Sydni Dunn

Staff Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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We’ve Formed an Adjunct Union. Now What?

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Image: Australian Labor Party poster, ca. 1928 (National Library of Australia).

WashingtonGeorge Washington University’s part-time faculty union has made some real gains since it was formed in 2006: It negotiated a minimum payment of $3,500 per three-credit-hour course, secured a supplemental retirement plan and a medical leave of absence, and designated a small pool of money for adjuncts to pursue professional development.

One thing the union hasn’t quite figured out, though, is how to get more of its members to chip in. Participation is one of the biggest challenges the group faces, says Kip Lornell, an adjunct professor of music who is among the union’s leaders.

In the heady days before a vote to unionize, it’s not hard to find willing adjuncts.

That changes after the election has passed, Mr. Lornell says. “It becomes: ‘How much time will this be?’ ‘How involved must I be?’ Getting people to commit to doing these things is a big problem.”

Yet what happens after the election is the more important story, says Malini Cadambi Daniel, national higher-education campaign director for the Service Employees International Union, which has been the driving force behind many recent adjunct-unionization campaigns. “The election is just one point on the uphill slope,” she says. “It’s not the top.”

But what is “the top,” or the mark of a successful union? At a time when adjuncts around the country are weighing unionization, and some administrators are arguing that unions won’t achieve better results at the bargaining table, it’s a question worth exploring.

And the Washington, D.C., area is a good place to do so. Since the hard-won victory at George Washington University, adjuncts at Georgetown, American, and Howard Universities and the University of the District of Columbia have all voted to join SEIU’s Local 500. The union, which also represents part-time professors at two institutions in Maryland, plans to eventually create one metrowide contract agreement.

After a protracted dispute with the administration over election results, adjuncts at George Washington settled their first contract agreement in 2008. It was new territory for all parties, but the initial contract was strong, Mr. Lornell says. The group raised the minimum rate of pay per course by as much as 32 percent in some departments, introduced a “just cause” agreement to ensure adjuncts couldn’t be dismissed without reason, and secured more benefits, among other things.

The other D.C.-area unions, all at earlier stages in the process, are now looking to George Washington’s adjuncts as a model. Here’s a look at where the institutions stand.

Getting Started

Many of the part-time workers who get involved in campus union drives are strangers to collectivization, and it can take real effort to navigate those first steps. Peter Thomson, an adjunct professor of sociology and urban affairs at the University of the District of Columbia, says that’s what his institution’s newly-formed union is doing now.

After adjuncts voted to unionize in late August, union advocates readied themselves for a first round of negotiations. A dozen volunteers formed a bargaining committee, and the group circulated a survey asking adjuncts to identify their main labor complaints. Those responses were reviewed, ranked, and eventually turned into proposals that an SEIU leader presented at the first meeting between union and administration officials, on Monday. Mr. Thomson, a member of the committee, described the meeting as “cordial.”

While awaiting a response, the union will form a “contract action team”—a group charged with keeping members in the know about what’s happening in the negotiation sessions.

Spirits are high, according to Mr. Thomson. “We are an enthusiastic bunch,” he says, noting that members have stopped him in the hall to say they were excited about the outcome. “We are confident both sides will come to an agreement.”

The First Contract

But they’ve got a long road ahead. It typically takes about a year to complete the first contract, says Camille Gaskin-Reyes, an adjunct professor of Latin-American studies at Georgetown University and a member of the bargaining committee there. Georgetown’s adjuncts voted to form a union in the spring of 2013, and they ratified their first three-year contract last month.

In doing so, they looked to the unions at George Washington and American Universities as guides. “We kind of knew what the contract looked like in those places,” says Ms. Gaskin-Reyes. “We tried to move from that position to see what we could bargain and negotiate.”

So far, so good. In its first agreement, the union negotiated greater minimum rates for adjuncts. By the fall of 2016, the minimum for a one- or two-credit course will be $2,700; the minimum for a five-credit course will be $6,000.

The new contract also includes a policy that promises a $300 fee if a course is canceled within 21 calendar days of its start, and a promise of “access to academic freedom” for all adjuncts.

“We’re hoping the next three years go well,” Ms. Gaskin-Reyes says. “If there are grievances or issues, we can work it out then, but in three years, we’ll examine what happened and go back to renew the contract.”

Until then, she says, the union’s goal is to maintain internal communication through social events and occasional meetings, and in turn, attract more faculty members to play a larger role.

“Since a lot of this is organizing and representing others, sometimes the burden falls on a few people,” she says. “But we want new people to step up. We want others to be involved in the work ahead.”

The Long Haul

That’s often easier said than done, says Mr. Lornell, who has helped guide the union at George Washington through four negotiations. Once the first contract is settled, workers quickly adopt an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude.

“As someone who has been doing this for quite a while,” he says, “you get tired of people complaining about the collective-bargaining agreement when they haven’t read it or been involved in it. That’s when we say, ‘Hey, we need input from you.’”

But it’s challenging to even organize the people who are eager to contribute, he adds. “Getting people in a situation together for a meeting, even just five or six people, is just about impossible. When you try to get people who are not full time and are only here at different times part time, it’s really hard.”

That’s to be expected when working with a group as transient as adjunct faculty, he says. And it takes trial and error to figure out how to yield the best results, even when you’ve been at it for nearly a decade.

This year, for example, the union at George Washington is testing a new internal structure—with official elected positions—and hosting periodic question-and-answer sessions to explain union rights to members.

Even with the growing pains of unionization, he says, collective bargaining has been beneficial.

“What a union allows you to do is to have a voice with the administration that you couldn’t possibly have had before,” Mr. Lornell says, noting that George Washington adjuncts’ newest contract promises one face-to-face meeting with the provost every year. “The fact that some of us can sit down with Steve Lerman, the provost of GW, would have been unfathomable eight years ago.”

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