One Man’s Mission To Bring the Gospel According to SEIU To DC Adjuncts

by Kelly McDonald

In 2008, Kip Lornell wrote a piece for AdjunctNation about his seven-year effort to help his colleagues at George Washington University to unionize:

It took me the same number of years (seven-and-a-half) to earn a B.S., M.A., and Ph.D. as it did to help organize the part-time faculty The George Washington University and participate in the vote to ratify our initial contract. When an old friend called to congratulate me a few days after the contract ratification in early January 2008, she observed that my Scandanavian-American tenacity had served me well both in getting through school in a timely fashion and in the successful organizing effort. Then she asked me the obvious question: “Was it worth my time?” I didn’t hesitate to answer “yes,” and here’s why.

Foremost, for years I have been annoyed to utter distraction at The George Washington University’s exploitative employment practices regarding its part-time faculty, but it was not just about the money. Until we negotiated a contract, which could not have done without our SEIU Local 500 affiliation, virtually all of the University’s so-called “policies” were unwritten. They were, therefore, actually practices and part of the oral tradition or they were disseminated in non-public documents, such as memos to chairs or deans. This lack of public transparency meant university officials could invent “policies” to suit their needs.

In August 2012, AdjunctNation reported that GW’s adjunct professors secured a wage increase and approval for a dispute resolution committee after GW’s part-time professor union finalized its third contract with the University.

The University agreed to pay adjunct professors with Ph.D.s $4,032 per course, a 3 percent increase that is just enough to keep up with inflation but less than union vice president and adjunct music professor Kip Lornell’s (pictured left) initial target of nearly $5,000 per course.

University officials and the union agreed on the contract in mid-July, but union officials finished tallying professors’ votes to ratify the contract Aug. 9. Adjuncts represent nearly three-fourths of faculty and teach about half the courses at GW.

Lornell said the pay raise satisfied the union, but still low-balled the value of adjunct professors, who often have real-world expertise in their fields and work at federal agencies and businesses.

“We’re asked to do exactly the same work, so we want equal pay for equal work for equally well-qualified people,” Lornell said.

Now, Kip Lornell is leading the effort to unionize part-time faculty across D.C.-area universities to get a stronger voice in salary negotiations.

With American University adjuncts voting to unionize last semester and Georgetown University part-time professors beginning to organize, GW’s adjuncts would benefit from the citywide effort, adjunct professor of music Kip Lornell said.

“The idea is that once you have an entire metropolitan area unionized, then you have more clout,” said Lornell, who is also vice president for higher education for the Service Employees International Union. “We’re the only area in the country doing this.”

Across the country, adjunct professors typically work for lower wages and with less job security than full-time professors. Their teaching jobs do not include research or participation on university committees, typical responsibilities of full-time professors.

The union would represent about two-thirds of all adjuncts in D.C. if Georgetown unionized. The strategy is partly the brainchild of Lornell, whose role at SEIU makes him the point guard for D.C. adjuncts looking to unionize.

The professor has helped sketch details and negotiate pay for AU’s first union contract, and began reaching out to Georgetown adjuncts this spring. He’s also been on the bargaining teams for all three of GW’s union contracts.

The D.C. area has a higher rate of adjuncts than most of the country, Lornell said, because many part-time professors come from federal agencies and non-governmental organizations.

He said the District-wide strategy would pay off by setting a base line for neighboring schools. For example, he said music adjuncts at AU are paid $45 an hour, but will shoot for the $65 rate negotiated at GW.

About 55 percent of faculty at GW are in the union, and about half are adjuncts at Georgetown and American. Lornell said SEIU would also look to start organizing adjuncts at schools like Catholic University of America and Howard University.

A GW adjunct with a Ph.D. makes a minimum of $4,032 per course. Adjuncts who teach five courses yearly would make $20,160 – about one-fourth the salary full-time assistant professors make on average.

Lornell added that while the average adjunct salaries at schools without unions are unknown, his union’s research showed that Georgetown adjuncts earn up to 20 percent more per course than those at American or GW. If Georgetown’s adjuncts were unionized, he said, their rate could set the bar for other schools.

“They [would] say, ‘Oh if Georgetown is paying $4,500 or $5,000 a class, we need to be paying something like that. We can’t be paying $2,200 a class if our competitors are paying twice as much.’ It’s about setting a bottom line across the entire metropolitan area,” Lornell said.

The service employees union talked quietly for two years about an D.C.-wide effort to organize at universities, Lornell said. But they started pushing harder and more publicly after pro-union steps at American and Georgetown.

Pablo Eisenberg, a member of Georgetown’s part-time faculty organizing committee and a senior fellow at its Public Policy Institute, said adjuncts there have seen a lack of job security, course distribution and office space.

“I think the aim is trying to get a fair and equitable package for adjuncts, which provides them with a better salary, academic rights and management support for classes,” Eisenberg said.

The Georgetown administration sent out a letter last week about the growing campaign, and Eisenberg added, “from the tone of that letter I don’t think Georgetown will fight back.”

If they gather enough signatures, Georgetown adjuncts will hold a vote through National Labor Relations Board. They will need more than 40 percent of part-time professors to approve the union before they can begin contract negotiations.

Adjuncts at GW unionized in 2007 against a groundswell of administrative opposition, including a legal battle. Since then, they have negotiated three contracts to raise adjunct salaries by more than $1,300 per course.

“Since our first round of collective bargaining negotiations in 2007, our relationship with the part-time faculty bargaining unit has been very positive and constructive,” Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs Dianne Martin said.

Lornell said the larger issue is that too often administrators point to the minimum rate, which is set in contract negotiations, as the normal pay rate, instead of looking at credentials and experience.

“Our bottom line is that if we’re asked to do exactly the same work and we have the same qualification, we want the same pay,” Lornell said.

 

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