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Union organizing on the rise at St. Louis area college campuses

Washington University, Webster University, St. Charles Community College
St. Charles Community College, Flicker | Phil Roeder and Parick Giblin

Newly unionized adjunct instructors at Washington University prepared for their first negotiating session with the university this week, while adjuncts at Webster University get ready to decide whether they should organize as well.

And the organizing movement could soon spread to St. Charles Community College.

The activity reflects efforts nationwide by the Service Employees International Union to help part-time campus instructors who are seeking higher pay, greater stability and more influence over their jobs. At many campuses, such teachers – with no benefits and little job security – are becoming an increasingly larger percentage  of the faculty.

As part of its Adjunct Action campaign, the union has encouraged rallies and walkouts, spread the word about the increasing influence of adjuncts and detailed the working conditions in reports like one titled “Professors in Poverty.”

Pro and con at Webster

Ballots on whether to join the SEIU will be mailed to adjunct instructors at Webster starting on Friday, to be returned to the National Labor Relations Board no later than May 8.

From the beginning of efforts by adjuncts at Webster to join the union, the university’s administration has expressed strong opposition.  A letter from Provost Julian Z. Schuster put it this way:

“We see no additional benefit that a union can bring to this important constituency and frankly view unionization as a detriment to our current environment of openness, inclusion, and active participation that we now have with our adjunct faculty.”

Adjuncts pushing for the union have countered that their needs and their contributions to their students have been ignored by the university and unionization is the only way to improve conditions.

In the past few weeks, as the date approached for sending adjuncts ballots on joining the union, Webster began an “adjunct information” website, where it published a number of informational pieces, all under the heading: “Make an educated decision.”

Under the title “Unionization: What We Believe,” the university said it wants to foster “a learning environment that is consistent with our core values of students, learning, diversity and global citizenship.”

The article listed the school's values as free exchange of information, choice, accurate and timely information, communication without layers and individual rights. Then the site added:

“We do not want to lose our ability to work directly with Adjunct Faculty and Instructors on issues that are important to them.  In addition, we don't want to risk losing the many valuable faculty who have told us they will not teach if they have to be represented by a union or risk having their classes disrupted by strikes.”

It also noted that neither the NLRB nor the union can force the university to agree to any proposal or demand. “If a good-faith impasse in negotiations occurs,” it added, “the University is free to unilaterally implement the terms of the University’s offer.”

To help make its point, the university spelled out what it said union dues would be over the life of a three-year contract – its total was a minimum of $1,188 – and asked:

  • “Do you know what you are actually buying for the dues you are paying?
  • “Could you better use that money by putting it toward retirement or other purposes?
  • “Would you get a better return on your money if you did something other than retain the SEIU to be your exclusive agent with the University regarding your terms and conditions of employment?”

Those favoring the union have also spread the word on why their cause should win.

In an email called “Why I am voting yes,” Dave Hilditch stressed how important adjuncts are to Webster, and why they deserve better treatment.

“The University depends on people like me to keep its academic programs up and running,” he said. “Without us, there would be no academic continuity or excellence.  So-called full timers would be quickly overwhelmed. Programs would close down. The University in its present form would die.”

In an interview, adjunct organizer Terri Reilly, who has taught at Webster for nearly 30 years, said efforts to improve the lot of adjuncts has “hit a roadblock.”

“I have been trying to work through internal channels for quite a long time and have never really even got my foot in the door,” said Reilly, who is the first adjunct to be elected to an at-large seat on the university’s faculty senate.

“So when the union Adjunct Action started organizing last summer, I took a look at it, and tried to see if we could motivate the administration to start caring about the issues that face adjunct faculty.”

She said that the steady flow of information from the administration has  “changed the tone completely. It's really, obviously very contentious.”

And, Reilly added, the money and other resources being used to campaign against unionization could be better spent on the adjuncts themselves.

“The money that's being spent is just mind-boggling to me,” she said. “It's very difficult for adjuncts to even get basic benefits, basic pay raises. We haven't had a pay raise in many, many, many years.”

