Most of the new adjunct faculty unions affiliated with Service Employee International Union’s national Adjunct Action campaign haven’t yet achieved contracts. Those who have negotiated collective bargaining agreements, however, say they have better pay and working conditions as a result. Take adjuncts at Tufts University, for instance, whose newly inked contract guarantees significant pay increases, longer-term contracts and the right to be interviewed for full-time positions.
But can adjuncts elsewhere achieve similar gains without the help of unions – or at least not through collective bargaining? Developments on several campuses suggest that even when adjunct union drives fail, stall or just loom, they can still exert pressure on institutions to improve part-time faculty working conditions.
This summer, in a relatively rare loss for SEIU, adjuncts at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota voted down a proposed union. Critics said they attributed the outcome to unconvincing union rhetoric and personal pleas from their new president, Julie Sullivan, to give her a chance to improve pay and working conditions without outside interference.
“I have publicly stated on numerous occasions that I am committed to addressing the needs of adjunct faculty at the University of St. Thomas without the involvement of a union,” Sullivan said in an open letter to faculty on the eve of the vote. “How can you be sure I will fulfill this commitment if there is a ‘no’ vote? It boils down to one word: Trust.”
Many faculty members who had supported the union were skeptical. But several months later, it appears Sullivan has delivered on her promise, at least in part. Adjunct faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences recently got about a $200 per-course pay increase, to a minimum of $4,200. Next semester, minimum pay will jump to $5,000 per course. (Pay will range up to $5,500 per course.) That’s about a 25 percent pay jump over one year, according to information from the university.
In the time since the vote, the university has also made professional development funds of up to $1,200 per award available to adjuncts, and it’s in the process of forming an elected adjunct council to further represent adjunct faculty interests on campus.
“The council will provide a forum for adjunct faculty to communicate and interact with each other, identify opportunities for improving the situation of adjunct faculty beyond the already-identified priorities, and strategize ways of better integrating adjunct faculty into our university community,” Sullivan wrote in an email to faculty members following the union vote. “Ultimately, our goal is to provide adjunct faculty with a variety of participation options to meet varying preferences for levels of involvement at St. Thomas” and to create and sustain “an academic community through open and transparent dialogue where all members are respected, feel valued, and are focused on student learning and outcomes.”
Tom Becker, who’s taught engineering at St. Thomas as an adjunct for 13 years, is part of task force that’s helping to set up the adjunct council. He opposed the union drive because he didn’t think collective bargaining was the part-time faculty’s best chance for progress at the time, and he’s “proud” of how much progress has been made since, he said.
“I trusted the administration to work with us to resolve these issues,” Becker said. “I’d say the president had a lot do with it. She’s trustworthy and a person of her word, and she’s relatively new to the organization and I felt like we needed to give her a shot at it.”
Becker didn’t rule out adjunct unionization entirely, but he said that St. Thomas adjuncts had benefited from working directly with their administration before jumping to collective bargaining.
Although their experience has been much more acrimonious, adjuncts at Duquesne University also saw improvements on their campus following union activity. In 2012 they voted overwhelmingly to form a union affiliated with the United Steelworkers, but that’s been on hold as the university has challenged their right to unionize; the Roman Catholic university says its religious status puts it outside the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board. Still, many adjuncts have seen a 50 percent pay increase since the union drive began. The current per-course pay floor is $3,750; previously, some humanities adjuncts were making $2,500 per course.
Tammy Ewin, a Duquesne spokeswoman, said the pay increase was “part of an overall strategy to keep compensation competitive.”
But Robin Sowards, an adjunct professor of English, said the university-wide adjunct faculty raise showed how “one group of workers organizing a union raises standards for everyone, even workers who aren't in the union,” since the bargaining unit originally was made up of only arts and sciences faculty.
According to the National Labor Relations Act, employers aren’t supposed to alter pay and benefits for employees once they’ve been recognized by the labor relations board, outside of collective bargaining. But Sowards said unions – his included – typically don’t file complaints when those changes benefit the employees in question, as long as they don’t constitute bribery.
Sowards said adjuncts at Duquesne still should be earning more, and that the raise hasn’t blunted their desire to form a fully functioning union. But over all, he said via email, “we're pleased that we've had such success at compelling Duquesne's administration to raise our pay, and it shows how effective the sheer fact of organizing is (even without collective bargaining).”
Still, there’s a fine line between working with faculty and potentially interfering in a union activity. Just this week, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of Marist College adjuncts, in New York, who complained that the institution had interfered in their June election to form a union affiliated with SEIU. Adjuncts complained, in part, that the college had raised the minimum per-course pay to $3,000 just days before the election was set to begin.
The labor relations board ruled last week that the union can scrap the ballots cast in June and hold a new election, at a time yet to be determined. (A Marist spokesman said that a majority ballots cast in the June election were against the union, causing SEIU to seek to throw out the results. The local SEIU in a statement didn’t deny the election results but said that there were challenged ballots filed by faculty members who also have “administrative functions that place them outside the community of interests with their colleagues.” In other words, union supporters said the administration was stacking the deck with "no" votes, but the university said it was encouraging all adjuncts to participate.)
SEIU’s vigorous metro-wide organizing campaign hasn’t yet hit New York City. But it’s formed adjunct unions at many private colleges and universities in Boston and Washington, D.C. So it’s at least interesting that adjuncts teaching two core courses at Columbia University recently got a raise for the first time in many years. They’re now making $8,000 per semester, up from $6,000, Capital reported. A spokesman declined to provide a reason for the raise, though, saying it was a university policy not to comment on personnel matters.
Adjuncts aren’t the only group to benefit indirectly from unionization efforts. Some institutions also increased graduate student stipends over a decade ago, when it seemed that graduate student unionization at private institutions was imminent. A 2004 National Labor Relations Board ruling against Brown University students who wished to form a union halted that momentum somewhat, however.
Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy organization, said she didn’t think that adjuncts getting raises or winning other benefits in the face of union drives was a bad thing – as long as those adjuncts who want to form unions “stay resolute in their determination to forge ahead with their organizing effort in the face of such a tactic.”
“I think the speed with which raises are offered after a union drive is announced is probably indicative of the level of guilt and fear that the college feels,” she added. So offers of raises in an organizing context “actually often makes adjuncts feel inspired to continue rather than to settle for the bone they are being thrown.”
Lucy Saliger, an adjunct professor of English at St. Thomas who was on the union organizing committee there, said adjuncts on campus have "definitely benefited" since the union drive. At the same time, she said, "there's still a very long way to go." Saliger said adjuncts need "livable wages commensurate with the amount of work we do," along with better job security, benefits and protections of academic freedom -- things she said she believed were best won and maintained through union contracts.
In the long-term, she added, "we need to rely on more than varying levels of administrator benevolence, whether it's motivated by fears of unionization, notions of being a little fairer, or anything else."
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