More than a year after the Service Employees International Union announced that it was seeking to organize adjunct professors across metro areas, the American Federation of Teachers is going public with its own city-wide organizing campaign, in Philadelphia. At the same time, the SEIU has announced it also is seeking to organize adjuncts across Philadelphia, among a host of other U.S. cities. While it’s unclear how the metro unions may work alongside each other in the same city, adjuncts and their advocates say there’s enough room in the city of Brotherly Love for both.
“Contingent faculty often teach in multiple schools, and it makes sense to form a union that reflects the full territory that its members work within,” said Jennie Shanker, the daughter of former AFT leader Al Shanker and a member of AFT’s new United Academics of Philadelphia. Shanker teaches art as an adjunct at Temple University, the University of the Arts and Moore College of Art and Design. Like so many other adjuncts, Shanker’s experienced last-minute course cancelations and relatively low per-course pay compared to tenure-line colleagues, and thinks a metro union will help change the way area institutions treat part-time instructors.
United Academics, launched in November, is currently a professional organization offering an undisclosed number of adjuncts professional development and advocacy. Members include graduate employees and full-time and part-time adjuncts teaching at institutions such as: Temple University; Moore College of Art and Design; the University of Pennsylvania; Bryn Mawr College, Swarthmore College; Community College of Philadelphia; Villanova University; and St. Joseph’s University.
But the body is angling to become a city-wide bargaining unit under a common contract onto which individual campuses could sign. The idea is that by organizing the city’s estimated 15,000 adjuncts into a single unit, the union could drive up compensation and make for better working conditions across the city.
“The fact is that today’s academia is supported by highly qualified and well respected teachers who are very poorly treated, given the importance of their role in society and their level of expertise,” Shanker said, noting there's been a "huge level of support" for United Academics. Changing adjuncts' working conditions ultimately means students get a better education -- “what everyone wants.”
Currently, AFT also is working to organize adjuncts at individual campuses in Philadelphia. The nation’s largest education union already represents adjuncts and full-time faculty at the Community College of Philadelphia, as well as at Moore College, in the same unit. It also represents full-time faculty at Temple University. Organizers won’t say which campuses they’re targeting for new unions, citing concerns about the employment security of adjuncts working at those institutions. But they say they’ve been on the ground for about a year, and that adjuncts in the region reached out to AFT to organize there.
"Our metro strategy is premised on valuing the diverse nature of the work and being creative in the ways we organize people to fight for adjunct equity,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in an email interview. “In some places, organizing for a contract will be the path to equity. In other places, places like Philadelphia, collective bargaining may be the end goal, but we can organize and provide important supports and opportunities for professional development that will help adjunct faculty become even more successful in the classroom while simultaneously empowering them in the workplace."
AFT’s strategy is similar to that of Adjunct Action, SEIU’s campaign to organize adjuncts across multiple U.S. cities.  It started in Washington, with adjuncts forming unions at George Washington, American and Georgetown universities, in addition to Montgomery College in Maryland. Adjuncts at the University of the District of Columbia have filed a petition for a union vote with the Public Employee Relations Board and organizing efforts are under way at other institutions in the area. SEIU has said that such a campus-by-campus approach eventually could lead to a metro union, with a city-wide contract and – maybe – health insurance options, work space and other benefits for members.
SEIU campaigns were launched next in Boston, where Tufts University adjuncts recently voted to form a union, and a Bentley University bid was narrowly defeated; Los Angeles, where adjuncts at Whittier College voted to form a union and their counterparts at the University of La Verne have filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union election; and Seattle, where Pacific Lutheran University adjuncts are awaiting a national NLRB decision on the university's challenge to its bid , which was approved by a local board. Organizing drives are happening at other campuses in all three cities.
And most recently, Adjunct Action said it was expanding to Baltimore, Connecticut, New York City, San Francisco, St. Louis, Minneapolis-St. Paul – and Philadelphia. Like AFT, SEIU said it was too soon to list the specific campuses they're targeting there.
Christopher Honey, a spokesman for SEIU in Washington, said he hadn’t heard about AFT’s Philadelphia campaign, but wasn’t surprised that other unions were using the metro approach.
“It’s good strategy that recognizes the reality that adjunct faculty don’t just teach at one institution,” he said, adding it was too soon to tell how SEIU or AFT might work with or alongside one another in Philadelphia.
Honey noted that such campaigns take time. Although the metro strategy is taking off, in large part due to social media that helps organizers connect with adjuncts and share information about union drives, it’s been some 10 years in the making. George Washington adjuncts, the first to organize with SEIU in the Washington area, did so in 2004.
“It’s a decade-long overnight success,” he said of the metro effort.
AFT also says it’s too soon to tell what, if any, collaboration between the two unions might look like in Philadelphia.
Collaboration or not, national adjunct activists, including Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, said the double effort can only help Philadelphia-area adjuncts by offering them something novel: choice.
“I think it's a good thing when more than one union shows an interest in organizing contingent faculty. It's really important that contingent faculty decide how and with whom they want to organize, and I'd expect the unions to be ready and willing to listen to what contingent faculty think and want, and more importantly, to act in good faith.”
Among faculty union friends and colleagues, Maisto added, there’s a consensus that there’s room for more than one union per city.
“I think that the leaders in unions are increasingly recognizing that the process should be driven as much by coordination and cooperation as much as healthy competition,” she said. Unions that recognize the larger goal of organizing – improving the working conditions of adjuncts – stand the best chance of “winning the loyalty” of thousands of new members, she said.
Across the country, AFT already represents thousands of adjuncts, but typically in the same bargaining units as their tenure-line colleagues. That’s been a point of contention for some adjunct activists, who say that tenure-line faculty interests dictate union agendas . Asked how if that’s been a factor in the Philadelphia drive -- where private institutions are a major part of the campaign, and only non-tenure-track faculty can organize at private colleges and universities due to the 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision NLRB v. Yeshiva University  that effectively bars tenure-line faculty unionization at privates – AFT said no. (Moore College's union was excluded from this ruling, according to AFT.)
“There's a reason that the AFT is the largest union for adjunct faculty, and the accomplishments of our affiliates demonstrate that reason,” Weingarten said. “From the Community College of Philadelphia to the City College of San Francisco, we've been fighting nonstop to give adjunct faculty a voice on the job and bargain for fair working conditions. And from Philadelphia to San Francisco, we've yielded incredible results.”