Wave of Contingent-Faculty Organizing Sweeps onto Campuses

Fed up with low pay and cuts in courses, the adjunct faculty at the College of St. Rose in Albany, New York, last month voted 175 to 61 to unionize. Photo: SEIU Local 200United.

A wave of organizing is sweeping contingent faculty. Below, a list of current campaigns in 24 states and D.C. shows how far and wide this wave has spread.

The new thing is the Metro Strategy, where multiple institutions are targeted at once so a whole regional workforce becomes unionized. This takes advantage of how contingent (also known as adjunct) faculty members typically commute among various campuses, facing equally bad working conditions everywhere they go.

The goal is a master contract for the workforce. The Service Employees (SEIU) is taking the lead in this, but other unions are stepping up too.

COMMON THREADS

Several things should be clear from this roundup. First is the obvious massive presence of SEIU. Its decision to implement the Metro Strategy has caught the attention of other unions and other parts of the contingent faculty movement.

Of course, any significant struggle has its own internal struggles, and this one is no exception. Given the several election losses and petition withdrawals by SEIU, serious discussion has emerged about its particular application of the otherwise broadly accepted Metro Strategy. Which comes first, union-building or winning elections? How do you balance long-term and short-term goals? How do you get faculty, who are often angry and afraid, to step up and fight? Is there a “best way” to implement the Metro Strategy? How important are coalitions among unions? How about community coalitions?

Albany Adjuncts Unionize

by Jon Flanders

Fed up with low pay and cuts in courses, the adjunct faculty at the College of St. Rose in Albany, New York, last month voted 175 to 61 to join Service Employees Local 200.

Debt-strapped students may not know this, but a huge percentage of college instructors across the U.S. are adjuncts, meaning their jobs are insecure: they’re often hired course by course, semester by semester. Despite long hours their pay is low—an NPR report pegged the average pay at $20,000-$25,000 a year.

Only 42 percent of the instructors at the College of St. Rose are full-time, according to College Factual, a college comparison website—putting St. Rose below even the national average of 51 percent. “What is This, University of 7-11?” the site asks.

Adjunct and organizer Bradley Russell says the union drive at St. Rose started in February 2014 with some emails he sent out to the all-school listserv. These got many interested replies from other adjuncts, many of whom became members of the organizing committee.

Russell, who had also been a leading activist in Occupy Albany, said two events spurred his decision to organize at St. Rose.

One was teaching a class on “Creating Social Justice” at St. Rose last fall. “I have guest speakers once a week,” he said. “Had three labor organizers talk over the semester. Got me thinking about my own situation.”

The other factor? One of his two classes was cancelled at the minute—“cutting my pay in half, and giving me some extra time.”

Second is the number of places where contingent faculty are self-organizing into non-standard groups and trying to act like a union—sometimes without either the structure of a collective bargaining law or the assistance of an affiliation with a union.

Third is the importance of state legislation. Evidently many of these groups are trying to shape legislation that will benefit them by setting standards for equal pay and job security, allowing them to access unemployment benefits, or bringing more contingents under a collective bargaining law.

Fourth is the variety of unions. It’s not just the traditional teacher unions—the Education Association (NEA), Teachers (AFT), and University Professors (AAUP)—joining this burst of activity, but also SEIU, the Steelworkers (USW), and the Newspaper Guild/Communications Workers (CWA).

A last thing to note is the way religiously affiliated institutions are tying up unionization efforts by claiming a Hobby Lobby-type exemption from having to obey the law—in this case, the law covering collective bargaining.

As impressive as this list is, we have included only campaigns of new organizing, either seeking union recognition or acting like a union in hopes of winning collective bargaining rights in the future. We have not included places where contingent faculty already have recognized unions waging issue or contract campaigns. Also, most of us in the movement consider graduate employees to also be contingent faculty when hired to do that or research, but they really have evolved a separate movement, and are not included here.

A ROUNDUP OF CAMPAIGNS

California: In Los Angeles, SEIU 721 is behind elections already won at Whittier College and Laguna College of Art and Design, and is organizing at a number of other art colleges. However, after petitions were filed at Loyola Marymount and Laverne Universities, the union had to pull out for lack of support. In the San Francisco Bay Area, SEIU 1021 is behind elections won at the San Francisco Art Institute, Mills College, and the California College of Art, and is organizing at other schools as well.

Colorado: A regional coalition of the AFT and AAUP is guiding organizing at Colorado State, University of Colorado at Boulder, and Front Range Community College, among other schools in the Denver-Colorado Springs-Boulder area. Lacking a state collective bargaining law, organizers have done legislative work around job security and equal pay for community college faculty.

Connecticut: Regional SEIU has begun organizing from a base in the community colleges.

Florida: Not a single contingent faculty member has bargaining rights, except those teaching over 50 percent time at the Florida University system. Nonetheless, there are two initiatives: the South Florida Adjunct Association, which is born out of Broward Community College but is pursuing a regional strategy, and a mostly Internet-based grouping called the Adjunct Faculty Union. Both are at the stage of linking people together and raising awareness.

Illinois: In Chicago, there are unions covering contingents in all the public sector and at two of the privates, Roosevelt and Columbia. The NEA/Illinois Education Association effort to organize East-West University, after years of unfair labor practices, was finally abandoned after the entirely contingent faculty was simply replaced. In the past year, a joint AFT-AAUP project succeeded in organizing the University of Illinois, Chicago, in a separate bargaining unit from tenure-track faculty, but bargaining together as a joint union. At University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, a unit has been established representing contingents who work over 50 percent, through card check. There was a successful election at St. Xavier, but it is being challenged on the basis of a religious exemption.

