Adjunct advocacy: Unionization considered

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Steps are being taken at Washington University to unionize adjunct professors and the results are encouraging SLU adjunct faculty to do the same.  The Service Employees International Union Local 1 has already filed a petition with the federal government’s National Labor Relations Board for a union election.  The petition makes the Wash U adjuncts the first to reach this step in unionizing adjunct faculty in the St. Louis area.

Being an adjunct professor means that one works as a part-time professor when the full-time professors are already teaching multiple classes and have no more room in their schedule for another class.  Adjunct professors are not granted tenure for their teaching time.  This creates a lack of job security and does not insulate them from low wages.

Adjuncts may have worked 15 years at SLU and still have no tenure.  They are usually employed per semester meaning their contracts with the University can end rather suddenly.  Adjuncts make very low wages due to their replaceability.  However, adjuncts are usually not expected to perform all of the roles that full-term professors are like administrative responsibilities.

Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the organization aiding the Wash U adjuncts in their pursuit of a union, is working in other cities too with its Adjunct Action campaign.  The campaign has eleven branches in Washington, New York, Connecticut, and Vermont, and cities such as D.C., Los Angeles, and Boston.  Tufts University adjunct faculty has seen concessions towards the right to unionize and contractual changes too.

Tufts University is a private research university located in Medford, Mass., outside of Boston.  Adjuncts at Tufts have negotiated for a 22 percent pay increase, increased job security, and now are able to apply for employee benefits including healthcare, retirement options, and tuition reimbursement for those who have taught at least three courses over an academic year.

SLU has over 1,300 faculty members that are instructional employees, and about 40 percent of those instructors would be considered adjuncts- a similar percentage to Wash U’s adjunct percentage- but higher than the 35 percent of adjuncts at Tufts University that underwent the contract changes.

Adjunct professors often work for low wages due to the high number of PhD holders graduating and struggling to find employment.  Many of these graduates discover that they cannot find full-time or tenured tracks to join, and are being pushed into adjunct positions to cover their expenses from extended learning.

Back in January, staff on the House of Representatives’ Education and the Workforce Committee discovered that 98 percent of adjunct faculty members responded to a survey felt that they had been “missing opportunities to better serve their students because of demands on their schedule.”

These demands occur due to the large number of adjuncts teaching and working multiple jobs to supplement their income; including taking multiple adjunct positions at multiple colleges.  However, some adjuncts responded in the report that they were working to supplement their pay from another full-time position.

The report also noted, “The trend should be of concern to policymakers both because of what it means for the living standards and work lives of those individuals we expect to educate the next generation of scientists, entrepreneurs, and other highly skilled workers, and what it may mean for the quality of higher education itself.”

The yes/no vote on the unionizing of the Wash U adjuncts will take place in sometime between late November and mid-December this year.  A simple majority will cause Washington University to go into contract negotiations with the newly constructed union.