The Union Election That Might Not Count

George Washington U. contests results of part-timers' vote to unionize, provoking outcry from adjuncts.
July 5, 2005

When is a government-approved union election invalid? When George Washington University says it is, officials there hope.

Although the National Labor Relations Board in May certified the results of an October election in which a narrow majority of voting part-time faculty members at George Washington agreed to be represented in collective bargaining by a local branch of the Service Employees International Union, the university informed adjunct instructors and the union last week that it did not accept the election's outcome, citing what it considered the inappropriate exclusion of some outside instructors from the eligible voting pool. "This was a very close election, and it has to be as fair as it possibly can be," said Donald R. Lehman, executive vice president for academic affairs at GW.

Officials of the employee union and adjunct leaders at George Washington scoff at the idea that university officials are talking about fairness. They accuse George Washington administrators of denying the rights of part-time employees to choose their representation.

"The university's position is utterly undemocratic and utterly meritless in terms of the law," said Kip Lornell, an adjunct professor of music at GW. "The election has been certified, the university lost, and it is looking for any possible way to stall the process."

George Washington and its nearly 1,200 part-time instructors, who make a majority of the university's teaching faculty, have been at odds for several years. Adjuncts there, as at many institutions, are seeking better pay and some kind of health care and retirement benefits, which they do not now receive. Lehman has acknowledged that part-time professors have "legitimate concerns," but says that unionizing isn't the best way to address them, and that requiring adjuncts to participate in a union could "impede our ability to recruit outside professionals." 

The service employees' union in the spring of 2004 petitioned for and won the right to hold an election in October 2004. About 700 of the 1,200 adjuncts who were deemed eligible to vote did so, although about 50 of their votes were challenged. The initial count, excluding the challenged ballots, was in the union's favor, 328 to 316. 

In March, an administrative law judge ruled that more than half of the contested ballots should be counted, and when they were, the margin shrank to 10: 341 for the union, 331 against. The National Labor Relations Board endorsed the judge's decision in May, and in June, the board certified the election and told the union and George Washington to begin negotiations.

The university announced last week that it would not do so. It argued that because the N.L.R.B. had let vote in the adjunct election two lawyers who taught at George Washington because of a contract between the university and their law firm, 30 other adjuncts who teach at the university through third party "suppliers" should also have been allowed to vote. (George Washington had opposed letting the two lawyers in question vote in the election, but the administrative law judge had ruled that they were technically employees and therefore had a right to participate.) 

"There are these other people who come to us in exactly the same way, and they never ended up voting," said Lehman. "Those are 30 people that were in effect disenfranchised. All we're saying is, if we're to be inclusive and really have equity, those people should be voting, too."

Lornell, the music instructor, and Lewie Anderson, director of representation programs at the union, SEIU Local 500, argue that the N.L.R.B. has already decided the issue that George Washington is raising, and that the university should have included the suppliers in its list of eligible voters before the election took place. 

"At this point, this is a straight anti-union busting approach," said Anderson. "They want to deny the employees who voted their democratic rights, and what they clearly intend to do is start winding it through the legal process, for the purpose of stalling."

The union has already filed a grievance with the labor relations board, and it plans to crank up a public relations campaign to "expose what the university is doing," Anderson said. "We just can't rely on legal channels. We have to play the game that the university wants to play."


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