by John Gillie
In a case that could set a national precedent, Pacific Lutheran University is taking legal steps this week to block the formation of a union to represent contingent faculty members at the Parkland university.
The university, which has held occasional conversations for months with representatives of those temporary faculty members, has filed objections with the National Labor Relations Board to an election that would determine whether the Service Employees International Union will represent 176 contingent faculty members in negotiations concerning wages, benefits and working conditions.
The SEIU says it already represents about 15,000 of those nontenure-track employees at universities on the East Coast and in California. PLU is the first university in the Northwest at which contingent faculty members are asking to decide whether the union will represent them. The union has brought an organizer from the East to help with the union efforts at PLU.
Contingent employees typically are hired on a course-by-course basis to augment the work of regular faculty members. At PLU, and many other higher education institutions, they are paid significantly less per course, and those who teach fewer than three courses a year receive no benefits.
Contingent faculty members, and some tenured faculty, said in open letters published in the campus newspaper this month that the university needs to give serious consideration to the working arrangements of the contingent faculty.
PLU’s own figures show that contingent faculty members taught almost one-third of the credit hours last year.
PLU Provost Steve Starkovich, who had been publicly silent on the union organizing effort, issued a statement distributed widely Monday afternoon on the campus that said the university believes federal court decisions “raise very serious doubts as to whether the NLRB has jurisdiction over PLU.”
The university in hearings last week and Monday before the NLRB in Seattle raised two basic issues:
• The contingent faculty works under too many different arrangements and for such widely ranging numbers of hours for them to have sufficient “community of interest” issues to be represented by the union. Thirty-nine of the contingent faculty are full time. Part-timers totaled 137.
• The university contends that as a religiously affiliated institution, the school doesn’t fall under the National Labor Relations Act.
PLU flew in former university president Loren Anderson to testify at Monday’s hearing in Seattle.
The university said it expects that a regional NLRB official will make a decision on the union election based on the record created this week and last. The final say, however, may rest with the NLRB in Washington, D.C., which may change its policies based on the federal court cases.
University staff members say that while Starkovich has heard the contingent faculty’s issues, not much has been done to change working conditions.
Starkovich said the process of dealing with the contingent faculty members’ issues has been moving forward, but because of the need to seek input from faculty and others before acting, the process may have gone slower than some had wanted.
The provost said the university’s humanities department spent months creating a proposal regarding contingent faculty members. Starkovich said he distributed that proposal to the university community earlier this spring to seek their reactions to the draft proposal. Only recently was he able to distribute a compilation of the results of that survey.
Amanda Feller, an associate professor of communications, said the provost agreed to appoint a task force to study the contingent staff members’ status but initially refused to allow a contingent faculty member to sit on that committee. The provost eventually relented and appointed one to the committee.
Michael Ng, a lecturer in languages and literature, said that although the faculty members came to Starkovich last year with requests to deal with pay and benefits inequities, the committee didn’t meet until March. Starkovich again said he couldn’t act unilaterally to move the committee proposal through the university community.
Ng, who has a doctorate from an English university, said his job situation is typical of contingent faculty members. He teaches four courses at PLU, four at Seattle University and one via the Internet at the University of London. His total paycheck for the year: $36,000.
Feller, who taught as a contingent faculty member in Portland for 10 years and for five years in the Puget Sound area before getting on the tenure track, said contingent faculty make a little more than half what regular faculty members make for teaching the same course.
A 2013 American Association of University Professors faculty salary survey showed PLU average faculty salaries ranged from $82,200 yearly for full professors to $47,000 for instructors. Ng said a regular faculty member typically teaches six or seven courses.
Some PLU contingent faculty members have taught at the school for more than 30 years but haven’t been made regular faculty members, said Ng.