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How to Avoid a Union Election

June 17, 2010

East-West University says that its announcements this month about adjunct hiring have nothing to do with the union drive going on. It's all just a coincidence. Union leaders are dubious.

A few days after the Illinois branch of the National Education Association filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board for a union election to represent adjuncts at East-West, they all received a letter. It was dated a few days before the petition was filed and received a few days after. It said that the university considered that all of the adjuncts were no longer employed, and would not be employed for the summer, and that full-timers would teach classes to be offered then.

That posed a problem for the NEA chapter: To have a union election, you generally need to have ... employees to unionize. The university's letter effectively said that East-West didn't really have any adjuncts anymore. Adjunct leaders say that's absurd, given that the Chicago university of 1,200 students has about 18 full-time faculty members, and operates only with the teaching of more than 50-plus adjuncts.

But as of now, those adjuncts can't say they work there, so the union has been forced to withdraw its petition for an election, even though it thinks it would have won. The NEA chapter plans to refile in the fall, at a time when it would be hard to say that there are no adjuncts at the university, but the university's action has many frustrated.

Tom Suhrbur, an organizer for the Illinois Education Association who has been working with the East-West adjuncts, said he can't prove that the letter was related to the union drive, but "it is an awfully strange coincidence."

John C. Thomas, director of public relations at East-West, said that it was "absolutely not true" that the letter had anything to do with the union drive. He said that with positions for only a few adjuncts for the summer, the university wanted to clarify for all of the rest of the adjuncts that they were not employed and couldn't be employed until at least the fall. (Such letters haven't been sent in previous years.)

And that leads to the other recent change announced by East-West: From now on, to be hired to teach as an adjunct, you must be personally interviewed by Chancellor M. Wasiullah Khan. It is rare for college presidents to personally interview every adjunct hired (or even a significant number), so the move has alarmed some of the adjuncts.

Thomas, the university spokesman, said that the policy change has nothing to do with the union. Rather, he said that a recent incident prompted consideration of how adjuncts were hired. There was "a particular instructor," Thomas said, and "some enterprising students looked up" information about her online and found that "she had some things in her past and they tried to use that against her." While declining to get too specific, Thomas said that "she had a conviction for something" and that the students "tried to use that ... to criticize the school and to get favorable treatment."

Finding that department chairs were doing most hiring of adjuncts by themselves, the president decided to require an interview before any such hiring could be authorized. "The overall quality of instruction is the most important question," Thomas said.

To date, about seven or eight nominated adjunct candidates for the fall have been interviewed -- generally for about 20 minutes, in low-key conversations, Thomas said, and the chancellor has not vetoed anyone. He said, however, that some adjuncts whom chairs have wanted to hire back "have chosen not to go through the process" and thus will no longer be eligible to work there.

According to adjuncts organizing the union, who asked not to be identified, many are afraid of these interviews and believe that they could be rejected by the chancellor, and many adjuncts view the requirement as insulting, given that they have successful teaching records. As for the stated concern about the adjunct with a criminal past, those who have gone through the interviews so far have reported that the interviews are largely small talk, and don't show any apparent concern about people's records.

Suhrbur said that he didn't know if there really had been an incident involving an adjunct with a criminal past, but that regardless, "that's just an excuse to interview everybody." When a university announces a series of personnel policies that diminish any expectations that adjuncts might have of continuous employment, just as a union organizing drive is progressing, he said it just isn't plausible that everything is a coincidence. "People can put two and two together," he said.

Joe T. Berry teaches at the University of Illinois, not East-West, but he knows many adjuncts there because he is chair of the Chicago Conference on Contingent Academic Labor. "People are completely terrified, and not inappropriately," he said. He said that he has never heard of presidents interviewing all adjuncts and that the process strikes him as "the most egregious example possible of an unfair labor practice" in that everyone who signed a union card is now effectively without work -- and forced to talk to the senior person in management to get a course assigned.

"Unfortunately these kinds of tactics can work," Berry said, in delaying union drives.

One adjunct who asked not to be identified, noted that although he has taught there for eight years, he doesn't know if he'll get any courses or be approved by the chancellor for the fall. The adjunct said that over the years he has been there, the university has never previously felt the need to assert that those who were not teaching over the summer were not employed or assured of any future work. "People are intimidated. People feel this is a reaction to the [union] petition," he said. "I think this is going to be an attempt to clean house, to get a whole new block of adjuncts who won't be attached to the union."

 

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