Contingent faculty to vote on union: Non-tenure track professors drawn into debate

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Contingent faculty to vote on union: Non-tenure track professors drawn into debate

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During a rally held on Thursday, April 14, one year after their movement began, the adjuncts and non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty filed a petition to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in order to hold an election to unionize. However, the inclusion of NTT faculty has sparked a debate among the contingent faculty on what faculty members should be included in this union.

According to Sherri Anderson-Gutierrez, an NTT professor in the languages, literatures and cultures department, the University had one week to decide on whether they would remain neutral in these processes. She said that declaring neutrality would mean the administration accepting the terms of their unionizing and allowing for union elections without further. The University has decided not to remain neutral.

In an email sent to SLU students, faculty and staff, Pestello explained the University’s position, saying: “A “neutrality agreement” would restrict communication and limit the University’s participation in what we think should be a respectful dialogue about whether adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty unionization is the right choice for SLU at this time.” He added, “Agreeing to restrict information that can help inform an individual’s decision about this important issue is antithetical to the environment we are cultivating.”

Since the University has decided to engage in this discussion, a pre-election hearing will be held on Friday, April 22, in order to determine who will be included in this bargaining unit, and then that will decide who will be eligible to vote in the election to unionize. The group needed a 30 percent rate of interest from the rest of the contingent faculty in order to file and call for a vote.

“There will be lawyers on both sides, and each side will present an argument,” Anderson-Gutierrez said. “It’s a mediated negotiation of who is going to be included.”

Since not all adjunct and NTT faculty work in the same conditions, the hearing will help establish which types of faculty members best fit the contingent label. For example, Anderson-Gutierrez said that adjunct professors from the law school aren’t necessarily included in the discussion because they are not necessarily contingent – often, they are not reliant on their professorship as a means to live, but rather teach as a philanthropy requirement.

Traditionally, the movement’s discourse has focused mainly on the plight of the adjuncts. In fact, in the progress that the group has achieved in the past year, it has been mainly improvements for the adjunct faculty. For example, in response to the adjuncts’ critiques, the administration reduced their parking rates, created a new course-cancellation policy, established an adjunct orientation and, most notably, increased compensation for certain adjuncts ranging from either $200 to $700, depending on how long they’ve been with SLU and in what college they teach.

However, in recent months, the language has changed from adjunct to contingent faculty, which aims to be inclusive of the NTT faculty. One NTT faculty member, Christina Bagwill, was surprised to find out that she had been corralled into the effort to unionize. Additionally, she is not sure why she is being grouped with adjunct faculty, whom she says have very different contracts compared to NTT faculty.

“I am a full-time faculty. I have all of the benefits that a tenure track has as far as tuition remission, insurance and retirement benefits. That is not what happens with the adjuncts,” Bagwill said.

However, Anderson-Gutierrez said that the NTT are lumped in with the adjuncts because they too are contingent faculty. She said that since they have nine-month contracts, there is still little job security, like adjuncts.

“We only have nine-month contracts, which are mostly non-renewable.  We would like to bargain for renewable and multi-year contracts. Can you imagine not knowing every May whether you have a job?” said Anderson-Gutierrez. She continued to explain that there are different benefits that the union would be fighting for, including being eligible for certain types of grants, resources and having and inclusion in faculty senate. In addition, she said that tenure-track professors earn $10 to $20 thousand more than NTT.

“The adjuncts, it’s very clear: they would like more permanent contracts, more compensation and better working conditions, such as offices and the equipment they need to do their job,” Anderson-Gutierrez said. “It’s more nuanced things than for the NTT.”

While Bagwill agreed that NTT might not have all of the access to research and other benefits that tenure-track professors have, she countered that the NTT position is just as stable. She said that in the faculty manual, it outlines that there is a six-month probationary period for NTT hires, but after that period, the University must go through a counseling-like process and allow for a NTT professor to adjust his or her behavior and correct their mistake. If the problem is not corrected, then the professor may be removed.

“It’s not tenure, but we are protected under your typical labor laws in the state,” Bagwill added.

On top of her disagreement with Anderson-Gutierrez’s claim of NTT contract instability, Bagwill also said that drawing a line between full-time faculty can be divisive. She said that dividing the faculty up and grouping them goes against SLU’s mission of inclusivity.

“If the union would have come in and said ‘We are going to fight for all of you. We are going to unionize tenure-track, NTT and adjunct, and we are going to fight for all of you to have equal representation so that we can support the teaching mission and the research mission,’ this might be a different fight,” Bagwill said.

Bagwill has started her own movement called “NTT Says No.” She has been emailing other NTT faculty and hopes that she can get more backing.

“I’m really hoping that the University will fight to pull us [NTT faculty] out of that and ask for a direct petition of the full-time non-tenure-track to ask if we want to be included or not. That’s your best bet of getting a fair consensus of whether we want to be there or not,” she said.

Regardless of that decision, an election will still be held within 30 days of the hearing. It will take place in the form of secret, mail-in ballots over a two-week period.

In order to gain union representation, a majority of the votes cast by the contingent faculty will determine whether or not that representation is attained. As Pestello explained in his email, no matter how many faculty members are eligible to vote, if 100 voters turned in their votes, 51 votes for or against would determine the outcome.

Until then, the discussion will continue on who will be included in this bargaining unit. Bagwill concluded,  “April 22 will be the defining day.”