New union at colleges? Adjunct instructors make push

Amid a wave of national attention over pay inequities for part-time college instructors, adjuncts at two private universities in the state are taking steps to unionize.

And some community-college adjuncts are pressing to form a separate union, apart from the one that currently represents full-time faculty — although a bill that would have given them authority to do so has died in the Legislature this session.

Adjuncts, sometimes called contingent faculty, are instructors who are not eligible for tenure at colleges and universities and often are restricted to part-time work. They’re usually paid at a lower rate than their tenured counterparts — sometimes significantly so — and receive lesser benefits and little job security.

Most colleges and universities, both public and private, have increasingly relied on them as a way to cut college costs. One recent study estimates that adjuncts make up about half of the academic workforce nationwide; another puts their numbers at three-quarters of the academic workforce. Forty years ago, they accounted for just one-fifth of faculty jobs.

Adjuncts say they often get last-minute class assignments before the quarter or semester begins, forcing them to scramble to outline a course. They often don’t have office space, so can’t hold office hours with students, and they don’t get paid for much of the work they do outside the classroom. Yet they often have the same academic qualifications as full-time professors.

“We’re in every department in every school, and we do the main job of the university, which is to teach students,” said Jerome Veith, who has taught philosophy at Seattle University for two years. Adjuncts make up about 50 percent of the university’s 700 faculty employees, he said.

According to a report by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), an adjunct teaching 12 courses a year — “an extraordinary course load” — at a private nonprofit institution would make about $39,600.

Full-time professors at the same type of college average between $75,000 and $102,000 a year and teach five or six courses a year, spending the rest of their time on research, committee work, meeting with students, advising graduate students and preparing for classes, SEIU said.

Seattle University adjuncts have been organizing under SEIU Local 925. Veith said they hope to take a vote on joining the union in another month.

But it’s not clear what would happen if they did.

PLU’s hanging question

Last October, Pacific Lutheran University adjuncts voted on whether to join SEIU Local 925. Before the votes were counted the university appealed the election to the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that safeguards employees’ rights to organize, arguing that the NLRB does not have jurisdiction over PLU because it is a religious university.

PLU also argued that full-time contingent faculty shouldn’t be part of the bargaining unit because they participate in university governance, and therefore operate just like non-contingent faculty.

The uncounted ballots were impounded by NLRB, and the case is still under consideration.

Seattle University, which is also a religious school — it is Jesuit — released a statement strongly discouraging an adjunct union.

The university’s media-relations specialist, Stacy Howard, said in an emailed statement that “the current system of shared governance, which was developed in partnership with the university’s faculty body, is a much better approach.”

Howard wrote that the university has concerns “that third-party representation would hinder direct communication between contingent faculty and department chairs, program directors and deans as well as slow the progress we are making for all faculty under the current system.”

But she said the university recognizes that “it is up to contingent faculty to ultimately decide whether to support SEIU.” She declined to elaborate.

Should union split up?

At the state’s 34 community and technical colleges, the situation is a little different. Both tenured and adjunct faculty are represented by the same unions — including the American Federation of Teachers and the Washington Education Association — but one group is pressing for a separate union for adjuncts.

This session, Sens. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, and Pam Roach, R-Auburn, sponsored a bill, SB 5844, that would have cleared the way for separate union representation for adjuncts. The bill is likely to be reintroduced next session.

Keith Hoeller, a philosophy adjunct professor at Green River Community College, says lumping adjuncts together with full-time faculty members in a single union presents an inherent conflict of interest because tenured faculty often supervise adjuncts.

Adjuncts are paid at a lower rate — about 60 percent of the rate for tenured counterparts, according to the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC). The gap is further widened, Hoeller said, because adjuncts are not allowed to work full time at any one community college. Moreover, he said, while full-time professors can pick extra classes to earn more pay, adjuncts cannot.

The American Federation of Teachers argued against the bill in the Legislature, saying that splitting the union would potentially harm all faculty, pitting one group against the other.

Hoeller has been a national voice on the adjunct issue, writing opinion pieces for The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. He is editor of a book recently published by Vanderbilt University Press: “Equality for Contingent Faculty.”

He believes the full-time versus part-time distinction is harmful to higher education because “we’ve got an assumption that the full-timers are superior and part-timers are inferior.” Ultimately, he would like to see the two-tiered faculty system eliminated entirely, as some colleges have done.

At the state’s community and technical colleges, full-time faculty teach about 54 percent of classes and adjuncts teach the remaining 46 percent, according to the SBCTC.

Jane Harty, a part-time adjunct at PLU who has worked in the music faculty there since 1978, said the fight is about more than just money; it’s also about working conditions.

“Our working conditions are the students’ learning conditions,” she said. “Students are impacted as a result.”

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or On Twitter @katherinelong.


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