• November 23, 2014

'Metro' Unionizing Strategy Is Viewed as a Means to Empower Adjunct Faculty

Officials of the Service Employees International Union are touting their effort to unionize adjunct faculty members at all colleges in this city as a model for similar campaigns in other metropolitan areas, and envision using such an organizing strategy to greatly improve the pay and benefits afforded such instructors in those labor markets.

At a forum held here on Saturday at the union's national headquarters, organizers for the SEIU's Local 500 discussed how they had unionized adjunct faculty members at two of this city's largest private colleges, American and George Washington Universities, and appear poised to do the same at Georgetown University early next year.

They described such locally focused organizing strategies as a means of getting community groups behind their cause and using the market forces that previously had worked against them to their advantage.

"Clearly what we are trying to do is create a market solution" to improving the lives of adjuncts, said Anne McLeer, Local 500's director of research and strategic planning.

In the absence of such citywide labor organizing, she explained, colleges can easily find applicants for adjunct teaching positions willing to work for whatever the institutions offer, giving administrators the upper hand in dealing with adjuncts who want better pay or improved working conditions.

But in markets where most colleges' adjuncts are unionized, she argued, all colleges come under market pressure to meet adjuncts' demands, to avoid losing talent to colleges where such instructors have negotiated better pay, benefits, and working conditions through collective bargaining.

In the long term, Ms. McLeer said, she envisions adjuncts at colleges throughout Washington working under the terms of a common contract that affords them job security across campuses and requires each of the colleges that employ them to pay into their benefit package. The union, she said, could maintain a centralized database for the market listing adjunct positions and their pay, and could set standards dealing with adjuncts' pay and working conditions.

"We will, in fact, bring this entire industry to the table one day," predicted David Rodich, SEIU Local 500's executive director.

At Saturday's forum on part-time faculty unions, Local 500's city-based organizing strategy was praised as promising by other advocates for adjunct instructors, including Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, and Gary D. Rhoades, a former general secretary of the American Association of University Professors who played a key role in its union organizing.

"This sort of 'metro strategy' that SEIU is engaged in is so smart and so needed," said Mr. Rhoades, who is now director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education, a virtual think tank.

Wayne Langley, director of the higher-education division of SEIU Local 615, which organizes workers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, said, "We need an approach that is bigger than any one institution. If we continue to fight institution by institution, we will not win."

Reaching and Stretching

SEIU Local 500 has been on a winning streak in its efforts to organize adjunct faculty members in the Washington area. It persuaded part-time faculty members at George Washington University to vote to unionize in 2005 and those at American University to follow suit this year. In 2008 it organized part-time instructors at Montgomery College, a public institution with campuses in three of Washington's Maryland suburbs.

Together, George Washington University and American University account for 1,650, or more than half, of the roughly 3,100 part-time faculty members working at colleges in the District of Columbia. SEIU Local 500 organizers expect adjunct faculty members at Georgetown University, which employs about 900 part-time instructors and has not been openly resisting the adjunct-unionization campaign that the SEIU has under way there, to soon vote to form a collective-bargaining unit.

The local SEIU organizers also are optimistic about their prospects for organizing adjunct faculty members at other private colleges here such as the Catholic University of America and Howard University, and at the University of the District of Columbia, which is public. They see little hope of expanding into Washington's suburbs in Virginia because of that state's right-to-work law, which precludes unions from compelling employees to become dues-paying members, but they see the unionization of part-timers at Montgomery College as just the first step in an effort to organize adjuncts in Washington's suburbs in Maryland.

Although the effort eventually could extend to the for-profit colleges that serve the Washington area, the prospect of that happening appears much further off. "We haven't quite figured out what the actual campaign [at for-profit colleges] will look like," Michelle Healy, who has studied the issue as organizing director for the SEIU's public division, said during a breakout discussion. "We know one thing," she said. "It is too big for us to do on our own."

Mr. Langley of Local 615, which has organized unions representing custodial workers at for-profit colleges in New England, told people at the forum that organizing employees at such colleges can in some ways be easier than organizing those at public or nonprofit private colleges because the for-profits are unable to claim that the unionization of their workers will hinder them from serving some higher cause. "In the for-profit world, there are no pretenses," he said.

Recruiting Allies

Much of Saturday's forum was devoted to the question of how to enlist campus and community groups in the campaign to improve adjuncts' pay and working conditions.

Students have rallied behind adjuncts by producing videos in support of their unionization campaigns at American University and Georgetown University.

In a panel discussion, Ethan Miller, an American University senior who helped drum up support for the unionization of adjuncts as an organizer for the Student Worker Alliance, a campus organization, said such efforts were intended to send adjuncts the message that "if anything were to happen, students would be behind them 100 percent." Students, he said, can be especially helpful to efforts to organize adjunct unions because they may be in a much better position to identify and contact adjunct instructors on a campus than outsiders from a labor union.

K.B. Brower, who coordinates the campus activities of United Students Against Sweatshops, argued that the "living-wage campaigns" her national group has organized on behalf of colleges' housekeepers and janitors could easily be mounted on behalf of adjunct instructors who did not earn enough to live on. She said students who are made aware of adjuncts' pay and working conditions, and how adjuncts generally are not compensated for many of the services they provide to students outside the classroom, "are going to want to get involved. I promise you that."

Ms. Maisto of the New Faculty Majority argued that advocates for adjunct faculty members needed to reach out to, and find common ground with, other low-wage college employees whose unions can support the adjuncts' cause. "We have to think of them as our colleagues on campus," she said. "It is so critically important on campus."

Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at Georgetown's Public Policy Institute and a member of the Georgetown University Part-Time Faculty Organizing Committee, said "many of us seem to have a tin ear—indifference—to the plight of others." He argued that "we need to realize that adjuncts are not the only group of people who have been propelled down the ladder of economic oppression."

Mr. Rhoades of the Center for the Future of Higher Education said the organizers of adjunct instructors in metropolitan areas also needed to reach out to organizations in their community, to promote the idea that colleges with adequately paid instructors "are part of solving the problems of their city."

"The reality," he said, "is we have power if we will take it."

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