More adjunct faculty vote to join unions

Adjunct faculty at two universities in September voted to join two different unions. At another university, a union election has been delayed by the lockout of government employees who supervise union representation elections.

Adjuncts at Duquesne University’s McNulty College voted 50-9 to join the United Steelworkers (USW); however, the university has said that it will not recognize the union pending its appeal of an earlier ruling by the National Labor Relations Board.

By a vote of 128-57, adjunct faculty at Tufts University in the Boston area voted to join SEIU, and they expect to begin negotiating a new contract soon.

Instructors at Bentley University near Boston also voted in a union representation election. Their ballots were supposed to be counted on October 4. But the shutdown of the federal government has caused staff at the NLRB who would normally count the ballots to be locked out.

After instructors at Duquesne petitioned for a union election, administrators appealed to the NLRB seeking to stop the election from proceeding arguing that the school’s affiliation with the Catholic Church exempted it from US labor laws. The NLRB denied the appeal, but the university has continued to press its case for an exemption on religious grounds.

The university’s case was undercut recently by the Association of Pittsburg Priests. The association on October 8 published a letter in the Pittsburg Post Gazette reaffirming its support for the adjuncts’ effort to seek a living wage and to organize a union.

“We believe that it is both appropriate and necessary to question and challenge recent assertions by Duquesne University that it should be granted a ‘religious exemption’, from the sanction and procedures of US labor law in order to block adjunct teaching faculty’s ability to organize, form a union, and collectively bargain,” reads the letter.

The challenges facing part-time faculty at Duquesne were driven home by the recent death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, who taught French at Duquesne.

After teaching for 25 years, Vojtko’s contract was not renewed last spring.

She died on September 1 of a heart attack. At the time of her death Vojtko was 83 years old and living in poverty.

The situation for adjuncts at Tufts is not nearly as drastic as their counterparts at Duquesne.

Their pay is higher than most adjuncts, and they have some health care benefits.

But they still face job insecurity, and the Tufts administration has been seeking takeaways.

Their pay has been frozen since 2008, and the university has changed their pay structure.

Andy Klatt, a Spanish instructor at Tufts told Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Education that the organizing drive was a defensive move.

“The university has already started taking things away from us,” said Klatt to Flaherty. “We’re  relatively better off than others, but there certainly seems to be a desire on  the part of the university to cut us down to size.”

Flaherty reports that when bargaining begins, the union will seek more job security, a raise, and equitable pay per course.

Tufts joins a number of urban based institutions of higher learning where adjuncts have voted to join SEIU.

Their effort is part of SEIU’s metro strategy, which seeks to use the power of already existing SEIU locals in metropolitan areas such as Boston, Los Angeles, and Washington DC to attract and organize adjuncts in their respective areas.

SEIU created Adjunct Action to carry out the metro strategy.

Bentley University is another of the institutions where Adjunct Action’s campaign has taken hold.

Adjuncts last spring petitioned for a union election because like other adjuncts across the country they don’t know from semester to semester whether they will have work or if they do, how much work they will have.

Bentley adjuncts also want better pay and affordable health care. Adjunct faculty have access to the university’s health plan, but Bentley doesn’t pay anything for the premiums.

“Better pay, benefits, and job security for adjuncts will directly transfer to a rising quality of education for our student body,” said Elaine Saunders, an instructor to The Vanguard, the Bentley student newspaper. “Also, we have had support from full-time faculty who care about the disparity because they know we are equally dedicated to our students.”

Voting on union representation began in September, but  since 1,600 NLRB staff have been forced off the job by federal government shutdown, ballots have not been counted.

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More adjunct faculty join unions

Inside Higher Education reports that adjunct faculty who belong to unions have better salaries, more benefits, and better working conditions than their non-union counterparts.

“(Unionization) does empirically make a difference,” said Adriana Kezar to Colleen Flaherty reporting for Inside Higher Education.

Kezar, a professor of education at the University of Southern California, directs the Delphi Project, which studies issues regarding the use of adjunct faculty at the nation’s colleges and university.

Flaherty also referred to a report published in 2012 by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce that shows that the salary of unionized adjunct faculty is 25 per higher than non-union faculty. Union members also are more likely to have benefits such as health insurance and better working conditions such as paid office hours and more regular class assignments.

Teaching at a college or university was once considered a middle-class job, but today when 50 percent of the teaching is done by adjunct faculty, whose pay is low, whose work is precarious, and who have little if any input about the terms of their employment, that is no longer the case.

Given the conditions of their work and the advantages gained by collective action, it’s no wonder that union organizing among adjunct faculty has gained momentum and more adjunct faculty are joining unions.

In May, adjuncts at Georgetown University in the District of Columbia voted to join SEIU Local 500.

They joined their fellow adjuncts at Montgomery College, American University, and George Washington University as members of Local 500, which has members in local governments and community service organizations throughout the DC area.

SEIU is using the leverage of powerful locals such as Local 500 to build union density among adjunct faculty in certain metropolitan areas in the Northeast.

In Boston, SEIU formed Adjunct Action to coordinate organizing at 20 area institutions of higher education.

As a result of the work done by Adjunct Action members, adjunct faculty at Tufts and Bentley University will be voting in a union recognition election in September.

Tufts adjuncts will begin voting by mail on September 9. Votes will be counted by the National Labor Relations Board on September 26.

Voting at Bentley will begin in late September.

After faculty at Bentley successfully petitioned for a union election, the school administration raised adjuncts’ salaries–9.5 percent for undergraduate instructors and 3.55 percent for graduate adjuncts.

While the raises were good news, low pay is only one of the problems faced by adjuncts and only one reason why they are joining unions.

“The problem for me and a lot of adjuncts is that you never know if you’re going to have work,” said Doug Kierdorf, who teaches history at Bentley. “I think if most students knew the terms of our employment, they would be appalled.”

SEIU isn’t the only union organizing adjuncts.

In Pittsburg, adjuncts at Duquesne University’s McNulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts voted in 2012 to join the United Steelworkers.

Duquesne during the organizing drive joined two other Catholic universities–Manhattan College in New York City and Xavier University in Chicago–in trying to block unionization efforts by arguing that their status as religious institutions exempted them from the National Labor Relations Act. The NLRB subsequently ruled against them.

In Texas where most public employees including teachers are barred from bargaining collectively, adjunct faculty have nevertheless banded together to form unions and fight for fair treatment on the job.

Adjunct faculty at the state’s public universities have joined the Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186 and have succeeded in winning health care benefits for graduate assistants. Members at the University of Texas at Austin have joined coalition of student and community groups to stop privatization at the university.

At Austin Community College, adjunct faculty have joined full-time faculty and classified staff to form ACCAFT Local 6249, which has led successful legislative campaigns including one to win health care benefits for part-time faculty.

In addition to wanting better pay, benefits, and working conditions, adjuncts also want a voice on the job that gives them the opportunity to influence the terms of their employment.

“We want to have a voice in our employment decisions,” said Tufts adjunct Rebecca Kaiser Gibson to Boston.com. “We want to be able to talk as equals at the bargaining table.”

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.”