Class Action: Adjunct College Lecturers Strike for Rights

Adjunct lecturers at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yafo are tired of having no employment security.

Tomer Appelbaum

Some 300 adjunct lecturers at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yafo went on strike this week to protest their employment conditions. This is the first time Israeli non-tenured collegiate lecturers have done so.

Adjuncts are hired by colleges on short-term semester- or academic year-long contracts and rehired as needed. Most have part-time positions. They do not receive raises based on experience; benefits, like educational training funding, or certain forms of vacation pay above the legal minimum. Like other contract workers, they have no employment security.

About two-thirds of the faculty members at Israel’s 20 public colleges are employed as adjunct, external lecturers, a July 2013 report by the Knesset’s Research and Information Center shows. From 2002 to 2012, a decade in which colleges grew rapidly at the expense of research universities, the number of such faculty grew by 112 percent, much faster than any other group of faculty.

The adjunct faculty at the Academic College formed a union under the auspices of the labor federation Koach La Ovdim - Democratic Workers’ Organization. The union is headed by Yeela Lahav-Raz and Tamar Arev, doctoral students in sociology at the college who have been teaching as adjuncts there for eight to nine years.

The only constant is “the constant uncertainty we experience,” said Arev. “I, for example, don’t know if and how much I will teach at the beginning of next year, in another four months. The senior faculty here received hints there will be cuts, but no one talks to us.”

In recent years, Israel’s universities signed agreements with junior faculty, including adjuncts, regularizing their terms of employments, but colleges have not followed suit.

A few months ago, the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education published a new framework for employing adjunct faculty at publicly-funded colleges, signed by Chairman Manuel Trajtenberg, who is also a professor at Tel Aviv University’s School of Economics. The committee called the framework a “historic change,” which would guarantee employment for an entire year.

But the union says “Trajtenberg’s decrees” leave the situation of a large portion of adjuncts unchanged. Plus, adjuncts who managed to find full-time hours will lose up to 20 percent of their salaries by being switched from hourly to monthly wages, they say.

“The Trajtenberg framework perpetuates and sets in place the caste structure of the higher education system,” Lahav-Raz wrote in an article a few months ago. She said the reasoning behind the framework was to keep the state from having to spend additional money. Meanwhile, the Planning and Budgeting Committee is busy with media spin and making the situation worse, she wrote.

An official from the Planning and Budgeting Committee said the Trajtenberg framework provides employment security and fringe benefits to adjuncts. No one’s salary will be reduced, the official said, and switching to the new framework is voluntary.

The union declared a strike after negotiating with the college’s administration for the past eight months without making any real progress, say Lahav-Raz and Arev. Handmade signs now hang all over campus, saying simply, "Strike."

Adjuncts at other colleges have refrained from striking out of fear, says Arev, citing the powerlessness created by the system of external employment, without tenure, employment security or other rights. An administration just has to show a hint of aggressiveness to deter many adjuncts from taking action, she says. Plus, she notes, adjuncts who are working at two or three colleges to scrap together a salary do not have much free time.

Some of the Academic College’s senior faculty have voiced support for the strike. Professor Naomi Chazan, the dean of the college’s School of Government and Society, called it a “just battle for freedom from degrading employment conditions.” And so far, 120 senior faculty members from a number of institutions have signed a petition backing the strike. The student body also seems to be behind the adjuncts.

A senior administrator at the college told Haaretz he sympathizes with some of the adjunct’s complaints, such as the potential fall in salary from moving to monthly wages, but said the administration has tried to find creative solutions. Many adjuncts would get an 11 percent raise under the Council for Higher Education’s plan, he says.

But the union says this number relates to employer cost. Salaries will rise just 0.6 percent, they say.

The union also disagrees with the Council for Higher Education on what should constitute a full-time position. The council thinks full-time lecturers at colleges should teach 14 hours a week, compared to 10 at universities, while the union is demanding it be 12 hours. The framework will only apply to a few adjuncts anyway, the union says. The council acknowledges that the framework is not intended to apply to all faculty members.

It all boils down to money, says a senior official at the college.

The Academic College said, “Being a public college, the administration of the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yafo is committed to holding negotiations within the limits of the ‘Trajtenberg framework.’ The adjunct lecturers demands are not part of this framework, so the college’s management cannot continue to negotiate with them.”

The Education Ministry declined to comment.

Tomer Appelbaum