Adjuncts Consider Unionizing
Citing low pay and limited benefits, some adjuncts look to join a DC-wide union
Published: Tuesday, November 6, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, November 6, 2012 02:11
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, 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.