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labor Adjuncts Struggle to Unionize at a Liberal College

Adjuncts make up about 70% of the American professoriate. Adjuncts usually make $20,000–$25,000 a year, often by teaching courses at various institutions each semester. They have no job security, and frequently receive no health or retirement benefits. But they have begun fighting to improve their lot. SEIU is organizing in several states.

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, workdayminnesota.org
Adjunct Action Day on February 25 highlighted the working conditions of adjuncts, who make up about 70% of the American professoriate. Adjuncts usually make $20,000–$25,000 a year, often by teaching courses at various institutions each semester. They have no job security, and frequently receive no health or retirement benefits. But they have begun fighting to improve their lot. SEIU is organizing in several states. In the Baltimore/ DC area it has formed adjunct faculty unions at several colleges and universities, Georgetown and American University among them. At Goucher College in Baltimore, SEIU is struggling to have a pro-union vote recognized by the administration.
For the past 25 years I’ve taught at this small liberal arts college that purports to value inclusion and fairness. We value diversity in staff, faculty, and students. We do anti-racist work. Yet approximately 60% of our faculty are adjuncts—lower than the national average, but shockingly high for an expensive selective college. When SEIU came to Goucher with the goal of representing full-, part-, and half-time adjuncts, the College’s values were put to the test, and the College failed.
In the fall of 2014 SEIU assisted adjunct faculty members in forming an organizing committee. It also enlisted the aid of some tenured faculty members, myself included, and student activist organizations. The administration declared it would remain neutral on the matter, but the President also urged adjunct faculty members to carefully weigh a pro-union vote claiming that a union would change Goucher’s culture. (Given that he had been at the College for 3 months at the time, many questioned his understanding of that culture.) The administration also emailed faculty, acknowledging that union organizers were on campus and advising faculty to call Security if they were fearful. Union supporters were enraged by this line, as it reinforced a stereotype of union organizers as thugs. It was not the rhetoric we expected from a progressive college. We also did not expect a progressive college to hire Jackson Lewis, a law firm known for its anti-union work. But despite the College’s efforts, a majority of the adjunct faculty voted to hold an election on being represented by SEIU.
Although the December union election was initially declared a tie, the union clearly would have won if challenges had not left the outcome in the balance. Goucher contested a substantial percentage of the votes, about 10%, despite the fact that the College itself had provided the list of eligible adjunct faculty to SEIU. After a hearing, the NLRB ruled against all but two challenges. The union had won, though both sides had two weeks to file exceptions to the ruling. At 5 PM on the deadline day, Jackson Lewis’s lawyers contested the accepted ballots. The case is now going to federal court. This is the Goucher Administration’s version of neutrality.
My commitment to unions is rooted partially in my experience growing up working-class. When I was very young, my father was laid off from a deli. Desperate to support me and my pregnant mother, he tried selling tombstones door to door, wearing the requisite 1950s suit with white shirt, starched with pasta water my frugal mom had saved for this purpose. Because my father eventually got a union job, my family could have a small house, a car, and, most important, economic security. “Without unions, the working person is nothing,” Dad said. I knew he was right.
As someone from a union family, I am angered by the Administrations’ response, but I am also disappointed in many of my colleagues. We pro-union tenured faculty members circulated a letter of support among our other tenured and tenure-track faculty. A number signed, but several refused without explanation or repeatedly made excuses about being too busy. More troubling, some adjunct faculty were openly hostile to the union. Often these were faculty members in relatively good adjunct positions (full- as opposed to part-time, with access to some benefits), and often they had partners with high incomes. Some were wealthy. Many of these faculty members were active in causes such as prison education, anti-racist work, and advocacy for the homeless, yet they did not empathize with faculty members who need their Goucher salaries. They did not want to advocate for social justice at home.
Also, some faculty enjoy the prestige of teaching at a formerly women’s college that was once seen as a step away from the seven sisters. They do not want to be associated with the Service Employees International Union, or perhaps not with any union. One full-time adjunct faculty member described joining a union as “the last resort.”
While the faculty response to the Goucher College effort was disappointing, the student response was overwhelmingly positive. Approximately 500 of Goucher’s 1400 students signed a letter in support of the union. We might chalk up this action to youthful idealism, but I think the commitment goes deeper. Students, perhaps especially liberal arts students, are well aware of the paucity of good jobs. They know that after four years of college they may be asked to take an unpaid internship. The term “precariat” describes so many of their slightly older friends’ lives. Young people know they likely cannot rise on their own merits and that their lives will be markedly more difficult than their parents’, if something doesn’t change.
As a tenured full professor, I have no vested interest in an adjunct faculty union at Goucher College or anywhere else. However, I want all the people with whom I work to have economic security. As distasteful as the actions of the Goucher Administration and other college administrations that have taken anti-union stances may be, they could not be successful if tenured faculty were not complicit. It is up to the tenured faculty at Goucher to demand social justice for adjunct faculty. It is up to the tenured faculty at all institutions to advocate for fair treatment of all faculty.
Michelle M. Tokarczyk
Michelle M. Tokarczyk, a professor of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, has been active in working-class studies for over twenty-five years and has published numerous books and articles in the field.