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Webster University adjuncts lose their union bid

Adjunct instructors at Webster University have lost their bid to join a union. However, both the adjuncts and university officials who campaigned against the union say they will keep discussing the issues that prompted the effort.

The National Labor Relations Board said late Monday that 268 adjuncts voted against the union, with 212 voting in favor, 53 ballots were challenged and nine voided. Because the challenged ballots wouldn’t make a difference in the final tally, the union bid was defeated.

In another election for a smaller unit of part-time instructors, with only five people eligible, one vote was cast for the union and the other four were challenged, so the outcome of that balloting remains undetermined.

The results came after a spirited campaign in which the adjuncts said they wanted higher pay and more say over their working conditions. But university officials said joining the Service Employees International Union was not the best way to achieve those goals.

After the vote totals were announced, the university said in a statement that it is confident the results will stand.

“We very much appreciated the thoughtful consideration members of both voting units gave this important issue throughout this process, as evidence by their comments and questions, and discussions," the statement said.

“In the days and weeks ahead, we intend to continue this constructive dialogue with our Adjunct Faculty and will of course cooperate with the NLRB to ensure all eligible but no ineligible, instructor votes are counted," it said.

A statement from the SEIU said the part-time faculty members "experienced a setback in their quest to have their union on campus officially recognized but believe they have undoubtedly gained a voice on campus."

Jeff Maret, an adjunct professor who teaches cultural anthropology at Webster, said he was surprised at the outcome, even though the university had put what he called pressure on a large bloc of business school teachers to vote against the union.

“A lot of us put a lot of work into it,” Maret said in an interview. “The last two months have brought adjuncts together in a way that we’re not usually united. No matter which way you voted, there was a lot more dialogue among the adjuncts, and between the adjuncts and the administration, than there had been in years, so I would say that’s all very positive.

“I do think there is a movement among adjuncts to press for some kind of a voice within the university. We don’t have it yet. We didn’t get it today at Webster, but we’re still going to press.”

From the start of the adjuncts’ effort to join a union, Webster’s administration came out against it, strongly and often.

A letter from Provost Julian Schuster set the tone 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.”

In an email to faculty Monday after the results were released, Schuster said:

"This election demonstrated our ability to constructively exchange points of view on subjects of great importance. This abiding respect for differing opinions is one of Webster University’s most outstanding qualities. We will continue to rely on it as we move forward together in a productive and collaborative manner."

 As balloting began last month, Webster began an “adjunct information” website, where it published a number of informational pieces, all under the heading: “Make an educated decision.”

Maret – who also teaches at Maryville and Lindenwood universities -- said Webster issued misinformation and waged “a very aggressive PR campaign, with glossy letters and PR stuff produced by some attorney” to sway the vote its way. He said those who favored the union cast what he called “an aspirational vote for the democratic process.”

Many "no" votes were cast “out of fear, because the university kept saying that the collegial atmosphere of the university is going to be destroyed, the Webster University that we all love is going to go away if you guys vote in a collective bargaining unit,” he said.

Now, he said, if adjuncts want to try unionization again, they have to wait a year. In the meantime, he hopes that during that time talks to improve the adjuncts’ lot will make progress.

“The university says they want to keep the dialogue going,” Maret said. "They want to engage the adjuncts in meaningful dialogue about the contract and about office space and job security. So let’s see if that really happens.

“I’m skeptical, because now their feet are not to the fire. But they say that they want to engage in meaningful dialogue, and we would like to as well.”

The outcome of the adjunct election at Webster is a sharp contrast to a similar push at Washington University. There, adjuncts approved the effort to join the SEIU and talks on their first contract have begun.

The SEIU also said that part-time faculty members at St. Louis Community College are moving toward a union vote as well.

For education news, 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.