Big Gains for Adjuncts

Northeastern is latest university where first contract with adjunct union has included substantial salary increases and other key benefits -- such as payments for classes that colleges cancel.

January 15, 2016
Button for planned strike at Northeastern

Averting a strike threatened for next week, Northeastern University’s adjunct union settled on a tentative first contract with the administration early Thursday. Negotiations have been tense since the collective bargaining unit, which is affiliated with Service Employees International Union, announced its formation in May 2014. But the contract on which the adjuncts and the university eventually settled includes unprecedented gains for part-time instructors at Northeastern, and for most adjuncts in general (and some full-time adjuncts at the university, too).

The union said the agreement assures significant, across-the-board increases in per-course pay. Almost all adjuncts will see a pay bump of 12 percent or more over the next three years; some of the lowest-paid instructors, such as those in the College of Professional Studies, will see their pay nearly double over the life of the contract, and some of highest-paid adjuncts, including those in the School of Engineering, will see a 9 percent increase. The increases are “front-loaded,” in the words of the university, so adjuncts will immediately see a big jump in pay for the first year of the contract -- 10.5 percent in some cases.

The agreement also includes compensation -- 15 percent of full-course pay -- for adjunct faculty members whose courses are canceled on short notice before the beginning of a term. That’s a major concern for adjuncts, who sometimes spend hours of uncompensated time preparing for course assignments, only to have them pulled at the 11th hour.

Instructors will have a larger voice in decisions that impact teaching, including a formal process to deal with workplace conflicts and violations. A modest professional development fund also has been established.

The contract assures a 50 percent subsidy for health insurance for faculty members teaching 30 or more hours per week on average. A benefit of that nature would have been required to comply with the Affordable Care Act anyway, but health care benefits for adjuncts are still rare in collective bargaining agreements, and for now, adjuncts weren't getting anything.

Jason Stephany, a spokesman for SEIU in Boston, called the Northeastern agreement a “landmark” contract that makes “significant improvements to teaching and learning conditions” on campus.

Stephany said that as with any compromise, there was room for improvement -- namely increased access to affordable health care options for all faculty members. But the contract lays a “strong foundation” for future gains.

James C. Bean, Northeastern’s provost, said in a statement that “this is a fair and equitable agreement” offering “competitive salary increases for part-time faculty.”

Noting that the contract includes a no-strike clause for the duration of the agreement, Bean said the “university retains the ability in all cases to guide the academic direction of its colleges, departments and programs.”

SEIU is working to organize adjuncts nationwide in what it calls a metro strategy, across cities and regions. Adjuncts in Washington, D.C., where SEIU launched the strategy, have benefited from it, and the Northeastern contract suggests the strategy is working in and around Boston, too. The Northeastern contract mirrors that of adjuncts at Tufts University (who also are affiliated with SEIU) in terms of large pay bumps -- although the 2014 Tufts contract included more explicit assurances of job stability and in many cases larger salaries. Negotiations are ongoing on other Boston-area campuses where SEIU has successfully organized adjuncts, including Boston University.

Also in the Northeast, SEIU-affiliated adjuncts at St. Michael’s College in Vermont saw real gains under their first union contract, ratified last month. Most instructors will see 10 percent per-course pay increase this semester, with the right to negotiate additional wage increases in the fall. They also won protections on reappointment through “good faith consideration,” meaning that adjuncts who have taught a specific course for at least two calendar years and a minimum of four times within four calendar years are likely to be reappointed. A $1,000 late course cancellation fee also is included.

Elsewhere, SEIU-affiliated adjunct union first contract wins include those at Hamline University in St. Paul. That contract, to be ratified this month, includes pay raises for all adjuncts; a majority of instructors will receive a 15 percent increase in the first year and base pay will increase by 20 percent by 2017-18. There are additional raises for longer-serving adjuncts with a terminal degree.

Hamline adjuncts also will seen a professional development fund established, earlier notice for course assignments and compensation for late course cancellations. They’ll have the right of first refusal to teach a course they design, or be compensated for the curriculum.

John Matachek, Hamline's provost, told the Star Tribune, “I think we landed in a fair place.” While the university already offered adjuncts a “fairly competitive” rate, he said, “we weren't particularly proud of the fact that [some adjuncts] hadn't received an increase in 10 years. It should have been higher on the radar screen than it was.”

Other unions have seen strong wins for adjuncts in first contracts of late. Point Park University adjuncts, affiliated with the United Steelworkers, for example, recently ratified a three-year contract that includes a 23 percent pay increase, along with increased job security and academic freedom protections. The contract also provides for grievance and arbitration procedures and -- like Northeastern’s -- payment to instructors who classes are canceled at the last minute.

The momentum may even be impacting negotiations with established chapters. At Rutgers University, for example, where adjuncts are represented by a standing union affiliated with the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers, a new contracted ratified in December includes an immediate 5 percent pay bump for adjuncts with 12 semesters of teaching experience on campus. That’s in addition to regular increases of about 2 percent over the other two years of the contract.

Like Northeastern, adjuncts on all campuses left some of their goals on the bargaining table. The Rutgers union’s goals for its next contract, for example, include salary equity with full-time teaching faculty, full tuition remission for part-time lecturers and their children, health care benefits, and defined career paths. All of those issues rank high on adjuncts’ wish lists.

And these gains aren’t to suggest that adjuncts everywhere have negotiated with ease. Some of these contracts took a year or more to reach. As for negotiations that are still ongoing, SEIU-affiliated adjuncts at Burlington College in Vermont have been without a contract since their “yes” union vote in late 2014; their counterparts at Washington University in St. Louis have been at the table since April.

Still, adjunct activists say unions have gained momentum in recent months. Teresa Politano, president of the Rutgers part-time faculty union and a lecturer in journalism, said she attributed adjuncts’ contract successes to increased support from the full-time faculty and that they’re “hoping to use that alliance for future gains.”

Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy group, said she thinks the metro strategy -- which she called “very effective” -- is driving some of the growth. That’s because as adjunct networks expand at the local, regional and national levels, she said, there’s “more sharing of resources and advice and training on how to negotiate more effectively.”

Going forward, Maisto said, it’s important to make sure that many adjuncts’ goal of eliminating a “predominantly contingent” faculty hiring system doesn’t get lost.

“There is always the danger that short-term gains will obstruct the long-term goals of quality and equality that are really most in the interest of the profession of teaching and the quality of education for students,” she said.

Robin Sowards, an adjunct instructor of linguistics and a full-time organizer for the Steelworkers, said the two most important issues for adjunct faculty members arguably are always job security and pay. Regarding pay, he said, all these first contracts make significant improvements but none have ensured equal pay for equal work on a pro rata basis, meaning that an adjunct would get paid the same to teach a course as would any other faculty member. That’s a goal of many part-time instructors who say they’re drastically underpaid in comparison to their full-time colleagues.

On job security, Sowards said, all or most of these first contracts make some improvements to the general terms of contingent employment, but none establish a way out of it entirely. Obviously longer-term contracts, such as those of one to three years, “are better than semester-to-semester contracts, but longer-term contracts palliate the symptoms rather than curing the disease.”

Of course, Sowards, added, such contracts are platforms on which to build. It’s not reasonable to expect that all a union’s problems would be solved in its first contract, he said, but this crop of agreements “represent strong steps in the right direction.”


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