The Services Employee International Union, Local 500, which represents part-time faculty, has strongly defended its position at Georgetown University, though questions still remain about the sudden resignation of adjunct computer science professor Matthew Devost on Feb. 8.
Devost claims he had no choice but to resign after being told he was out of compliance with the collective bargaining agreement between the university and the SEIU Local 500. Devost did not pay union dues after he alleged that union representatives harassed him to join the process of unionization that occurred two years ago.
Adjunct faculty member and longtime member of the original union negotiating team Kerry Danner-McDonald said the process of running a union is an ever-evolving act. She condemned any coercive tactics and regretted that the situation had been allowed to escalate to the level at which Devost resigned.
“Whenever a union comes in there’s going to be some changes. I think what happened in that situation is really unfortunate,” Danner-McDonald said. “I don’t condone any type of coercive tactics.”
Danner-McDonald also said in order to avoid similar situations, the union is working on establishing better communication with its members. She added that the first priority is ensuring that clear information on what being part of the union entails for faculty members is readily available.
“We would like the contract letter that goes out to part time faculty to be a little more explicit,” Danner-McDonald said. “People would know exactly what it means before they join. Right now there’s [only] a link to click on.”
Danner-McDonald defended the ability of the SEIU Local 500 to force adjuncts and part-time faculty to pay an agency fee to the union, even if it goes against the part-time faculty member’s wishes.
The agency fee entails paying 80 percent of current full-time union dues, but this monetary amount can be donated to charity if a conflict of interest arises. According to Devost, the union rejected his appeal to get exemption status based upon ideological grounds.
Danner-McDonald said part-time faculty members still receive the benefits the union negotiates for the part-time professors, even if they are not part of the union, and therefore should acknowledge that fact.
“Whatever benefits we gain, it affects everyone,” Danner-McDonald said. “The agency fee is about addressing the issue of free ridership. There can’t be free riders who say, ‘I don’t want to pay, but I get all the benefits.’”
SEIU Local 500 Political Director Anne McLeer declined to comment on Devost’s specific situation. McLeer noted that the agency fee and Union dues are based on an independent audit of the union’s finances. McLeer also defended the agency fee as a necessary step to ensure the union can continue to function.
“The rationale behind the agency fee, which was ratified by a majority of Georgetown adjuncts, is that everybody is represented so everybody should pay a fair share of the costs,” McLeer said. “The way the agency fee is calculated is based on an independent audit.”
McLeer did criticize the professors who refused to pay the agency fee, noting they have had multiple opportunities to reject the unionization process when it first came about in 2014.
According to McLeer, even if some adjuncts did not want a union, they would still be welcome to work with the organizing team or local union leadership.
“The contract was sent out to every adjunct who was teaching at the time. It was ratified by a majority of adjuncts who voted,” McLeer said. “The adjuncts had two opportunities to say no to a union. The majority of them didn’t.”
The idea of adjuncts and part-time faculty deciding to form a union came about after the number of part-time university professors increased. During previous decades, Danner-McDonald said, 75 percent of the faculty was on a tenure track at a university. Now, that number has been reduced to a third, with another third of all professors being part time.
“There’s been a lot of expansion of management and a lot of corporate mentality,” Danner-McDonald said. “There’s a lot of growing pressure on departments to keep costs low and faculty as flexible as possible.”
Danner-McDonald said since its inception, the union has raised the minimum rate for professors to be paid for their courses to at least $200, established a professional development fund for part-time faculty members to be reimbursed to further their research and established a just-cause consideration so that faculty members cannot be let go without explanation.
McLeer encouraged any part-time or adjunct faculty members with misgivings to come to union meetings and voice concerns. She said the union exists to benefit the part-time faculty, who need a voice in the political process.
“I would encourage adjuncts to come to meetings, to get involved, to call us, to be active and really to try to make the union as vibrant and strong as it could possibly be,” McLeer said. “It’s about having a voice and a platform to address issues.”
The union represents around 400 to 450 part-time professors every year. Around 35 percent of part-time faculty members voted to ratify the collective bargaining agreement between the union and Georgetown in 2014 when it was proposed. Only around 50 percent in total voted.
“Through our continued work together, part-time faculty members in our community will feel as welcomed and valued as other faculty members,” the Office of the Provost’s original announcement of the union read. “We want to honor what each individual brings to his or her work.”
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