Not all part-timers favor the union. Adjunct Ken Lynch told colleagues why he would vote against joining the union, writing:

“I do not believe the wages and working conditions at Webster University are that bad to warrant a union. Sure we have problems. ALL institutions, organizations and companies have issues. Shoot....even unions have internal issues. But with proper leadership, open dialogue and solid two-way communication in a respectful and professional manner, I believe any and all issues can be addressed. I am willing to try, and keep trying, until key issues are resolved.”

In balloting, 666 adjuncts and five instructors are eligible to vote; adjuncts teach on a course-by-course basis, while instructors receive year-long contracts with benefits. Each group will vote separately on whether to form a union. Overall, adjuncts make up 70 percent of Webster’s faculty.

As the date of their voting approached, the Webster adjuncts also received a note of support from their counterparts at Washington University.

“We voted ‘yes’ on unionization,” their message said, “because we believe – as you believe – that universities exist to promote education, and above all else they must make decisions that create the best possible learning environment for their students. This includes treating professors fairly.”

Negotiating begins at Washington U.

In contrast to the opposition from the administration at Webster, officials at Washington University worked with the union before the adjunct vote there on a cooperation agreement. The university said it would not take a position on how instructors should vote; for its part, the union said it would not seek or encourage student, political or other activism on campus related to the campaign.

Adjuncts at Washington University voted to unionize 138-111 in ballots that were counted just after the first of the year. After the results were announced, the university – which had pledged to be neutral during balloting but issued a steady stream of informational statements about unions – said it was “committed to working with the union on matters of mutual importance.”

A survey sent to the 404 members of the newly formed bargaining unit at Washington U. was designed to determine what their priorities are for their first contract with the university.

In the category of economic priorities, free or reduced rate parking and better compensation led the pack, followed by clarification and a development of a pay scale and regular cost of living increases. Two other frequent complaints of adjuncts – compensation for designing a new course and guaranteed compensation for preparing for a course that is later canceled – also ranked high on the scale.

Among non-economic priorities, job security was a major concern. Security of being reappointed to teach the same course, and the opportunity for extended contracts, topped the list. Following closely behind were getting appointments in a timely manner and protection against unfair or capricious dismissal or reduced course load.

Nearly half of the adjuncts said that their earnings from the university are 10 percent or less of their household income, but 11 percent said they are 90 percent or more. In terms of health insurance nearly 60 percent of those responding said they are covered by a spouse’s plan or plan from another job, but 10 percent said they are not covered at all.

Why are they adjuncts at Washington U.? The answers broke down this way:

  • 33 percent said teaching as an adjunct fits in with other aspects of their lives.
  • 29 percent said they would like a full-time academic job but can’t find one.
  • 28 percent said they have another full-time job but enjoy teaching.
  • 10 percent said they prefer teaching part-time and don’t want to do so full-time.

Of the 404 adjuncts at the university, 41 percent teach in University College, 34 percent are in the College of Arts and Sciences, 14 percent are in the engineering school and 11 percent are in the school of design and visual arts.
Movement in St. Charles

The next local school where adjuncts have the opportunity to vote on whether to unionize could be St. Charles Community College.

An administrator had earlier denied adjuncts the ability to gather signatures on a petition that urged the school to remain neutral on the union question. But that decision was reversed after intervention by a group called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE .

Heather McDorman, the college’s vice president for enrollment and marketing services, said in an email that the issue was one of maintaining the educational environment.

“St. Charles Community College supports the 1st amendment rights of its faculty, staff, and students,” she wrote.  “This is nothing new. We had expressed concern particularly and only about union organizers petitioning students, whom we feel have the right to an educational environment unimpeded by such activity and whose signatures on a petition do not in any way formally advance this effort or cause.”

As far as taking a stance about the union, McDorman added:

“Our position of course is not that adjunct faculty ‘should’ unionize. We work hard to support and reward our adjunct faculty as a large and valuable segment of our instructional staff and we will continue to do so.

“We have a number of recommendations coming out of an adjunct faculty task force which recently concluded its work and we will hope to move toward implementation of that task force's recommendation through our normal planning process. The presence of a union would not compel us beyond our means to accomplish these gains and would not accomplish gains faster.”

(Editor’s note: Dale Singer has taught journalism courses as an adjunct instructor in the University College at Washington U.)

Follow Dale Singer on Twitter: @dalesinger

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.