Maine: Two years ago SEIU gained representation of community college adjuncts.

Maryland-D.C.-Virginia: SEIU Local 500 has continued organizing begun some years ago with George Washington University, and has become the first Metro Strategy effort to actually gain a majority organization, in this case in the District of Columbia. They gained recognition at Georgetown, University of the District of Columbia, American University, and Howard University. This was the original SEIU effort that inspired national SEIU to adopt adjunct Metro Strategy organizing as a national campaign. The union has also moved into Maryland, where there is no general enabling legislation. There, it represents adjuncts at the only community college with a collective bargaining agreement, Montgomery College. SEIU Local 500 is building Coalition of Academic Labor (CAL) chapters at other community colleges, including two in Baltimore. It has also organized the private Maryland Institute of Art and is organizing at George Mason University in northern Virginia.

Massachusetts: Boston is where one of the very earliest attempts (1991-2001) at a Metro Strategy took place. The strategy has been resuscitated by SEIU and has achieved union victories at Leslie, Simmons, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Tufts, and Northeastern, but lost a heartbreaker by two votes at Bentley. Organizing continues at other private schools, including Boston College and Boston University.

Michigan: The passage of a “right to work” law has had an impact on adjunct bargaining units, creating confusion and uncertainty much like the legal changes in Wisconsin did.

Minnesota: In Minneapolis and St. Paul, SEIU won elections at Hamline University, lost one at University of St. Thomas, and pulled a petition at Macalester College. SEIU is also organizing contingents at the University of Minnesota.

Missouri: SEIU is organizing in St. Louis at Lindenwood University, East Central College, St. Louis Community College, and St. Louis University.

New Hampshire: SEIU has won representation at College of New Hampshire and Plymouth State.

New Mexico: A struggle widely publicized on social media has emerged at Northern New Mexico College, where the administration has gone rogue against the faculty and students. Another struggle is taking place at Santa Fe Community College. The union mostly visible here is AAUP.

New York: In New York City, an old campaign at Manhattanville College is still hung up because of the religious objection. Two for-profits have been organized in the last two years, one by AFT and one by the Newspaper Guild/CWA at Kaplan Language Schools. In the Capitol District (Albany), SEIU Local 200 United won an election at the College of St. Rose (see box). A vote at Marist College, where workers faced severe management opposition, did not go as well; the outcome is not yet determined, pending an NLRB ruling on charges and challenges. In the Buffalo area, adjuncts have begun organizing under the banner Buffalo Adjunct Movement (BAM!).

Ohio: Here, the public sector labor law explicitly excludes part-time faculty, but contingents have nevertheless been organizing themselves under the banner of the Ohio Part-Time Faculty Association (OPTFM) and the New Faculty Majority (NFM). Local groupings have been formed at Lakeland Community College and Cayuga County Community College in the Cleveland area. They are trying to act like a union while figuring out how to move forward and whether (and with whom) to affiliate. Also in Ohio, very recently, SEIU has come into the Cleveland area to begin circulating authorization cards at three private higher ed institutions.

Oregon: AFT and AAUP have organized a joint bargaining unit at the University of Oregon and are pressing a campaign at Oregon State, in Corvallis.

Pennsylvania: In Philadelphia, after some initial competition, AFT made an agreement with SEIU that it would handle the Metro Strategy there, given that all the organized higher ed faculty in the area were in AFT locals already. Under the banner of United Academics, as a regional organization, AFT is organizing at Temple, Haverford, Philadelphia University, Drexel, and Penn. In Pittsburgh, the USW-affiliated group at Duquesne University has been pursuing a regional strategy which has resulted in a successful election at Point Park University and a continuing effort at Robert Morris. Duquesne itself has claimed a religious exemption. The effort in Pittsburgh represents one of the healthiest Metro Strategy efforts, both because it relies on adjunct leadership and because it is part of a broader community union effort by the USW in Pittsburgh.

Rhode Island: Four hundred adjuncts at Community College of Rhode Island unionized with NEA in April.

Tennessee: Though public employees lack bargaining rights, the group United Campus Workers, affiliated with CWA, has members at campuses across the state fighting to boost adjuncts pay, and an ongoing minority-union organizing effort at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Texas: At the University of Texas in Austin, a state employees union affiliated with CWA has grown to substantial numbers and is trying to act like a union for adjuncts, although it doesn’t have official employer recognition or a collective bargaining law. A petition based in Texas, “Adjunct Justice,” calling for higher pay for adjuncts, has drawn thousands of signatures.

Vermont: In Burlington, SEIU has recently filed petitions for elections at Burlington and Champlain Colleges while continuing to organize at other private schools. The University of Vermont professional technical staff is in the middle of a drive with AFT, which already represents faculty there.

Washington: In Seattle, Adjuncts and Contingents Together (ACT), sponsored by SEIU Local 925, has had three successful elections, at Antioch University, the University of Seattle, and Pacific Lutheran. University of Seattle and Pacific Lutheran, both religious-affiliated institutions, are claiming religious exemptions. There is also a campaign at Gonzaga University in Spokane. AAUP is organizing at the University of Washington.

Wisconsin: Many bargaining units in Wisconsin had been newly certified to include contingent faculty at regional University of Wisconsin campuses when the recent legal changes restricted bargaining rights. This has thrown existing bargaining units into confusion and their future remains in doubt.

Helena Worthen and Joe Berry are veteran labor educators and contingent faculty activists.

CORRECTIONS AND UPDATES: This article originally stated that workers lost the election at Marist College. It has been updated to reflect that the outcome is not yet determined, pending charges and appeals. Efforts in Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Buffalo, New York, originally omitted from the piece, have been added. The paragraph that begins "As impressive as this list is..." has also been added.