teachers stand in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building holding white paper posters with black lettering reading "Strong unions" and "trust teachers"
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 11: People for and against unions hold up signs in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building Jan. 11, 2016, in Washington, D.C. The high court is hearing arguments in the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case. The case will decide whether California and 22 other states can make public employees, such as public school teacher Rebecca Friedrichs, to pay union agency fees. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

While Sheila Crabbe supports workers’ efforts to unionize, she, like many who primarily work in “temporary” roles, found that unions don’t always provide the same benefits and protection that permanent workers in unions often have. As a Black woman working within the Minneapolis school system, the precariousness of this position was made clear when she was let go from her job amid a mental health crisis after five years of employment. 

“There are great educators of color that continue to be feeling very much not safe in the schools—you can get fired at any point,” Crabbe said. “When you become a union member [and] make it through those 90 days of probation, then you may be able to get some legal support from the union [and not] pay out of pocket, but you still will get fired if you don’t win, so nothing is permanent,” Crabbe said.  

Triggered partly by the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic, American workers are in the midst of a new wave of unionization and collective bargaining. But advocates say that the needs of workers in contract or “temporary” positions, such as adjunct faculty and seasonal workers, are often overlooked in union campaigns and bargaining initiatives. Additionally, permanent workers may hesitate to align with their often marginalized temporary colleagues’ interests, which ultimately ends up serving a corporation’s needs more than workers’. 

Daniel Pieczkolon, the president of the United Academics of Philadelphia (UAP), a local union within the national American Federation of Teachers, knows how precarious employment can be when on a short contract, as he currently holds temporary adjunct faculty roles at both Arcadia University and Rowan University. 

“Universities are leaning disproportionately on part-time faculty members, as opposed to full-time faculty members, and a consequence of that is particularly in densely populated areas like the Philadelphia region, you have adjuncts like myself, who teach at multiple schools to piecemeal together a full-time living,” Pieczkolon said. 

While temporary workers face challenges, unions also have an uphill battle in arguing that alignment with permanent workers will provide temporary workers with more benefits. The differences between temporary and permanent workers’ treatment and policies encourage competition rather than cooperation, and unions face a social and political landscape that is already hostile to organizing. 

Focusing on the real adversary

According to a 2021 study in “Industrial Relations” based on a national sample, the way that temporary workers are treated compared to permanent staff is directly affected by what benefits their employers the most. Essentially, it’s in a corporation’s best interests to silo temporary and permanent workers because those interests are threatened when those groups adopt a more cooperative stance, such as through the formation of unions. 

Or Shay, a Cornell University doctoral candidate and one of the researchers who published the study, says that while it’s corporations who benefit the most, the study revealed that adversarial relations between unions and corporations could also benefit temporary workers but at the expense of permanent workers. As a result, it’s in unions’ best interests to include temporary workers as a matter of basic policy and advocate for outcomes that will benefit temporary workers and, ultimately, the union itself. 

“Unions need to fear that management can basically de-unionize the workplace by inserting more and more temporary seasonal freelance workers,” Shay said. “The best advice is to treat all workers as their constituency. When you think about it like that, it leads to different strategies, rather than thinking just about current members or just about the workers who are acknowledged as permanent by the employer.”

In other cases, employers use temporary work to appeal to prospective workers by presenting it as an opportunity for those seeking more flexible jobs. This is often the case that universities make to graduate students they’re looking to employ, which students eventually find does not line up with the reality of their basic living needs. Oregon State University’s (OSU) Coalition of Graduate Employees (CGE) 2021-22 Bargaining Team members Tilo Chatterjee and Brandi Whiteman argue for the value of union advocacy, especially as all their members are temporary graduate students. 

As an international student from India, Chatterjee’s first exposure to American workplace culture came after moving to pursue doctoral studies in biochemistry and biophysics at OSU. The way that the university benefited from graduate students’ labor without providing employee benefits was a primary motivation to join the union.

“I just became really interested in this weird gray area that we exist in where we’re both students and we’re employees and how the institution sometimes takes advantage of that,” Chatterjee said. 

