More College Adjuncts See Strength in Union Numbers

by TAMAR LEWIN, New York Times, 12/3/13

BOSTON — Gillian Mason was passionate about literature in college, so she made a career of it, earning a Ph.D. in American studies from Boston University. She had part-time teaching jobs on different campuses, but after 10 years as an adjunct she realized that she would never find a tenure-track job, or even one that paid a living wage.

“I was teaching five classes at three different campuses. I was quickly going broke and my student debt was still growing,” she said.

So Ms. Mason left teaching and became a higher-education organizer, part of a movement catching on across American campuses where adjunct faculty members, the working poor of academia, are turning to collective action.

Only a quarter of the academic work force is tenured, or on track for tenure, down from more than a third in 1995. The majority hold contingent jobs — mostly part-time adjuncts but also graduate assistants and full-time lecturers. And the Service Employees International Union, with members in health care, maintenance and public service, is moving hard and fast to add the adjuncts to their roster, organizing at private colleges in several urban areas.

In Washington, it has unionized American University, Georgetown, George Washington and Montgomery College. In the Los Angeles area, adjuncts at Whittier College and the University of La Verne just filed with the National Labor Relations Board for a union election. In Boston, Tufts University’s part-time faculty voted to join the service employees’ union in September, and an October vote at Bentley University failed by two votes. Campaigns are underway at Northeastern and Lesley.

“The S.E.I.U. strategy has the momentum right now,” said Adrianna Kezar, director of the University of Southern California’s Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success. “And we know that unionizing leads to pay increases and at least the beginnings of benefits.”

A survey published last year by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce found that unionized adjuncts earned 25 percent more per course than those who were not unionized.

At the service employees’ union’s recent Adjunct Action symposium in Boston, organizers talked of how a citywide union might help to raise pay, improve working conditions and address the health benefits problem: Under the Affordable Care Act, employers with more than 50 employees will be required to provide health insurance to those who work at least 30 hours a week — and in a recent survey of human resources officers by Inside Higher Ed, nearly half said their colleges or universities limited adjuncts’ hours so they would not be eligible for health benefits. When the union’s organizers asked those at the adjunct symposium what they would most like to change, health insurance was right up there with pay and working conditions. …

read more including links, at New York Times

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