

The pandemic has laid bare many of these challenges and differential access to university resources. Those differences became quite clear to me when, late into the Spring semester last year, a colleague suggested that for us academics, pandemic life was not that different after all, as most of what we do is solitary work behind closed doors in our offices. I felt like my whole world was falling apart at the time -with a young child with additional support needs at home needing full-time care and supervision with remote school, no outside help and no access to university buildings, I was teaching my two graduate courses from the car using my phone as a hotspot at the same time as I was trying to adapt them to an entirely different modality and figuring out all the new technology, attending an infinite number of zoom meetings and carrying out all my other administrative responsibilities. In the midst of all that chaos, I felt utterly disconnected from the university community. Although the university administration offered words of acknowledgement and eventually some more tangible support, including a new child care grant that was announced in November, this came relatively late and only after growing pressure from faculty parents who began organizing to voice their grievances and started a petition to demand more support from the university administration.

While eventual support from the university is much appreciated, I have been here long enough to have the institutional memory that progress does not happen without organized and sustained pressure. And as full-time contract faculty, we still have ways to go. Until a few years ago, we had no representation within the university governance structures. In the previous department where I worked for seven years as full time clinical assistant and then associate professor, not once were I or any of my other clinical faculty colleagues invited to participate in a faculty meeting or to vote on any issues. I now work in a much smaller program where there is room for full participation for all clinical faculty members, but discrepancies continue to exist as to how clinical faculty is included and treated among individual departments and schools. There are also significant discrepancies in terms of compensation, job description, contract renewal and promotion procedures. Many of us continue to feel insecure in our jobs in the midst of an ongoing pandemic and economic crisis. While most of us believe in the ideal of the university as a community, in reality, we know that some of us in that community are more dispensable than others, regardless of our contributions to its very continuity and well functioning.

As I write these lines, workers at an Amazon plant in Alabama are voting over the next few weeks on whether to unionize. If the vote is affirmative, this would be the first Amazon workplace in the United States to unionize and it would be groundbreaking. Unsurprisingly, Amazon has been fighting tooth and nail to stop the unionization efforts. There is a long (and often bloodied) history of companies like Amazon pushing for anti-union policies and undertaking union-busting efforts as they see an organized workforce able to bargain collectively as a threat to their very core interests.

As I write these lines, something else is happening back in my country of origin, Turkey. Faculty and students at the prestigious Bogazici University have been unwaveringly protesting against President Erdogan’s latest attempt to curtail the autonomy of the university by appointing a pro-government outsider as the rector, in contradiction to the established norms and governance processes of the university itself. Most other institutions -the courts, the media, many civil society organizations- that could act as a counterbalance to the government’s power have seen their autonomy erode and disappear in the last decade. Bogazici is one of the last few bastions in higher education that has successfully resisted the infringements from the government so far, including successfully shielding its faculty against the wave of purges as punishment to a peace petition signed by hundreds of academics a couple of years ago.

The point is, universities -including private ones- are not (just) businesses. They are not -they should not be- solely driven by profit motives. They need not -they should not- see a stronger, better organized workforce as an existential threat but a potential source of strength. While the challenges and threats facing institutions of higher education here in the United States are quite different than those in Turkey, an organized, strong and content academic workforce is an asset for both. A stronger academic workforce would make a stronger university, one that is better able to withstand challenges coming from within or from without.