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When adjuncts push to unionize, they typically want better pay, better benefits (or any benefits if they don't have them) and job security. With unionization drives spreading, a key question is: Does collective bargaining yield meaningful gains?

The results of numerous initial contracts suggest the answer is "Yes." Negotiations on first contracts can take six months or more, but gains in those contracts frequently include significant pay increases and other, non-financial benefits.

“[Unionization] does empirically make a difference,” said Adrianna Kezar, professor education at the University of Southern California and director of the Delphi Project to examine and develop the role of adjunct faculty. “It is one of the few changes that helped to make changes so far.”

Kezar said research comparing the working conditions of unionized and non-unionized adjuncts shows that those with collective bargaining power have better salaries and benefits and are more likely to have paid office hours, opportunities for paid professional development and guaranteed participation in governance and other faculty domains.

John Curtis, director of research at the American Association of University Professors, reviewed adjunct union gains as part of his analysis of the 2012 Coalition on the Academic Workforce report on part-time faculty working conditions.  Median pay per course was 25 percent higher for adjuncts where part-time faculty had union representation ($3,100 on average, compared to $2,475) he said, but those “concrete benefits” don’t stop at pay.

Adjuncts with union representation also were more likely to have access to certain health and retirement benefits and had greater access to institutional support. For example, 18 percent of adjuncts on unionized campuses said they were paid for course cancellations, compared to 10 percent of their non-union peers. Fifteen percent of unionized campus adjuncts had paid office hours, compared to 4 percent of other adjuncts, and 20 percent union adjuncts said they had some kind of job security – something only 4 percent of their non-union counterparts reported enjoying.

At American University, which won its first contract in April, for example, minimum pay rates for adjuncts were instituted. For each three- or four-credit course, adjuncts with terminal degrees now earn at least $4,000. Previously, pay rates varied widely, but some adjuncts were paid significantly below the levels outlined in the new contract, according to Service Employees International Union. American's adjuncts also won modest compensation for additional duties, such as at least $250 for participating in program or curriculum development.

American University New Minimum Adjunct Pay Rates
Credits per Course Without Terminal Degree With Terminal Degree
1-2 $2,050 $2,500
3-4 $3,450 $4,000
5-6 $3,700 $4,200

The number of adjunct unions around the country is growing. Tufts University adjuncts are about to vote on unionizing with their local SEIU. Rebecca Kaiser Gibson, an adjunct professor of English and part of the organizing committee, said in an e-mail that adjuncts will push for “reliability and a transparency that gives us some security,” including a more standardized pay schedule.

“We know that our first contract will just be the first,” she said. “We will not achieve everything we might want in it.  But long-term at Tufts, and ultimately for all adjuncts in Boston, we will work for a living wage, a path towards three- or five-year contracts.”

In the Washington metro area, SEIU Local 500 has helped adjuncts at American, George Washington University and Montgomery College negotiate first contracts with their institutions, all within the past several years. Each included pay increases – by as much as 32 percent in one department at George Washington –  and increased job security, such as a “just cause” standard for discipline and dismissal. Other first contract gains include more thorough standards of evaluation to prevent student feedback forms from being the sole method of assessment for adjuncts; clear procedures for assignments and reappointment; and labor management committees to vet issues between part-time faculty and the institution between contracts.

Adjuncts have been able to build on those gains in subsequent contracts, such as with guarantees of professional development opportunities and funds – about $600 annually at some campuses -- and course cancelation pay. Annual appointments (as opposed to course by course) and course load protections have also been negotiated at Montgomery.

One “nut” adjuncts haven’t yet cracked is health insurance, said Anne McLeer, director of higher education and strategic research for SEIU Local 500. It's something 20 percent of SEIU-affiliated adjuncts don’t have through another job or spouse or partner. The union is waiting to see how the Affordable Care Act exchanges unfold to move ahead with definitive plans for incorporating health care into negotiations, she said.

California State University system’s California Faculty Association, affiliated with the American Association of University Professors, the National Education Association and SEIU, represents both tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty at 23 campuses. More than half of its 24,000 members are adjuncts, and it's widely considered to be the “gold standard” for adjunct unions. Gains for adjuncts include a “preference for work” based on seniority and renewable, three-year contracts reserved for incumbents.

But it wasn’t always that way. Mayra Besosa, an adjunct professor of Spanish at California State University at San Marcos, said there was no preference for work when she joined the union 19 years ago. Now, she said, adjuncts teaching six credits in a semester also are eligible for health care benefits and participation in the pension system.

“I would say [California State] contingent faculty have it better than most, nationally,” she said. “But we still have a ways to go. We represent over 50 percent of the faculty, but there is still the issue of participation in governance. Contingent faculty are still excluded or have very little representation in the academic senates -- but there is progress.”

Curtis is said there’s no apparent pattern among classes of universities or colleges that have won gains in unionization. Adjuncts at public and private institutions, represented by different unions, have achieved successes. McLeer agreed, and said the biggest institutional determinant of success is the administration’s attitude toward the union.

At St. Francis College, a Catholic institution in New York City, negotiating a contract for adjuncts’ AFT- and NEA-affiliated union took three years, said Mark McGovern, adjunct communications instructor and bargaining team member. A final contract was negotiated in May, with a pay increase of about $780 per course, to $3,030 for most adjuncts, plus a retroactive pay increase for the last year.

It was the college’s first experience with unionization, given the restrictions on unionizing among faculty at private institutions stemming from the U.S. Supreme Court decision of NLRB v. Yeshiva University of 1980. In that case, tenure-track faculty were found to be managers and therefore prohibited from organizing at private colleges.

At some religious colleges, administrations also have challenged faculty attempts to unionize due to another Supreme Court decision, NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago.

In that 1979 case, the court concluded that schools operated by a church to teach both religious and secular subjects are not subject to the National Labor Relations Act, and therefore not within NLRB jurisdiction, due to concerns about federal agencies becoming involved in regulating religious institutions. Unions challenging the use of that ruling to limit adjuncts' collective bargaining rights have noted that adjuncts generally teach subjects other than theology, have agreed not to negotiate over religious issues, and want to focus collective bargaining on wages, benefits and other issues.

“I’m sure they did not want to pay us as they are now going to be paying us,” said McGovern. “There was a lot of ‘Well, we’re in the Franciscan tradition,’ but we said, ‘We’re not Franciscan, we’re teachers.’ The Franciscan is great if you want to be a monk, but if you have a family, it’s a nonstarter.”

Still, concrete gains don’t take away from the “moral victory” of negotiating a good contract, McGovern said. “Symbolically, it’s important because by the end they were sort of accepting us as true faculty members, not just hired hands.”

Kaiser Gibson of Tufts expressed similar sentiments.

“We want a sense of ourselves as part of the university as well as part of a professional contingent of teachers, rather than lucky but isolated freelance adjuncts,” she said.

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