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Adjuncts at Washington U. Vote To Unionize

Washington University's Brookings Hall
Washington University

Part-time faculty members at Washington University have voted to unionize in an effort to improve their salary, working conditions and stability of employment.

Ballots counted at the National Labor Relations Board Monday showed the proposal passed by a vote of 138-111, with 18 contested ballots that would not affect the outcome of the election. Just over 400 instructors at the university were eligible to vote, with a simple majority of those voting needed for passage.

With the vote, the adjunct faculty members will be represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 1. In a statement, the union called the outcome “a step forward to improve the working conditions of the increasing numbers of part-time and contingent faculty in higher education.”

Michael O’Bryan, who has taught English and writing as an adjunct at Washington U. for six years, said he looks forward to having a stronger voice in his working situation.

“This is a great day for faculty, students and the entire community of higher education in St. Louis and throughout the region,” he said in the statement released by the union.

“This victory is an important step toward improving the labor conditions of university faculty and, consequently, the learning experience of the students taught by those faculty. We look forward to enhancing Wash U's already exemplary record of service to its students and to the St. Louis community.”

Darcie Star, who teaches dance at the university, added:

“By uniting in solidarity to form our union we are part of building a positive future and creating sustainable change for those working in higher education. This victory gives a voice to improved conditions for both faculty and students, as well as offering a platform for communication of needs and desires of those who provide service to the future generations."

In a statement going out to affected faculty members, the university said: "With the election process now complete, the university if committed to working with the union on matters of mutual importance. Thank you for exercising your right to vote."

At stake in the election were issues like salary, working conditions and employment stability. Figures show a growing reliance by colleges and universities on part-time faculty members, who typically are paid less and do not receive benefits.

Adjuncts said they need to have a better idea of how many courses they will be teaching from one semester to the next and need that knowledge as far in advance as possible.

Washington U. Provost Holden Thorp has acknowledged the difficulties that adjuncts face and said the university will work to improve their lot because of the important contributions they make. He also said schools need to do a better job of matching the openings they have for professors with the students they are graduating in particular disciplines.

Adjuncts have been making inroads in their efforts to unionize, part of a nationwide push called “Adjunct Action.” They point to a recent contract negotiated and signed at Tufts University that included a 22 percent pay raise over the next three years and improved job security.

The NLRB also issued a ruling late last month affirming adjuncts’ rights to unionize at religious colleges and universities. In a conference call on Monday prior to the announcement of the Washington University results, the ruling was hailed as a victory for what one participant termed “the migrant workers of the academic world.”

On Feb. 25, a National Adjunct Walkout Day has been called to focus attention on the plight of part-time instructors on campuses nationwide.

Provost Holden Thorp
Credit Washington University
Washington University Provost Holden Thorp

The election at Washington U. was held after the SEIU submitted a petition to the NLRB seeking representation of adjunct instructors at the university. Ballots that were distributed on Dec. 12, to be returned no later than this past Friday, had one question, with a simple majority of those who voted required for passage:

“Do you wish to be represented for purposes of collective bargaining by Service Employees International Union, Local 1?” 

The university said about 400 adjuncts were eligible to vote.

After the petition was accepted, both sides settled on a cooperation agreement on how they would conduct themselves during the campaign.

The university pledged not to take a position on how instructors should vote. Instead, it said it would simply “communicate facts to eligible faculty about subjects such as collective bargaining and the election process but will be objective and informative in any such communications.”

For its part, the union agreed “not to seek or encourage student, political or other activism on campus or in the media regarding this campaign” and to work with the university “to limit any disruptions on campus (including, but not limited to, pickets, sit-ins, walk-outs) related to the campaign.”

But as the time came for adjuncts to make up their mind, people involved on both sides complained that the agreement had been broken, at least in spirit.

Those favoring the union said information sent out by Thorp went beyond objective facts to point out, at least implicitly, problems that could arise if the SEIU became the sole bargaining agent for adjunct instructors.

Those who opposed the union said its representatives were too pushy in trying to make contact with those who would be voting, to the point that they went to instructors’ classes or homes and acted in an unwelcome manner.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.