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The Point: Labor’s “Moment” and Associate Lecturers at UMass Boston


Today's Point was written by Professor Steve Striffler of the Labor Resource Center.

The US labor movement has been having something of a moment. The wave of 2018-19 teacher strikes set the stage for labor militancy during the pandemic.  Workers at Amazon, Target, and Whole Foods were striking soon after the pandemic hit, with thousands more holding strikes and forming unions across the country in 2021-2022.  And now, after nearly 200,000 screenwriters and actors went on strike this summer, two of the largest labor unions in the country – the Teamsters and UAW – have put bold demands and the strike (or threat of) firmly on the table. 

This militancy has been driven in part by the grotesque juxtaposition between, on the one hand, the meteoric growth of corporate profits and CEO pay and, on the other, the rapid expansion of a contingent labor force that has little job security, poor pay, and few benefits.   This inequality has been building for decades.  But the pandemic helped put it into sharp relief and on the public radar. 

Within this context, unions are not only reminding the public how well companies did during the pandemic, and how wages failed to keep up, but are demanding an end to a tiered labor force that (in the short term) protects an older class of workers at the expense of new hires.  To their credit, both the Teamsters and the UAW -- after conceding to this tiered system in previous rounds of contract negotiations -- realized that it ultimately threatens all employees.  As UAW President Shawn Fain noted after winning a record deal with GM,  "We have slammed the door on having a permanent underclass of temporary workers…"

And so should UMass Boston.  The connection to our own situation should be clear – both in terms of bloated administrative pay (our CEOs) and contingent faculty labor.  Academia may not have invented the tiered labor force, but we sure have “perfected” and come to depend on it in perverse ways since the 1970s.  Just for reference -- in the late 1960s, almost 8 out of 10 faculty members were tenured or tenure track.  Today, about two-thirds are non-tenured, with half of those working part-time (often with several different teaching jobs).    

At UMass Boston, although adjunct faculty have long existed in some form, and while it is possible to defend the use of adjunct positions in a very limited way, the category of Associate Lecturer, and its expanded use, dates back less than a decade.  This suggests that it is not impossible to follow other unions and back this category right out of our contract; it is a concession we need to roll back.  It will not be easy, in part because administration has become financially dependent on poorly paid faculty labor in a short period of time.  Associate Lecturers have come to teach around 20% of all UMB courses since the category first became part of our contract in 2014-2017.

One imperfect way of addressing this is (as FSU has tried in the past) to limit the category’s use (i.e. only X% of courses can be taught by Associate Lecturers) while increasing the pay of Associate Lecturers.   Increasing AL pay will not only improve the lives of faculty, but should make the category a less appealing way for administrators to make new hires and hopefully lead more faculty to simply be hired as full-time Lecturers.  Obviously, this would do little to address UMB’s biggest tier, that between NTT and TT faculty, but it would be a start.

It’s also doable.  Currently, the per course minimum for Associate Lecturers at UMass Boston is $5500, which amounts to a salary of $44,000 (at 8 courses per year).   Both the per course rate and the “salary” – which assumes an Associate Lecturer could somehow get scheduled for 8 courses per year -- is morally and economically indefensible.   A recent study determined that for a single person to live “comfortably” in Boston requires a salary of close to $80,000.  And the minimum per course rate at UMass Amherst is $7625, and $8400 at Boston University.  Beyond this, Associate Lecturers are also excluded from many of our contract provisions, including just-cause rights and pay raises that cover all other faculty ranks.

In the medium to long term, the FSU can and should debate what the university should do about our increased dependence on a faculty labor force that is paid and treated poorly (and how tenure-line faculty benefit from this labor).  In the short term, and at the very least, one proposal we should consider is a minimum per course rate of at least $8000, or around what our peers at UMass Amherst earn where the cost of living is far lower.  As other unions have recently shown us, this will not only improve the lives of those who are paid the least, but protect the quality of faculty employment more broadly. 

Are you interested in leading the charge on this – and many other important contract issues?  Please get your application in by 4pm today to become a member FSU’s Contract Bargaining Team!

For information on the FSU, links to our contract and bargaining updates, and a calendar of events, see the FSU webpage