SEIU has been pursuing a regional strategy to organize adjunct faculty in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. The campaign is called Adjunct Action. Thus far, the results have been mixed.
In mid-June, adjunct faculty at Hamline University became the first adjuncts in Minnesota to form a collective bargaining unit, voting to unionize by a 72%-28% margin. Over the past academic year, 194 adjunct faculty taught at the university, which employs 184 full-time faculty. But to be eligible to vote, a faculty member had to have taught in the spring semester. Of the 83 eligible to vote, 64 cast ballots.
Around the successful election at Hamline, organizers at Macalester College decided to postpone a scheduled vote on unionization.
And most recently, the adjunct faculty at St. Thomas University voted by a large margin to reject unionization. Over the past academic year, about 460 full-time faculty and more than 600 adjunct faculty were employed at St. Thomas. Of the 300 or so adjunct faculty who were eligible to vote in the election at St. Thomas because they taught undergraduate courses, 84 (38%) voted in favor of unionizing and 136 (62%) against.
It is usually very difficult to analyze a unionization campaign from the outside. Organizing campaigns are defined by those leading them and by the internal dynamics of the institutions in which they are occurring.
Nonetheless, let me offer a couple of observations that don’t seem to require much “inside” perspective.
At all three of these institutions, the administrations have made clear their opposition to unionization, though none of them have taken legal steps to prevent the votes on the basis of institutional religious affiliations.
Although Hamline has about the same number of undergraduate students as Macalester, it has a smaller faculty, both full- and part-time, and it has a much smaller endowment. One of media reports on the election included a quotation from an adjunct faculty member who noted that his compensation had remained the same for nine years.
In contrast, St. Thomas seems to account for about 40% of the students enrolled at the five institutions that comprise the Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities, a consortium that includes Hamline and Macalester. The president of St. Thomas has made a very public commitment to improving the compensation and working conditions of adjunct faculty, and those faculty currently earn an average of $4300/course, about $1600 more than the national average.
Specifically, in an open-letter to the campus community, St. Thomas’ president, Julie Sullivan, wrote: “I have publicly stated on numerous occasions that I am committed to addressing the needs of adjunct faculty at the University of St. Thomas without the involvement of a union. How can you be sure I will fulfill this commitment if there is a ‘no’ vote? It boils down to one word: Trust. I trust you, and I ask only that you trust me–to live up to my words and to work with you. I will because I believe it is the right thing to do. I will because my reputation is on the line. I will not risk losing my credibility with you, as well as with our full-time faculty and our Board of Trustees, by doing anything else. I report to the board, and it supports my commitment to you.”
Balancing the positive appeals made by the university’s president, there was also strong adjunct opposition led by Kim Sovell, an adjunct professor of business. An article in inside Higher Ed quotes Sovell as saying: “’One of the underlying problems that adjuncts have is not feeling a part of the team, of not feeling respected. But a union can’t get you that respect-–it can’t be negotiated into a contract. It has to be earned.”
It is very typical that the strongest anti-union sentiment is expressed by business faculty. Nevertheless, Sovell’s remarks seem, to me, both all too predictable and yet astonishing. Given what has been occurring nationally, with tenured and tenure-track faculty now accounting for less than 30% of all faculty and part-time faculty accounting for almost half of the total, the idea that the profession should somehow be “above” collective bargaining is not just anachronistic but masochistically, if not suicidally, so. The argument seems to me to reflect either a very myopic or a very ideological point of view. But, as Tip O’Neill famously observed, all politics is local—and “local” may often mean myopic and ideological.
It seems notable, however, that adjunct faculty at all three institutions have been quoted in the media reports as expressing concern that unionization votes might lead to reductions in the numbers of adjunct positions at the institutions. This employment insecurity can, perhaps, be explained in several ways. First, it may reflect a fundamental difference of interests between adjunct faculty who rely on their teaching for their primary income and those who teach to supplement their income. Second, even among those adjunct faculty who rely on their teaching for their primary income, there may be uneasiness that if adjunct positions are eliminated in favor of full-time positions, some adjuncts will certainly lose their current employment and those applying for new full-time positions may have to compete against a broader, if not national, pool of applicants.
But, beyond those considerations, it is clear that the fundamental reality that adjunct faculty are “at will” employees with no job protections whatsoever remains a major hurdle in convincing them to unionize. That wariness about being perceived as a troublemaker is exponentially heightened when an organizing campaign begins to create contention on campus—especially when faculty opposed to unionizing seem to be trying to ferret out the identities of supporters. And, in combination with the very challenging logistics of simply attempting to communicate effectively with faculty that may be employed elsewhere as well, whether inside or outside of academia, that wariness must account for the fact that, at both Hamline and St. Thomas, only about three-quarters of those who were eligible to vote actually voted.
In media reports on the organizing campaigns at both Macalester and St. Thomas, faculty who claimed to not be opponents of unionization did claim that they felt that the votes were being rushed. That is a very common argument made by opponents of unionization who are trying to convince undecided voters to vote no. But it may also reflect the difficulty in reaching all of those voting and in communicating a consistent and convincing message to them. Those of us who are committed to organizing all faculty and academic professionals generally operate on the assumption that the most exploited faculty will certainly be the most eager to unionize. Certainly some of them are. But it may also be true that if it were that simple, they would already be organized. In the end, there are in most cases no shortcuts to success in most organizing campaigns, regardless of who is trying to organize or leading the organizing.