Metropolitan organizing strategy seeks to build union power for adjunct faculty

Higher education institutions across the US are relying more on a contingent workforce of instructors; these adjunct instructors work for low pay, have few benefits, and even less job security.

Organizing adjunct instructors to win better pay and working conditions was the topic of a recent symposium in Boston sponsored by SEIU. The symposium, attended by about 100 adjunct faculty from 20 colleges in the Boston metropolitan area, kicked off a regional organizing drive called Adjunct Action to help adjunct faculty organize and win collective bargaining rights.

According to Maria Maisto, founder of the New Faculty Majority, an adjunct faculty advocacy organization, the poor working conditions that adjunct faculty labor under affects the quality of education that students are receiving. “Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions,” said Maisto, speaking at the symposium. “If faculty working conditions continue to decline, both they and students suffer.”

Today low-paid, contingent instructors do most of the teaching at America’s institutions of higher education. According to the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW), “75.5 percent of (higher education) instructional staff members (are) employed in contingent positions either as part-time or adjunct faculty members, full-time non-tenure-track faculty members, or graduate student teaching assistants.”

For the most part, institutions of higher education devote few resources to supporting these faculty members.

In 2009 at American University in Washington DC, about 50 percent of the instructional faculty were adjunct instructors, but only 4 percent of the university’s instructional budget was devoted to these faculty members. Adjunct instructors, subsequently voted in 2011 to unionize and joined SEIU Local 500.

A national survey whose results were released last year by CAW found that in 2010 median pay per three-hour course taught by adjunct instructors was $2,700 and ranged from $2,235 at two-year colleges to a high of $3,400 at four-year doctoral or research universities.

The survey also found that while adjuncts are often considered temporary workers and are thus denied the full benefits of permanent employees, most consider themselves long-term employees who are committed to the teaching profession. Of those surveyed, 80 percent had taught for three years or more; half had taught for six or more years. More than three-quarters said that they would accept a tenure track position if available.

Those attending the symposium discussed these and other problems facing adjunct faculty. They also agreed that collective action and unionization are key to overcoming these problems.

Adjunct Action is part of a new organizing model aimed at adjunct faculty that SEIU refers to as its metropolitan organizing strategy. The idea is to get community groups involved in the organizing effort and to make the organizing campaign a region-wide effort rather trying to organize one campus at a time.

“We need an approach that is bigger than any one institution,” said Wayne Langley, director of SEIU Local 615’s higher education division to the Chronicle of Higher Education. “If we continue to fight institution by institution, we will not win.”

As union density builds at the different campuses in the region and contracts are won, there will be more pressure on other campuses to agree to better pay and benefits in order to keep their adjuncts from jumping to campuses with union contracts.

SEIU has had some success with this approach in Washington DC, where Local 500 has contracts with American University, George Washington University, and Montgomery College, a public institution in the Maryland suburbs close to Washington. Adjunct faculty at Georgetown University will be voting in a union representation election in May.

Anne McLeer, Local 500 director of research and communications told the Chronicle of Higher Education that at some point the local would like to negotiate a common contract that raises pay, improves benefits, and increases job security at campuses throughout the Washington DC metropolitan area.

In Boston and Washington, the SEIU effort is mainly aimed at private institutions because most of the public universities and colleges have already been unionized.

SEIU has decided not to organize the universities and colleges in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC because Virginia is a right-to-work-for-less state.

Boston seems like the natural place for SEIU to expand its metropolitan organizing strategy because of its high concentration of private universities and colleges.

Some of these universities are quite expensive yet rely heavily on a low-paid, instructional staff to do much of the teaching.

“When a university is asking $50,000 in tuition from students, one wonders where the money is going and why it’s not going into instruction, ” said Deborah Schwartz,
an adjunct professor of English at Boston College. “There’s a systemic problem when the majority of students who walk into their first year English class are taught by adjunct faculty.”


2 thoughts on “Metropolitan organizing strategy seeks to build union power for adjunct faculty

  1. Very cool. Glad to se you are including faculty unionism in “labor”.

  2. Pingback: COCAL Updates

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