Both Chatterjee and Whiteman allude to how much unpaid work goes into union advocacy. They admit that their level of compensation in STEM fields is higher than roles in other departments, which lends them the privilege of having time and resources to devote to advocating for other students. Graduate students with family responsibilities and less of a financial cushion face higher barriers to participation and, as a result, may understandably be less willing to become union members and pay dues. 

Whiteman, a Ph.D. student in the mathematics department, says that graduate students often struggle with having enough time and energy to spread among their own studies, research, and teaching responsibilities that come with their jobs and personal lives, so there’s often little to nothing left to volunteer time with the union.

“It can be exhausting, but it’s work that I love doing and care pretty deeply about, so I’m willing to take that extra time, but it’s not always as easy [for] others,” Whiteman said.

Worker solidarity is essential to growing power

There’s power in numbers, and private corporations have long leaned on government institutions to uphold theirs while hamstringing workers. Most recently, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME codified that non-union government workers can’t be required to pay union fees while working in public service. According to a 2018 “New Solutions” journal article, the ruling constituted a right-to-work-for-less stance and eroded the ability of unions to improve working conditions, “especially harm[ing] women, particularly Black women, who do a disproportionate share of public-sector work, leaving them more vulnerable to workplace harassment, discrimination, and precarity.”

Since the SCOTUS ruling, unions have found it harder to ensure that members sign up to pay dues, which takes away from their ability to devote time to collective bargaining efforts. Transport Workers Union International President John Samuelsen says that the ruling essentially flipped the American public sector to a right-to-work framework, which endangered the trade union movement due to the size of the unionized workforce in the public sector exceeding that of unionized workforces in the private sector.

“The right-wing forces in America [and] anti-worker forces conceived Janus as a way to break the public sector trade union state by state where we would lose a lot of that financial clout,” Samuelsen said. 

In light of the additional barriers created by Janus v. AFSCME, advocates point to the integration of temporary workers as an obvious pathway toward growing collective bargaining power. And those numbers matter. As an example, TWU represents over 150,000 members across the airline, railroad, transit, university, utility, and service sectors. Samuelsen says that TWU has about 45,000 members from 36 different work groups in the New York City Transit Authority covered under one collective bargaining agreement that expires on a single day, which allows them to settle disputes much more often without resorting to a full-blown strike. 

Education Minnesota includes 472 local unions with membership comprising over 86,000 individuals in public schools and higher education institutions across the state. During the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers strike in March 2022, their demands included robust protections for teachers of color and additional strategies to recruit and retain teachers of color, including earlier hiring timelines, recruitment bonuses for bilingual and multilingual staff, a modified teacher placement process, and a partnership with Black Men Teach. For their first strike since 1970, they successfully negotiated protections for teachers of color in the face of seniority-based layoffs that used to disproportionately benefit the majority white licensed teacher population. 

Samuelsen believes that industrial trade unionism provides the necessary power for labor organizing efforts to more effectively meet the needs of all its staff by using an organizing model based on craft and class, where every worker within a company can be covered under a collective bargaining agreement. 

Pieczkolon has also been working to create a hub where the union could sign up members as non-collective bargaining members, after which they go employer-by-employer to organize collective bargaining units at the respective institutions. He says that UAP managed a bargaining unit at Arcadia University in 2017 and then organized the faculty at the University of the Arts in the fall of 2020. They have since won the election vote to organize the staff at the University of the Arts. 

Although temporary workers may have various needs, advocates maintain that both permanent and temporary workers stand to gain longer-lasting and more meaningful benefits when they treat corporations as the adversary rather than each other. Regardless of job title or scope, worker solidarity is an essential part of the larger labor movement. By integrating temporary workers into union efforts, policies, and bargaining, unions are more likely to gain the numbers and momentum needed to bring lasting change.

Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, artist, and educator who prioritizes equity in all her work. Her essay, “Inclusive Reproductive Justice,” was in Vol. 2 of the Reproductive Justice Briefing...