by Braden McDonald
Building on its success in unionizing adjunct faculty members at The George Washington University and American University, officials of the Service Employees International Union Local 500 Coalition of Academic Labor have begun marshalling support for a similar union at Georgetown.
According to Kip Lornell (pictured left), vice president for higher education at SEIU Local 500, the union has begun discussions with interested Georgetown faculty and hopes to develop a presence on campus in the coming months.
The union has drawn interest among adjunct faculty at Georgetown, who cite unsatisfactory wages and working conditions as compelling reasons to form a union.
Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute and adjunct member of Georgetown’s faculty for 12 years, supports the unionization effort.
“Adjunct faculty throughout this country … are basically what I’ve called … the ‘untouchables’ of our higher education caste system,” he said. “They are grossly underpaid, have no benefits, no academic rights [and] are badly treated in many cases by tenured faculty who look upon them, in some sense, as third-class teachers.”
Eisenberg said he fears that low wages for adjunct faculty, which he claims average in the thousands of dollars per course and are below minimum wage if divided by the number of hours involved in teaching, preparation and grading, may have adverse effects on the quality of teaching at Georgetown.
“If adjunct faculty are not taken care of, not treated better, not given the wherewithal that classroom teachers require, their students are going to suffer as much as they do,” he said. “There’s a link between the treatment of adjuncts and the quality of teaching in the classroom.”
According to a June 2012 report by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, the median compensation per course for adjunct faculty nationwide was $2,700 in fall 2010. In contrast, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the annual median salary for full professors in the same year was about $116,000, equivalent to about $20,000 per course assuming each professor taught three courses each semester.
Eisenberg added that a growing proportion of instructors at Georgetown are adjunct professors rather than full-time, tenure-track professors. The Hoya previously reported April 28 that there are about 200 adjunct faculty members at Georgetown, a figure that is almost double that of a decade ago.
Those numbers reflect a nationwide trend. According to a study by the New America Foundation, the proportion of teaching positions filled by adjunct faculty rose from 36 percent in 1985 to 48 percent in 2005.
This, in part, explains the growing movement for faculty unionization at D.C. colleges. Adjunct faculty at The George Washington University unionized in affiliation with SEIU Local 500 in 2000, and, according to Lornell, adjunct faculty at American University should have a union in place by Jan. 1 of next year.
Barbara Wien, an adjunct professor in the justice and peace studies program and supporter of the SEIU movement, said that in addition to low wages, adjunct faculty suffer from job insecurity and insufficient access to the university’s resources.
“The big thing is that … you never really know if you’re going to be teaching from semester to semester … because [adjunct] faculty can be laid off at any time,” she said. “We’re not really supported very much as professors in terms of our book orders in the bookstore, and there are occasions where I have not been paid for weeks on end because payroll got screwed up. … We kind of fall between the cracks.”
Wien added that the university does little to facilitate collaboration between adjunct faculty, a reality that she hopes would be overturned by the formation of a union.
“I’ve never really met my counterparts because we’re so scattered,” she said. “I’ve met five other adjuncts, and they’re all positive about unionization.”
The university sent an email to faculty Sept. 28 signed by Provost Robert Groves, Executive Dean of the School of Medicine Howard Federoff and Dean of Georgetown University Law Center William Treanor acknowledging that SEIU Local 500 has begun to corral adjunct faculty to unionize and encouraged those faculty members to explore their options.
“Our university respects employees’ rights to freely associate and organize, which includes voting for or against union representation without intimidation, unjust pressure, undue delay or hindrance in accordance with applicable law,” the email read. “Georgetown encourages adjunct faculty members to gather information about SEIU Local 500 and the process by which a union can become the exclusive bargaining representative for a group of employees under federal labor law.”
Both Eisenberg and Wien acknowledged the university’s strong track record in negotiating with the newly formed union of Aramark workers within the last year as a promising sign of its willingness to cooperate with a union of adjunct faculty.
“We do have a precedent at Georgetown in terms of cafeteria workers … so hopefully the administration will be open to this union as well,” Wien said.
According to Lornell, this attitude marks a significant shift from the resistance adjunct faculty at GWU faced in 2000 from their administration. Lornell said that the university tied up the union in various appeals processes for 18 months before agreeing to enter negotiations.
“[GWU] was carried into this kicking and screaming, [but] I think they rather like it now in some ways because it gives them a sense of control,” he said. “The union has standardized things. … Unionization is not the devil that has come out from behind the tree.”
Lornell said that the GWU union has guaranteed its members greater job security because its contract with the university forces the administration to guarantee the renewal of contracts except in specific circumstances, including curriculum changes and national disasters.
Despite the potential benefits of forming a union, however, not all adjunct faculty members are behind the movement. Though Sarah Stiles, a visiting assistant professor in the sociology department, agreed that adjunct faculty face inferior working conditions, she is not interested in joining a union.
“My feeling is that I hate that it has come to this. The only reason that people unionize is because they’ve been pushed to the point that they can’t take it any longer. I think it’s an embarrassment that higher education would do this to our own,” she said. “I personally don’t want to be part of a union, but I know it is necessary for many people.”
Eisenberg recognized that convincing enough adjunct faculty to sign the authorization cards necessary to form a union will be a challenge moving forward.
“I think that because so many adjuncts at Georgetown are basically well-off people who are professionals … that love teaching and want to get a little more experience, they’re sort of among the elite and they don’t care about the money as do adjuncts as a whole. So it’s tougher at Georgetown to unionize than at other comparable universities,” he said. “But it’s not just how you’re faring. It’s about how the mass of adjuncts are faring, and I urge people to think about that and not their own little private concern.”
According to federal labor law, at least 30 percent of employees must sign a petition to the National Labor Relations Board declaring their interest before a union can be formed. Though Lornell and Eisenberg could not give exact figures as to the number of adjunct faculty now enlisted, they stressed that the movement at Georgetown is only in its beginning phases.
Lornell and Eisenberg both said that unionizing under SEIU Local 500 is ideal because it has the potential to change the standard for hiring adjunct faculty District wide. He hopes the formation of a union at Georgetown will also inspire similar movements at Catholic University of America, Howard University and the University of the District of Columbia.
“The basic tenet is that there is strength in numbers,” Lornell said. “Once we have close to half the folks who are adjuncts in the Washington area in a union — and once we have a contract at Georgetown we will have a clear majority of people — the bottom line will be that if you want to hire part-time faculty in D.C., you have to meet our requirements.”
This originally appeared in The Hoya and is used here with permission.