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Attempts to organize adjunct professors – a professionally diverse group of people who often can’t identify their counterparts on campus due to a kind of commuter professor status – take real effort. That’s especially true in the country’s growing number of right-to-work states, and truer still in those that ban collective bargaining for public employees. But adjunct and union advocates say that organization is possible, even in some of the country’s least union-friendly places.

“The key is to build an organization of people committed to a cause and build a strategy to achieve that result,” said David Rodich, executive director of the Service Employees International United Local 500. Rodich and other chapter members are working to form a union of adjuncts teaching across the metropolitan Washington D.C. region, including in Virginia, one of five states that not only bar unions from requiring dues of their members but also ban public employees from collective bargaining at all. “We’re not going to let the absence of a collective bargaining law or absence of the ability to negotiate a union security agreement prevent us from doing the work.”

The organizing campaign in Washington illustrates the importance of the issue to those who believe adjuncts could have their pay and working conditions improved through unions. One idea behind that belief is that a prevailing wage in a metro area can be created and improved -- but that assumes the equal ability to organize throughout the area. In Washington, like other places, the colleges where adjuncts work cross states lines and -- in this case -- include institutions in a state that bars public unions.

Certified bargaining units in right-to-work states cannot require employees to officially join or pay dues or fees (tenure-track faculty at private institutions already are barred from unionizing due to a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision that determined them to be managers rather than workers with collective bargaining rights). While plenty of unions exist in such states, the right-to-work laws generally are considered to hurt unions by limiting their funding. Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Texas go a step further, prohibiting collective bargaining outright for public employees.

Right-to-work states predominate in the South and West, historically due to those regions’ attempts to lure factory jobs from the North. Recent legislative changes have diversified the traditional right-to-work map, most notably Michigan, home to a historically strong union contingent, including the United Auto Workers. State legislators voted on Dec. 11 to make Michigan the country’s 24th right-to-work state. The rule goes into effect 90 days after that vote.

Unionized adjuncts there such as Penny Gardner, head of the Union of Non-Tenure Track Faculty of Michigan State University, say their work will be harder now, but they’re undeterred from their purpose.

“It’ll be up to our [500-member bargaining unit] members to keep the union as strong as it can be,” she said, adding that more individual outreach to nonmembers will part of the union's strategy going forward. “You have to have a union to get our message out – it’s that old truism that individually, you beg, but collectively, you bargain.” And collectively, Michigan State’s adjunct union has been able to bargain with the administration, winning longer-term contracts for some adjuncts teaching at the university for 10 semesters in a row and two raises for all adjuncts in the current, four-year contract.

Still, the union could take a financial hit if members don’t continue to pay at the rates they’ve been paying: 1.6 percent of their salary for full members and 1.4 percent for service fee members who forego full membership (the union still represents nonmembers in grievances and other disputes). That could put at risk some of the union’s small administrative and organizational staff hired since its founding in 2004.

Accurate data on how many adjuncts in right-to-works states choose to be part of unions is hard to come by. But Rodich said that living in a right-to-work state doesn’t necessarily equate with low union “density” – organizing speak for union participation. Service industry workers in Nevada, for example, can participate at rates of more than 80 percent and wield great bargaining power, he said.

Among academics, however, the density is likely much lower. Craig Smith, director of higher education for the American Federation of Teachers, said that virtually all faculty unions (some of which incorporate adjuncts) are in states that have not been right-to-work – with one major exception: Florida. There, faculty – including adjuncts at some campuses – are organized into a statewide unit affiliated with both the AFT and National Education Association.

Greg McColm, secretary of the United Faculty of Florida at the University of South Florida, said it’s challenging to operate a union in a right-to-work state, but that there are certain incentives for faculty to join and pay dues. In Florida, courts have ruled that a union doesn’t have to represent nonmembers in grievances, he said. “Thus one of the selling points for joining a union in Florida is similar to a selling point for insurance: If you need help, the union is there for you, if you are a dues-paying member.” (Union density among bargaining unit members at South Florida is about 33 percent; adjuncts are not included in the bargaining unit at that campus.)

At Virginia’s public George Mason University, steps are being taken to identify and reach out to adjuncts who may want to organize and in some manner become affiliated with the eventual Washington, D.C., metro bargaining unit -- even without collective bargaining rights. Christopher Honey, spokesman for SEIU Local 500, said it’s too early to tell exactly what George Mason adjunct union participation might look like. But, he said, “it could definitely provide a platform for adjuncts to speak to the administration informally on behalf of the larger group of adjuncts.”

In Texas, where collective bargaining also is banned, union density and power varies from campus to campus, and depends on how established the union is, said Mary Aldridge Dean, executive director of the higher education branch of the Texas State Teachers Association, affiliated with the National Education Association.

“Up front, it takes some time, but it seems that at some point, when the membership is large enough at a given campus, the administration starts to take notice,” she said. For both tenure-track faculty and adjuncts, who usually are incorporated into general faculty unions in the state, campus grievance policies also can be helpful in getting concerns aired, as well as partnering with faculty committees. Adjuncts at more isolated campuses, where there is a smaller pool of Ph.D.s from which institutions may draw, tend to have more success, Dean added.

Unionizing isn’t the only option for adjunct faculty. In right-to-work Arizona, for example, the Maricopa County Community College District’s Adjunct Faculty Association includes 1,400 members (of 6,000 total adjuncts who teach more than 60 percent of courses across the district) and provides them with opportunities to buy health care and seek out professional development, among other benefits. The certified nonprofit, supported by contributions from members and other donations, calls itself a "professional association," not a union. Although collective bargaining is allowed in the state (a proposed ban was defeated during the last legislative session), the body does not collectively bargain with the district.

Instead, said Phillip Jalowiec, past association president, “achieving gains within the district is done in cooperation with the district and college executive leadership, in many cases just by calling attention to stated objectives and values the district asserts and its policies.” Association leaders identify where policies or practices – including those related to adjunct hiring, supervision, assignment notification and compensation – don’t live up to those objectives, or generally accepted sound employment principles, he added.

Other nontraditional union alternatives have been proposed by adjunct advocates. Keith Hoeller, co-founder of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association, has for years pushed for an American Anti-Contingency Association that would challenge traditional unions on ideas and for members. Such an organization ideally would “abolish” the two-track system of professors, putting all professors on a single track that compensates them equally for teaching time and other duties. This model has been in place for some time at Vancouver Community College in British Columbia.

Ideally, Rodich said the Washington, D.C., regional adjunct union could grow into a national organization paralleling that model, with “pay parity” as a central goal.

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