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Adjuncts at Washington U. approve first contract, office space is part of the deal

Washington University's Brookings Hall
Washington University

Adjunct instructors at Washington University have approved their first contract with the school, gaining an increase in pay, more control over schedules and improved working conditions.

Michael O’Bryan, an English instructor who has been involved in negotiations since the adjuncts approved joining the Service Employees International Union more than a year ago, said the four-year pact was approved by “a hefty margin” in balloting on Wednesday and Thursday. University acceptance of the contract remains just a formality, a spokeswoman said.

Talks for the contract began several months ago, and agreement on non-economic issues was reached relatively quickly. But the negotiations stalled on financial questions such as a pay increase, to the point that the adjuncts had called a walkout on April 14 to show their displeasure.

But the day before that action was scheduled on campus, a tentative agreement was reached, turning the walkout into a celebration rally.

“We have won a contract with significant advances,” an email to adjuncts said that day, “and we could not have done it with you.”

On salaries, the union said that every member of the bargaining unit will get an increase for each of the four years of the contract. The lowest-paid members of the unit will get what the union called “substantial increases.”

Among other provisions of the contract:

  • When a course is canceled at the last minute because not enough students have signed up, adjuncts who have prepared to teach it will receive a cancellation fee.
  • What the union called a “rational and consistent procedure for teaching reappointment” was established so teachers will have greater stability in their schedules.
  • Instead of having to search for places to confer with students, or get together with them in a hallway, adjuncts will now have access to office space, subject to availability. They also will get basic supplies and administrative resources.
  • An annual professional development fund will reimburse adjuncts for training expenses such as conferences.

“Did I get every single thing that I could possibly imagine?" O'Bryan asked in an interview. "Certainly not. Did we get a good amount of all the stuff that we wanted? We certainly did."
Only 25 percent of the 250 eligible adjuncts voted on the contract, but O'Bryan said he was not concerned with the turnout.

"When people are satisfied with what they are going to be getting," he said, "sometimes they get busy. The one thing I know for sure is that when people have problems, I hear about it, and 'no' votes turn out in full force."

In a statement, the university expressed satisfaction with the process that led to the ratification of the contract.

“We began these negotiations with the goal of coming to terms that served our students and faculty well, and helped the university fulfill our mission,” it said. “We believe the agreement does just that.

“The agreement recognizes the university’s traditional broad discretion over course offerings and staffing.  It provides the necessary flexibility for the university to continue to determine the educational needs of our students and to manage our educational offerings and adjunct assignments to meet those needs.”

On pay, the university noted that for the nearly 80 percent of the adjunct bargaining unit that is already paid above the minimum, pay would continue to be determined on a per-course basis.

“The annual increases that many of those adjuncts have customarily received will, for day-school adjuncts, be fixed at the average increase for non-adjunct faculty,” the statement said.

For adjuncts who teach at the university’s evening school, which accounts for more than one-third of the bargaining unit, those who are already above the minimum will get the typical modest pay increases.

“Now that the process of reaching a collective bargaining agreement is at an end,” the statement concluded, “the university and all of our faculty will continue to focus on our primary mission of providing an exceptional educational experience to our students."

O'Bryan said that he hopes the contract with Washington U. could be viewed as a model by adjuncts on other campuses.

"We took a look at some contracts that were very similar to a lot of the things that we asked for before we determined our priorities," he said, "and we went for many of the same things. So our hope would be that this would set an example for other schools in the region and across the nation who might be able to look at this and see what you can do."

Follow Dale 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.