Adjuncts gear up for union vote

Adjunct professors are stepping up efforts to gain support for part-time faculty unionization as a crucial vote on the issue will take place next month.

A mail ballot election among adjuncts will be held in October to determine whether GW will recognize a union representing part-time faculty. Ballots will be mailed out on Oct. 4 and are due back Oct.19. All adjuncts that taught at least one course in two of the last four academic semesters, excluding summer sessions, will be eligible to vote.

Adjuncts have been working toward unionization for almost three years to negotiate better wages and benefits, experiencing several setbacks along the way. GW’s 1,600 adjuncts make between $2,500 and $4,200 per course per semester, according to a Faculty Senate report. Yearly pay is determined by seniority.

The group briefly considered stalling efforts last spring after the National Labor Relations Board ruled they did not have sufficient support to hold an election. After finally reaching an agreement with the school in May to put the issue to a vote, organizers said the movement is re-energized.

“It was a huge psychological breakthrough for us,” said Anne McLeer, adjunct professor of women’s studies and lead union organizer. “You keep thinking something’s going to happen … and then you start to wonder if it’s going to happen at all. Then when you finally get there, it’s a great feeling.”

Over the summer, union supporters have been using grassroots tactics to push their message. Though an official roll of eligible voters will not be available until Sept. 20, organizers are relying on a preliminary list to reach out to adjuncts one by one; they are calling professors individually, visiting them at their homes and talking to them after their classes. McLeer said that while support is hard to gauge, she feels good about their chances.

“You never know what’s going to happen, but more than anything I’m excited,” McLeer said. “I think everybody is ready for a change and they know now they can make that change.”

Organizers face a stiff challenge from the University administration, which has consistently said it prefers to negotiate teaching contracts without a third party. Should voters opt to unionize, all part-time faculty would be included in the bargaining unit, a situation officials said is unfair.

With a simple majority needed to decide the issue, University officials are strongly encouraging all adjuncts to cast their ballots.

“We would like as many as possible if not all of our part-time faculty to vote in the election,” said Donald Lehman, executive vice president for Academic Affairs. “We feel that the opinions of all of our adjunct professors need to be included.”

In an open letter posted on the University’s Web site last Wednesday and sent to all adjunct professors, Lehman wrote that the administration has “significant concerns” about the impact of unionization, citing possible restraints on scheduling classes and determining workloads. Officials said it is important that adjuncts consider all the ramifications that union representation would entail.

“We want (adjuncts) to have an understanding of all the facts surrounding union representation,” Lehman said. “Decisions that might be favorable to some part-time faculty might be a disadvantage to others. One size does not necessarily fit all in this case.”

Officials noted that the Service Employees International Union Local 500, the group acting on behalf of the adjuncts, does not represent any other faculty body in higher education and would be unfamiliar with labor relations in a University setting. In addition, Lehman said a union would likely require adjuncts to pay member dues of more than $400 a year with no assurance of better working conditions.

“People have to understand that a union is a business just like any other business,” Lehman said. “There are no guarantees with a union.”

If organizers are successful, GW would become the second private university in the country to recognize a union exclusively for part-time faculty. Adjunct professors at New York University teamed with United Auto Workers to form Adjuncts Come Together in 2002 and are in contract negotiations with the school.

Cate Fallon, a member of the ACT-UAW bargaining committee and an adjunct professor of photography at NYU, said she believes adjunct unionization could become a major trend in higher education.

“Many adjuncts are saying now that we need to have our own representation,” Fallon said. “It’s an entire group of people that’s been saying for years now, ‘The University has been making money off my work and we’re getting nothing back.'”

Fallon said the fight for unionization is often an uphill battle and said she would encourage the GW adjuncts to continue their campaign even if they fail to win the October vote.

“I think they have to look at the long run,” Fallon said. “It’s a long and hard process, but once they come through it … they’ll be in a much better place.”

While organizers said they have gotten positive responses from about two-thirds of the adjuncts they have talked to, not all were friendly to the idea of collective bargaining. Michael Sanders, a 27-year adjunct professor in the GW Law School who taught just one class over the past two years and cannot vote in the election, said he might leave the University if forced to join a union without his consent.

“If the union is successful, I would seriously consider ending my teaching here at GW,” Sanders said. “I do not want to be part of a union.”

Sanders said most adjuncts he knows do not teach solely for money and feared that unionization might cause the University to eliminate classes under tighter budget constraints.

“If compensation is increased and that leads to budget pressures, many of these very interesting classes are going to be cut,” Sanders said. “Who’s going to lose? The students.”

Other part-time faculty members were less certain about the issue. Joe Graf, an adjunct professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs, said that while he is leaning toward voting for the union, he is concerned about its potential impact on faculty relations with the University.

“I think the basic claim that some adjuncts are not paid enough has merit,” Graf said. “At the same time I’d hate to see the relationship between adjuncts and the University become one of union and employer. I’d hate for the relationship to become combative.”

School officials would not speculate on the potential outcome of the election, saying only that they hope the decision fully represents the part-time faculty community. Organizers said that even if they are not successful, the movement would not end.

“There’s no reason why if this loses that we can’t just start again,” McLeer said. “People come and go all the time. I’m sure another campaign will come up.”

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