Ithaca, N.Y. — On Medicaid. Making up to only $1,600 a month. No idea if they’ll have a job the following semester. And working just as hard as their much better-compensated peers.

That’s the situation for many part-time faculty members at Ithaca College, according to a group of them now pushing for unionization.

Though focused on positive developments in their push to unionize, the group stresses that it is hoping to raise the low base pay and lack of benefits for part-time faculty members, according to Sarah Grunberg, who teaches part time in the Department of Sociology at Ithaca College.

“It’s not sustainable,” she says. “Part-time faculty members … find it near impossible to sustain themselves and often struggle to find dignity and stability in their own personal lives.”

IC’s campus photo courtesy of Ithaca Builds
IC’s campus photo courtesy of Ithaca Builds

On Wednesday, a handful of part-time faculty met with President Tom Rochon — a meeting several said was productive and supportive. IC’s part-time faculty have reached the majority support needed and officially filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board to make the union official.

But what is making the push for unionization necessary?

Here’s what the advocates say: There are about 250 IC adjuncts in any given semester. They teach 3-credit, semester-long courses at $3,900 per class. Because they can only teach four classes a year, the part-time faculty make less than $16,000 a year.

“Some people don’t get that many,” Grunberg says.

That number is likely below the minimum wage for most faculty, according to Grunberg, though it depends on the course and how much grading needs to be done.

“We’re getting paid very little,” Grunberg says, “for something we are very dedicated to.”

Ithaca College is hardly alone in facing criticism for the level of pay for its adjuncts. Last year, Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Sydni Dunn highlighted a 36-page report from Congress noting the “alarming” state of adjunct labor.

“Contingent faculty often earn low salaries with few or no benefits, are forced to maintain difficult schedules to make ends meet, face unclear paths for career development, and enjoy little to no job security,” the report stated.

Contingent faculty across the nation make anywhere between $2,000 and $3,500 for a three credit course, the Congressional report says.

All together, the average salary for this category of teachers is $24,926, according to the Congressional report.

That’s higher than the maximum figure of $16,000 provided by IC’s adjunct advocates. There are schools with lower rates of pay, too; The College of St. Rose pays less than $2,000 a course, according to the Albany Times Union.

Part-time faculty at St. Rose recently joined the Service Employees International Union — the same union IC’s part-time faculty are seeking to join.

It seems likely that the push at IC will be successful to unionization. The school administration has said that it “supports its employees exercising their rights under the National Labor Relations Act to vote on whether or not they wish to be represented by a labor organization.”

The idea also has the approval of dozens of Ithaca College students and full-time faculty — a petition drew 660 signatures in support of the unionization effort. Several Ithaca Common Council members have also expressed their support.

“Many of us are long-term members of the communities of Ithaca and Ithaca College, yet find ourselves earning perpetually entry-level pay with little voice or leverage to address issues concerning our workplace, our employment, or our futures,” says Brody Burroughs, who teaches art at IC, in a statement. (Correction: Due to a mistake in a press release, a previous version of this story misspelled Burroughs’ name.)

Of course, joining a union doesn’t necessarily mean the underlying problems that make it necessary will be solved.

But it would be a start.

“A union would provide us with a voice and the mechanism to address, revisit and adapt to issues as they continually arise, and commit the College to an ongoing conversation with the 35-40% of the educators who serve our students so directly,” Burroughs says.

Next Thursday, IC’s part-time faculty will be going to Buffalo for a hearing with the National Labor Relations Board to determine who is included in the union and when the election will take place.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.