Washington University adjunct faculty take a step toward unionization [St. Louis Post Dispatch]

washington univA group of Washington University adjunct instructors have taken a crucial step toward forming a union.

The Service Employees International Union Local 1 has filed a petition for a union election with the federal government on the instructors’ behalf.

The petition makes Washington University’s adjunct faculty the first such group in St. Louis to reach that milestone amid a larger nationwide push for higher pay and improved job security.

Adjuncts are typically part-time, low-wage faculty who teach classes when full-time instructors are already overloaded with courses.

Among their major complaints are low wages and a lack of job security. Adjuncts typically work on semester-long contracts, not knowing whether they will be asked to work beyond their current semester.

Leonard Perez, an administrator with the National Labor Relations Board for the St. Louis region, said his agency could hold a hearing between Washington University and the SEIU as early as Friday.

The hearing, Perez explains, would come only if the university challenges whether adjuncts have the proper standing for the SEIU to represent them.

The university could also go the other way, Perez said, and voluntarily agree to a union election. At that point, it would be a matter of scheduling the date and time of a secret ballot election.

Washington University Provost Holden Thorp said although the university has been aware of the effort to unionize for months, administrators have not yet decided how to respond to the petition.

“We are very mindful of the concerns our adjuncts have. We are always looking for new ways to help with (job security),” Thorp said. He added that Washington University typically offers adjuncts higher wages than other schools.

Also, WU administrators are considering creating space for adjuncts to hold office hours and granting them more input within their respective departments on which classes are taught, Thorp said.

Much of the noise surrounding the unionization of adjuncts has come from the SEIU’s Adjunct Action campaign.

The SEIU has said the campaign is meant to address the chronically poor working conditions adjuncts face.

Adjunct Action scored a major victory Friday when Tufts University agreed to a contract with roughly 200 part-time faculty guaranteeing them a 22 percent pay raise over the next three years. The contract also offers one-year contracts and a first crack at full-time openings.

Elizabeth Lemons, part-time instructor in Tufts’ religion department since 1999, said the yearlong effort to unionize was largely painless.

“I’d characterize the negotiations as nonadversarial and more geared toward problem-solving,” Lemons said. “It was about justice and fairness.”

Chris Boehm, 33, is hoping for a similar result. Boehm has been working at Washington University as an adjunct writing instructor since 2011. He teaches either two or three classes a semester, earning between $18,000 and $24,000 a year.

Boehm, who works on semester-long contracts, said he can never be sure if he’s going to be employed six months into the future. For the past year, he’s been working with the SEIU to build support for unionization.

Washington University has slightly more than 400 adjunct positions. Generally, the threshold for filing a petition for a union election requires 30 percent participation from a group, or 120 adjunct faculty in the case of Washington University.

Boehm said he doesn’t know exactly how many adjuncts support forming a union, but those who are in favor typically share a similar outlook.

“I think we want some sort of job security,” he said. “Full benefits and livable wage would also be nice.”

Boehm’s story is a familiar one among adjuncts. After earning a Ph.D. in 2012, he’s struggled to find full-time work.

“I’ve been looking for a full-time job for the last three years,” he said. “I’ve tried at high schools, community colleges, major research institutions, private liberal arts schools … I’ve applied for just about everything.”

For Thorp, Washington University’s provost, Boehm’s plight is indicative of a larger issue among the country’s colleges and universities.

He said leaders in higher education haven’t devoted enough thought to whether the country’s job market can support the number of Ph.D. graduates that universities produce.

“There’s a reason we can go and get someone to teach these classes for a few thousand (dollars),” Thorp said. “It’s because there are Ph.D.s out there who couldn’t get a full-time or a tenure-track job. We need for universities to come together and really grapple with this.”

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