When adjunct faculty members at Pace University voted in 2004 to unionize, they were at the forefront of a movement among part-timers at private colleges across New York in particular , but also at public and private institutions beyond.
Yet, three years later and still without a contract, Pace adjuncts are learning first-hand how difficult getting a first contract can be.
Serious negotiations on the most substantive issues at play -- money, job security and health benefits – have not even begun, said John Pawlowski, president of the Union of Adjunct Faculty at Pace, affiliated with the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) and the American Federation of Teachers.
“They have done just enough that we cannot accuse them of not bargaining in good faith or superficial bargaining. They’ve just managed to stay above that threshold,” Pawlowski said – explaining that the negotiations have centered on less essential issues like union office space, pay during jury duty, leave time and use of the university e-mail system.
Currently, Pawlowski said Pace adjuncts are being paid on average about $2,500 per course, which they say doesn't go very far in the New York City metropolitan area where they work and live. They are seeking parity with full-time faculty, Pawlowski explained. "What that basically means is we should be paid the same as they are for standing in front of the classroom." (Pawlowski said what's still undetermined, however, is what proportion of a full-time faculty member's salary is derived from teaching -- the amount that adjuncts are arguing they should likewise receive for their time in the classroom -- as opposed to research and service). The union is also seeking health care benefits for adjuncts.
Meanwhile, the university is trying to exclude some part-timers from the bargaining unit that any contract would eventually cover in federal court , in a bid to overturn a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) order  that supported the union's (broader) interpretation of who's eligible. (And, in a parallel court case  of note, Pace is likewise seeking to overturn a NLRB order favorable to a union  representing mechanics and drivers that the university refuses to recognize, unlawfully, as the board says, because of its concerns about the union election.)
“They’re pouring money into legal dodges,” said Julie Berman, an organizer with NYSUT. “It’s not that they think they can win necessarily….but that these people will go away, if we drag it out long enough.”
Christopher Cory, Pace’s spokesman, disagrees with the union’s argument that the university is stalling. “There has been constructive movement on a number of substantive issues,” he said.
“First contracts take a long time at universities.” Such lengthy periods of negotiations, Cory said, “seem to be, if not the dominant pattern, at least a pattern, in first contracts.”
In a written September update on union issues , Yvonne M. Ramirez, Pace’s vice president for human resources, said the university would continue bargaining in good faith with the adjunct union. The university, which met with the adjunct union September 6 and has another meeting planned for October 17, is currently at work on a counter-proposal, Cory said.
The protracted struggle at Pace could very well be instructive for other burgeoning adjunct unions looking for that first contract. But it's not just the negotiations that may seem stalled or at least slow -- the recognition fight isn't over either.
The dispute about which adjunct faculty members are eligible and which are not is now under consideration in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In a nutshell, Pace argues that only those adjunct faculty who are eligible to vote in union elections (with the eligibility determined based on courses taught over two academic years) should be included in the bargaining unit – which would have the effect, union members say, of nearly halving the union’s size and restricting access to bargaining rights even among actively teaching adjuncts in their first year at Pace.
"The university believes that the same standard should apply for determining adjunct voter eligibility and eligibility for inclusion in the bargaining unit. It is unfair to now include in the unit potentially hundreds of adjuncts that were excluded from voting in the election," Pace's Ramirez wrote in her September memo.
“Consistent with the law applicable to disputes of this kind, we will not recognize NYSUT as the bargaining representative of the disputed adjuncts or bargain with the union regarding their terms and conditions of employment until the unit composition issue is resolved,” Ramirez wrote. “Notwithstanding what NYSUT might allege, this appeal process is well-established and perfectly legitimate."
"Pace continues to engage in good faith bargaining with respect to the university’s adjuncts who are not in dispute.”
Moving On or Standing Still?
“Legally, they have the right to take this to the Supreme Court, but we question their moral right to do that,” NYSUT’s Berman said of the court case involving the disputed adjuncts.
“They do the exact same work [as full-time faculty] in the classroom, and they’re paid a fraction of that in money and benefits, and, as far as we can see, an even smaller fraction in respect.”
Pointing to two recent successes for adjunct faculty unions in New York, at the New School  and New York University , she said that, in both those cases, universities faced an imminent strike threat. "They were going to walk out to show universities that they were really that serious….to some extent to shame the university into getting an agreement,” Berman said. While she hopes it doesn’t come to a strike at Pace, nor, she said, is the option off the table.
Yet, there may be reasons to think that a more amicable resolution to the stand-off can be expected (fairly) soon. Pawlowski, president of Pace’s faculty union, said he is optimistic about the chances of getting a contract -- hopefully within a year -- after a change in the leadership of the university this summer. Pace’s former president, David A. Caputo, retired  under not-so-friendly fire. Stephen J. Friedman stepped in  as interim president in June.
“We have a new president who was dean of the law school,” Pawlowski said, “and we’re optimistic that he will strive to push onward to resolve this issue.”
"I had a meeting with him and he did discuss a desire to get this contract in place and put it in the past and move on to other things."
"The first contract really becomes a template for what comes later," said Richard Boris, director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions , at the City University of New York’s Hunter College. "These are prudential principles that are enshrined in a contract and they have to work for both parties. Now, if one of the parties is unstable or if the negotiators don't have license because of the instability, it becomes very, very difficult to finish the job."
“They don’t have a permanent president, they had a president who was in deep trouble -- is this the environment in which a contract can be negotiated?”