A Model Emerges

Adjuncts at Tufts say their first union contract, which includes significant pay and job security gains and a right to be interviewed for full-time positions, could be a model for new unions in negotiations elsewhere.


October 28, 2014

Service Employees International Union launched its Adjunct Action campaign less than two years ago, with an ambitious goal: take SEIU's metro-wide adjunct organizing effort in Washington, D.C. -- which took years to establish -- national, and fast. Drives were soon happening from Boston to San Francisco, leading to a dozen new unions.

Now Adjunct Action is touting its first successful contract negotiation, and adjuncts at Tufts University outside Boston are saying it could serve a model for the many contract negotiations happening elsewhere.

Highlights include significant pay increases, longer-term contracts and -- perhaps most meaningfully -- the right to be interviewed for full-time positions in one’s department.

“We were definitely aware of the scope of the national problem and we wanted to be able to do something that would be helpful, both in terms of being a genuine response to our needs for pay parity and better working conditions, and also for a more respect for what we do,” said Elizabeth Lemons, a 16-year Tufts adjunct instructor of religion who participated in the negotiations.

Tufts adjuncts voted last fall to form a union affiliated with SEIU. They were the first in the Boston area to do so, followed by Lesley and Northeastern Universities. Organizing is under way at Boston University, while a proposed union at Bentley University was voted down. SEIU has seen similar successes at campuses in cities as far away as Seattle; most recently, adjuncts at Washington University in St. Louis filed for a union election, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. 

Lemons said she and her colleagues started off in a better position than many of their peers across the city and the country; Tufts adjuncts teaching three or more courses per semester get health care and other benefits, for example, and Tufts is a relatively wealthy institution. But they still faced low pay and poor working conditions compared to their tenure-line colleagues, she said.

Still, it was important for union members to keep negotiations civil and positive, Lemons said. So they started not by talking about contract goals but about Tufts’ educational values, to build common ground with university representatives. They also highlighted best practices for adjunct employment already in place in some departments at Tufts.

The result was a nonconfrontational, even collaborative process, Lemons and other adjuncts said -- and a contract that includes significant gains for part-time faculty.

According to the collective bargaining agreement, union members will have at least one-year contracts. And by the end of the three-year agreement, lecturers with more than four years of service will be eligible for two-year appointments. Those with more than eight years of service will be eligible for three-year contracts. That provides much more job security than many adjuncts had previously. Lemons said that while at least half the members of the 200-person bargaining unit have worked at Tufts for seven or more years, until now they could still be hired on a semester-to-semester basis.

Addressing a common concern among adjuncts that they are discounted in tenure-line hiring decisions, the agreement also says that current lecturers will get first notice of and fair consideration for full-time positions, including a guaranteed interview. Adjuncts who interviewed for a full-time position and did not get it can find out why in a meeting with the dean or department chair. Such a guarantee is unheard-of at most institutions.

Tufts last year instituted new base pay guidelines for adjuncts, but the new contract includes pay bumps of up to 40 percent in some departments. By September 2016, all Tufts part-time faculty will make at least $7,300 per course, and those with eight or more years of service will make at least $8,760. Many adjuncts nationally work for much less than that on a per-course basis. Non-classroom work, such as mentoring and advising, also will be compensated. Those adjuncts with three-year contracts will be compensated for canceled courses.

Evaluations also will be overhauled to improve performance, not punish professors for bad ratings. That’s important, since many adjuncts say they’re given little feedback about their teaching, and student reviews alone can determine whether or not they’re rehired. Tufts will put more money aside for adjunct professional development, too.

Kimberly Thurler, Tufts spokeswoman, said via email that the university was “extremely pleased that our part-time lecturers voted overwhelmingly for this contract, which successfully balances the needs and priorities of the lecturers and the university.”

She added: “Our negotiations were focused on ensuring that our part-time faculty recognize that we respect the work they do for Tufts and their contributions to our educational mission.”

William Shimer, an adjunct professor of business at Northeastern University who has made $2,300 per three-credit course, and a member of the new SEIU unit’s collective bargaining team, just started negotiations. But he said everything Northeastern adjuncts are asking for is included in the Tufts contract, and he hopes that helps their cause.

“It certainly gives us a boost,” Shimer said of the Tufts contract. “People who hear of it are very, very happy to know that academics and unions -- which took a while to associate themselves in the minds of so many professors -- can lead to such good outcomes -- not just for us but for the students in our universities.”

Lemons said the new Tufts agreement doesn’t solve all of adjuncts' problems, and there’s still a lot to accomplish in future contracts, such as access to benefits for all adjuncts. But it's a strong foundation to "build on," she said.


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