Adjuncts Embrace Unions in Bid for Stability, Wage Boost

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By Tyrone Richardson

Oct. 24 — David Wilder would like the higher salary and job security enjoyed by tenured college faculty.

But this semester, the adjunct professor moonlights as a banquet server when he’s not juggling the six classes he’s teaching at three separate colleges in the Cleveland area. Wilder’s attempt to make ends meet comes without college-paid health insurance, an elevated pay grade or other perks traditionally attached to a coveted tenure position, he said.

“It’s enjoyable work, but it’s not a very good job, and that’s the problem,” Wilder told Bloomberg BNA. “I’m thinking that is why a lot adjuncts do this job. You’re trained and you studied for years to get multiple graduate degrees, and it’s hard to just throw all that away.”

Wilder, an arts professor for 18 years, is part of the United Steelworkers’ effort to organize colleges and universities in its East Ohio region. The USW is one of several unions waging campaigns across the U.S. to organize non-tenure-track faculty, addressing issues such as wages, predictable course loads and having a voice in the institution’s decision-making process.

The organizing has resulted in wins and losses in recent years. The representation election wins have followed with ratifying first labor contracts that address compensation—including guaranteed pay for canceled courses—benefits and professional development procedures.

There have also been changes on the federal labor law front, including a recent National Labor Relations Board ruling that allows graduate students to organize. Some university administrators have pushed back from union organizing drives, arguing their workforce would be best without unions.

Organizing Expected to Multiply

In 2015, there were at least 21 new collective bargaining units of non-tenure-track faculty at private colleges and universities in the U.S. That's according to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York. In 2012, the organization identified a benchmark of 77 private sector units. About half of the 77 units that year were tenured and tenure-track faculty bargaining units, according to the group.

The center predicts a comparable growth of new private sector faculty bargaining units in 2016 as was seen in 2015, William A. Herbert, executive director of the center told Bloomberg BNA.

“There’s been a change in the composition of the faculty,” Herbert said. “The tenure track faculty made up 80 percent of the college faculty in 1969, and now there’s been a reversal in the percentage. Now they represent about 33.5 percent of the faculty.”

It is harder for the employer to argue that some non-tenured faculty are managers and thus not eligible to organize under the National Labor Relations Act, Herbert said.

“The increase in the use of contingent faculty has substantially undermined the legal viability of the defense under the Supreme Court’s 1980 decision in NLRB v. Yeshiva University that faculty are managerial,” Herbert said in an Oct. 19 e-mail to Bloomberg BNA.

Tenured faculty at institutions with a tenure system has decreased from 56 percent in 1993 to 48 percent in 2014, according to the Education Department’s Integrated Postsecondary Education data.

University Run Like ‘Large Business.’

The groundswell of organizing is a response to a higher education business model similar to some corporations, said Terry W. Hartle, the senior vice president for government relations at the American Council on Education, which advocates on behalf of its private and public college and university members.

“As college and university leaders run themselves like large businesses, they’re making the sort of decisions that businesses have to make,” he said. “As we see an increasing effort for more market flexibility, they will make more use of part-time faculty than before.” This is likely to encourage more interest in collective bargaining, Hartle said.

Some school administrators have pushed back. For example, the Service Employees International Union’s effort to organize about 100 full- and part-time faculty at Minneapolis College of Art and Design received a tepid response from the school’s president, Jay Coogan.

College Resists ‘Third Party’ Involvement

The Minneapolis school opposes “the introduction of a union and the changes that a third party would bring to our governance and the relationship between our administration and our faculty,” Coogan said in a statement to Bloomberg BNA.

SEIU Local 284 won the NLRB election there Oct. 20. MCAD is part of the SEIU’s campaign to organize thousands of full- and part-time non-tenure faculty at several colleges in the Twin Cities. Focusing on a specific region mirrors the SEIU’s successful strategy that resulted in representation elections and collective bargaining agreements at colleges in Boston and Washington, D.C.

Wins would build on the SEIU’s organizing of more than 13,000 part- and full-time university faculty members since 2013. That includes faculty at the University of Chicago, Duke University and George Washington University.

The campaigns are part of Adjunct Action and Faculty Forward, the SEIU’s national campaigns to improve job security, wages and benefits at institutions of higher learning.

University Faculty Are ‘Fed Up.’

In addition to SEIU and USW, there’s been success by unions such as the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association and American Association of University Professors, which focus on public institutions. Public faculty differ from those at private schools, which come under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Act. Organizing at public institutions is controlled by individual state labor laws.

The AFT affiliate, for example, won an election in November 2015 to represent 1,400 adjuncts at partially state-funded Temple University in Philadelphia. The win added to the union’s existing representation of about 1,400 full-time faculty members and librarians at the university.

Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, said contingent faculty are “fed up with wages and the inequality on campus.” Of the union's 1.4 million members, more than 100,000 are full- and part-time non-tenure faculty.

“As the disinvestment of public dollars in higher education continues, and the reliance by colleges and universities on adjunct and contingent faculty nationwide increases, more and more workers want a union as a vehicle for a voice, decent wages and better conditions for their teaching and research,” she told Bloomberg BNA.

Higher-Ed Organizing Stumbles

There have also been some failed elections. One example is the SEIU’s loss in 2015 of an election to represent 668 adjunct faculty members at Webster University in the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves, Mo.

The unions are up against some resistance from school administrators, who claim some faculty are ineligible for representation because they share management duties. Some schools, such as Duquesne University, have also claimed religious exemption under the NLRA to try to thwart a union drive. The issue remains before the National Labor Relations Board.

Point Park University in Pittsburgh made the management-duties argument in an appeal to the NLRB that lasted a decade. In July 2015, the school ended its fight to halt an election for full-time faculty to be represented by Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh Local 38061, an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America.

The university said at the time that the administration at Point Park “does not wish to spend any resources on a potentially costly legal battle.” The USW represents a unit of adjuncts at the school, which Nov. 9 ratified a first collective bargaining agreement.

Duquesne and Point Park University are part of the USW’s strategic campaign to organize several schools in Pittsburgh, an area also home to the union’s international headquarters. Organizing groups in one region raises standards for all in the area, USW organizer Robin J. Sowards told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 17.

“Wages can be depressed for the region. When that happens an employer will say they’re not increasing since the other guy also isn’t doing that,” he said. “That’s why we have to do this on a regional basis. The individual employers are not bad, but they’re responding to the specific labor market.”

Lessons of Building Success

A similar result has played out with SEIU successfully organizing several higher education institutions in Boston, including Tufts University, Boston University and Northeastern University.

Acquiring union representation was a big victory for people like Elizabeth Lemons, a longtime religion adjunct professor at Tufts.

Lemons told Bloomberg BNA that teaching at Tufts was challenging prior to SEIU representation because wages had been slow to increase since a freeze instituted during the recession of 2008.

“For me, it was about pay parity, reasonable job security and a climate of respect was a big motivation to join the union,” she said.

The first contract, which expires June 30, 2017, includes a pay raise of as much as 40 percent for part-time faculty. The pact provides a minimum of $7,300 per course and includes a formal evaluation system. Such contract guarantees help minimize distractions that take focus off from teaching students, Lemons said.

“This helps create an optimal student learning condition and it gives a level of respect for those working in higher education,” she said.

The SEIU’s representation of Tufts faculty has grown to include a bargaining unit of full-time lecturers. The university Oct. 19 released a written statement lauding its relationship with the union.

“Our negotiations with the unions for part-time and full-time lecturers have been characterized by a spirit of professionalism and cooperation toward a common objective of providing an exceptional educational experience for the University’s students,” according to the statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tyrone Richardson in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at

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