At Duke U Adjuncts Ratify New Contract

by Ray Gronberg

Adjunct faculty in three units at Duke University voted unanimously to ratify the contract their new union negotiated with the school, union leaders said. An election in March 2016 gave the SEIU authority to bargain on behalf of full- and part-time “non-regular rank faculty” at Duke who work in Trinity College, the Graduate School and the Center for Documentary Studies. It won the representation vote 174-29.

It took Duke and the union months to agree on matters involving “compensation and professional development,” 41 union members said in an open letter sent in June 2017 to Provost Sally Kornbluth that offered their perspective on “what currently separates us.”

The decision of the SEIU-organized adjunct faculty union members means the three-year deal for “non-regular rank” faculty in Trinity College, Duke’s graduate school and the Center for Documentary Studies will take effect immediately. It runs from July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2020, said Mike Dimpfl, a union spokesman and lecturing fellow in Duke’s Thompson Writing Program.

Operationally, the changes it requires to instructors’ pay and individual teaching contracts are “all literally in process right now,” at least in the Thompson program, Dimpfl said.

The ratification vote was complete by the end of July, and followed the Service Employees International Union’s announcement a few weeks earlier that negotiators had struck a deal with Duke that promises to raise pay and teaching-contract length for a couple hundred instructors at the university who aren’t in tenure-track jobs.

“We were pleased to have the contract ratified and look forward to establishing a collaborative relationship with the union,” Duke spokeswoman Kristen Brown said, confirming that the deal’s complete.

For adjuncts represented by SEIU, the ultimate goal is “achieving equity with Duke’s tenure-track faculty,” union officials said, adding that the agreement should yield “significant progress towards this.”

To secure the unanimous vote, “we had one major thing working in our favor,” namely that “it was a very active bargaining process [where] there were a lot of people at the table throughout the year,” Dimpfl said when asked to explain how union leaders secured the adjuncts’ unanimous support.

“We had voices from all the major sub-units covered by the contract,” he said. “Once we had reached the final terms of the agreement, those people were out talking with their colleagues and faculty in other programs. Then we had a series of meetings where our lead negotiator and other people in the bargaining unit walked through the terms with people.”

The SEIU organizing drive at Duke has been of a piece with similar efforts at universities elsewhere in the country, fueled on them by the expansion in recent years of their use of off-tenure-track faculty. In the South at least, it’s given the union a chance to score victories that are harder to come by in the industrial sector.

For Dimpfl personally, the advent of the union deal “sets me up so I have freedom to teach.”

Because of the changes it forces to individual teaching contracts, the Thompson program will have to abandon its past practice of capping instructional assignments at five years before compelling an adjunct to find another job at Duke or move on to another university. Now, Dimpfl and others like him will have a “three-year contract that is in fact renewable,” provided they meet the program’s “benchmarks for teaching excellence.”

That’s “an enormous shift” for Duke because administrators had previously seen the Thompson program “as an opportunity for new faculty” instead of valuing the possibility that “our skills as teachers improve over time,” Dimpfl said.

Pay-wise, the union deal promises averages raises over its life of 14 percent for faculty paid by the course, nearly 12 percent for salaried faculty and 46 percent for instructors in Applied Music.

The SEIU has represented the adjuncts since winning a representation vote in the spring of 2016. A parallel organizing drive among Duke graduate students, however, failed earlier this year.

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