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Adjunct professors unionize for respect and benefits

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 11 2013 8:20 a.m. MST

While Ramirez makes more money in his management consultant job, his true passion is teaching. And while he says he doesn’t necessarily teach for the money, his co-workers and friends without side jobs are what inspired him to help campaign to form a union at La Verne.

“There’s fundamentally something wrong that you have people who have degrees, are qualified and have an interest in helping students succeed, but still are struggling. For me it’s all about fairness,” Ramirez said.

Enter the unions

The idea to unionize became a reality at both Tufts and La Verne when representatives from the Service Employees International Union showed up on campus. Before they arrived, the idea of joining a union was foreign to adjunct faculty members.

For Gibson and the others at Tufts, the loss of merit raises made them realize that they were not as much a part of the community as they might have thought.

“It’s a weird thing, because we have been treated pretty well, and certainly well compared to what we’re learning about other places,” Gibson said. “But the relationship is the thing that I’m now seeing as flawed. It’s one where we felt like we had to be quiet, not talk about our situation to anyone, certainly not complain, be grateful and be like subservient children.”

She said attempts to communicate with the administration and fix the problem ended with proposed solutions that failed to address the issues at hand and left the adjunct faculty feeling ignored and, worse, helpless.

“We slowly began to realize that we were isolated — we were disempowered,” Gibson said. “We’d do our thing in the classroom and we’re grateful, which we should be, except always being just grateful and not feeling like a full member of an organization is not good. You just get smaller and smaller.”

While the universities are generally against the idea of unions, they have been respectful of the adjuncts' right to do so, although they have sent out emails and pamphlets to discourage it, according to Gibson. In response to the adjuncts' efforts to unionize, the administration has made an effort to convince them that the move is unnecessary.

“It is important to note that we have very little turnover in our part-time ranks … because our benefits and compensation packages are strong and competitive," said Dean of Academic Affairs for Arts and Sciences James Glaser in a quote to Tufts Daily.

Since union representatives arrived at Tufts, adjunct faculty members successfully formed their union and are entering the negotiation phase while adjuncts at La Verne are currently campaigning to unionize.

While by law universities cannot retaliate against teachers wishing to form unions, the administration discouraged the move.

Other unions, such as the American Federation of Teachers, are helping to organize adjuncts at universities across the country to help give a voice to this large demographic of teachers.

“For us, obviously we want to improve the conditions for faculty,” said Craig Smith, director of higher education for AFT. “You have institutions that want to save money and cut labor costs. More and more people are trying to invest in higher-ed but cut the core of that force.”

Politicians have also joined in the fight for better treatment of adjunct faculty. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., announced Nov. 19 that the Committee on Education and the Workforce had formed an eForum for adjunct professors to tell their stories to members of Congress to assess job satisfaction and compensation. Miller, the senior Democrat on the committee, hopes that the results of the eForum will lead to legislation that will protect adjuncts and part-time professors.

However, there are critics that believe the unionization of adjuncts will end up costing universities more money and hurt the academic process for students.

"Where will the extra money come from? My own guess is that the necessary funding will come from yet one more increase in tuition or, for public universities, yet more taxpayer money," wrote Robert Weissberg, emeritus at the University of Illinois-Urbana, in an essay for Minding the Campus.

Weissberg, who currently teaches as an adjunct at NYU, believes that if adjuncts are paid more, universities will be forced to cut funding to scholarships, research grants, specialized librarians and downsize technical support services, among other things.

Hopeful outcome

Some universities, like Tufts, are just entering the negotiating stage now. According to Gibson, adjuncts hope to walk away from the negotiations with good working wages and more transparent relationship with the administration.

Besides better wages and benefits though, many adjuncts just want their voices to matter. For Ramirez and adjunct faculty at La Verne, who are still in the process of campaigning to unionize, it’s the simple desire to be included in the decision-making process and be a part of the school community.

"I guess the one outcome is that they include us in decisions that affect conditions at work," Ramirez said. "We just really want them to understand that, although we are not tenure-track, it doesn't mean we don't care about student success."

Sam Clemence is an intern for the Deseret News, where he works with the opinion section staff and as a reporter for the enterprise team.

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