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What Do Adjuncts Want? Washington U. Will Find Out

Washington University's Brookings Hall
Washington University

Now that adjunct instructors at Washington University have voted to join a union, they have to figure out exactly what improvements they want their new status to bring.

On Monday, the National Labor Relations Board announced the election results. The proposal to join the Service Employees International Union won by a vote of 138-111. Afterward, the union’s Adjunct Actionproject sent out an email headed “Victory!”

It also linked to an online survey gauging adjuncts’ interest in a variety of issues likely to be discussed once the union begins contract talks with the university. The survey listed a range of economic and non-economic topics, asking respondents to rank them in terms of importance.

While the answers are being correlated, adjuncts who led the successful effort to join the union plan to work to put together a negotiating team that reflects the diversity of the 400-plus part-time instructors who will be covered by whatever contract is reached with Washington U.

Dustin Iler, an adjunct English instructor who was active in the push to unionize, said that he hopes the negotiators will represent a broad range of those who will be affected by a new contract.

“It's going to be great to bring in a lot of people who weren't as involved in the initial process,” he said. “Now, they'll be able to really get involved from a bunch of different departments. There will be people elected as representatives, as opposed to a lot of people who were working together to get this off the ground in the first place.”

He added that he hopes the successful election at Washington U. will help spur union movements at other local campuses.

“I really do hope that a union at WashU will boost morale for adjuncts working at other universities in the area,” Iler said, “and that it will also demonstrate to the administration of other universities that working together is the way to go with these things, that it makes the quality of life for the adjunct professors better, it makes the quality of education for the students better and it makes these universities better places all around.

“So I really do think that this win at WashU is going to have a very positive effect on other campuses in the St. Louis area.”

Scott Granneman, who teaches at Washington U. as well as at Webster University, where administrators have opposed unionization, said that issues faced by adjuncts are similar elsewhere, so he hopes the results are similar as well.

“Any time that management starts telling people that we don't see a reason why there should be a union,” he said, “that's not going to discourage people. That's going to encourage people….

“The concerns that adjuncts have at Webster are very similar to those at WashU, and I don't see that going away at all. This is a national movement, and it's going to be spreading to every university and college throughout the United States eventually.”

Scott Granneman
Credit Provided
Scott Granneman

A spokesman for Webster University said the outcome at Washington University would mean no change in Webster’s strategy about unionization.

Money, benefits, schedules

The growing unionization movement among adjuncts nationwide has been fueled by discontent in at least three general areas: pay, working conditions and benefits.

Pay for adjuncts at Washington U. depends on several variables, including an instructor’s education and the course involved. As an example, Iler, who earned a Ph.D. in English and American literature from Washington U., taught five sections of writing last semester there and earned $17,000.

A new union contract at Tufts University in Boston calls for a 22 percent pay increase over three years as well as improved job security. That second point is important to adjuncts, who sometimes prepare for a class only to find out on very short notice that it has been canceled or will be taught by a full-time staff member instead.

Such a change means adjuncts who were counting on that income may have to scramble. Granneman said it’s an issue that’s really important with part-time instructors.

“That's something I know we're going to be addressing with the university in some fashion,” he said.

The survey of adjuncts has a long list of topics that can be ranked from most important to not important.

On economics, they include pay, health-care benefits, retirement contributions, tuition remission for instructors and their families, sick and personal leave, compensation for developing new courses and guaranteed pay for a preparation for a course that is canceled.

Non-economic considerations include evaluation procedures, protection against dismissal or a reduced course load for unfair reasons, ownership of unique course materials, opportunities for extended contracts, office space to prepare for class and meet with students, a greater voice in departmental matters and more inclusion in the university’s academic community.

The survey also asks adjuncts for their primary motivation for supporting a union at the university, why they teach part-time at Washington U., how many courses they teach and how many courses they would like to teach.

Unanswered questions

As adjuncts deliberated whether to vote for or against representation by the SEIU, several questions were raised about what may happen if the union were accepted as the instructors’ bargaining agent. The issues were particularly relevant to University College, the school’s night classes, where many courses are taught by adjuncts who are professionals in their field.

Among the questions raised:

  • Will a union result in higher tuition?
  • Will current minimum enrollment, and maximum class size, be affected?
  • Will U. College remain financially viable?
  • Will collective bargaining affect tuition benefits for current staff and faculty?

A university spokeswoman said the answers to such questions won’t become clear until a contract is negotiated with the union, so she couldn’t provide any response. It’s unclear when contract talks will begin, though both Iler and Granneman said they hoped negotiations could be under way by the end of the spring semester.
Results of the election have yet to be certified by the National Labor Relations Board, a move that is expected next week. Though 18 ballots cast in the election were contested, they were not enough to change the result, and a university spokeswoman said Washington U. did not plan to challenge the outcome.

When the election results were announced late Monday, the only comment from the university on the outcome was: “With the election process now complete, the university is committed to working with the union on matters of mutual importance. Thank you for exercising your right to vote.”

A simple majority of those voting was needed for the union proposal to pass. Asked whether they thought that the 55-45 percent winning margin showed a lack of overwhelming support for representation by the SEIU, Granneman and Iler said they was pleased but not surprised by the outcome.

Dustin Iler
Credit Washington University
Dustin Iler

“I never thought it was going to be a walk in the park,” Granneman said. “There was a lot of misinformation and fear mongering going out on the other side, but fortunately not enough people listened to it.”

Added Iler:

“It's not a bad turnout, and the margin by which we won is a really strong margin. Governors and other politicians would die to have those kind of numbers that were in support of the union, so I think it's great.”

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.