The Fight of Their Lives: Can Adjuncts Finally Win a Living Wage?


Seattle may have become one of the first cities to pass a $15 minimum wage last year, but the city’s adjunct instructors say that the dictum for fair pay has yet to penetrate the Ivory Tower.

The median pay for adjuncts, who as professional workers are exempt from most minimum wage and overtime protections, is $2,700 per course nationwide, or just over $16,000 annually for a full teaching load. At Seattle University (SU), the city’s premier Jesuit college, they are paid as little as $2,200 per course, according to crowdsourced data from the Adjunct Project. When all the hours spent grading, meeting with students and preparing for class are factored in, the school’s instructors say that this likely amounts to less than minimum wage—a claim echoed by adjuncts instructors nationwide.

As a result, the “Fight for 15” is now headed to college, as adjunct instructors at SU and a host of other schools press for union representation, a wage bump and expanded job protections for contingent faculty who often live course to course, with no long-term contract or track to tenure. Last month, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) announced a new nationwide “Faculty Forward” campaign that will push for a minimum compensation standard of $15,000 per college course taught, plus benefits. That figure would represent a dramatic increase over adjunct instructors’ current pay, but the same was true when SEIU-affiliated groups began demanding $15 for fast-food workers three years ago. Could the Fight for 15 gain traction in the academy?

Thou Shalt Not Unionize

Momentum for adjunct justice is building in the wake of National Adjunct Walkout Day on February 25, when faculty members and supporters at more than 100 campuses nationwide held walkouts, teach-ins and rallies. At Seattle University, adjunct instructors say about 400 faculty and students participated in a walkout and march through campus. Now, a string of recent decisions by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is likely to provide a boost to the campaignby clearing a path for new adjunct unions at SU and a host of other schools.

Earlier this month, Seattle University’s regional NLRB removed a major barrier to collective bargaining at the school, ruling that it could not claim exemption from federal labor law based on its Jesuit identity. Following an SEIU-assisted organizing effort, adjunct faculty at SU voted in June 2014 on whether or not to affiliate with the union. But as the result of a challenge from the university, which claimed that as a religiously affiliated school it is not subject to the jurisdiction of the NLRB—and that submitting to this jurisdiction would violate its free-speech rights—the union ballots have been impounded ever since.

Louisa Edgerly, an adjunct instructor of journalism and communications at SU, says that the school’s response to adjunct organizing has been a “study in stall tactics.” She says that in addition to claiming a religious exemption, the university has retained an anti-union law firm and enlisted academic deans in a “no” campaign. “Most religiously-affiliated universities make this claim when they face union activity,” she says.“It’s an obvious delay tactic, meant to drag out the process as long as possible in a contingent and temporary workforce where that is very effective [in defeating unions].”

Unless the university appeals the decision this month, the ballots will be counted, and if the ayes have it, the union certified.

Asked by AlterNet if the university would appeal, an SU spokesperson said the administration was “reviewing the decision and considering next steps.” A statement provided said that the university “has taken significant steps to improve the compensation and working conditions for both full-time and part-time non-tenure track faculty and make sure they a voice in faculty governance.”

Even prior to the announcement of the new Faculty Forward campaign, adjunct organizing was on the rise, as non-academic unions like SEIU and the United Steelworkers (USW) have won bids in recent years to represent non-tenure-track faculty at dozens of private colleges and universities. Faced with this flurry of union activity, universities have responded with measures that critics say derive straight from the union-busting playbook, in many cases retaining top-dollar “union avoidance” lawyers and sending videos and letters discouraging faculty from voting “yes” to union representation. At least six religiously affiliated universities facing union campaigns have claimed that their employees are not entitled to collective bargaining, despite, in some cases, religious doctrine and social teachings on workers' rights that say just the opposite.

But in December, the NLRB issued a game-changing ruling in the case of Pacific Lutheran University, which had sought to block a union petition on the grounds of both a religious exemption and the claim that its full-time non-tenure-track faculty had managerial powers that made them ineligible for collective bargaining. The NLRB’s decision stipulates that just because a school is religious, doesn’t mean its faculty can’t unionize—instead, the school must demonstrate that the faculty attempting to organize perform specific religious duties. The NLRB also created new standards to determine whether faculty members have enough power to be considered “managerial” employees and therefore ineligible for union membership. All in all, the ruling could open the door for scores of new union campaigns at private universities among both contingent and tenure-track faculty, who at present are effectively barred from unionizing.

Whither 15?

Even with unions, adjuncts face an uphill battle in changing their working conditions. William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, notes that the $15,000 figure is “aspirational in nature,” and that per-course compensation for non-tenure-track-faculty negotiated through recent collective bargaining agreements has been much lower. At Tufts University, for example, a contract negotiated last fall by an SEIU-affiliated union provides pay increases of more than 20 percent for non-tenure-track faculty, amounting to a wage floor of $7,300 per course by 2016.

But union staffers say Faculty Forward is as much about starting a conversation about higher education spending as it is setting a firm target. Like its fast-food predecessor, the campaign will proceed through media and policy advocacy, in addition to on-the-ground union organizing. To advance the idea of a substantial pay hike for contingent faculty, the union is also gathering data on how much uncompensated work adjuncts do nationwide, and examining state and federal policy initiatives that could improve their eligibility for public benefit programs and help hold particularly bad employers accountable. As it stands, adjuncts often struggle with eligibility for benefits such as unemployment insurance and have been rebuffed by the courts in previous attempts to gain access to overtime pay through state minimum wage laws.

For now, says SEIU, the $15,000 proposal will not necessarily serve as a benchmark in contract negotiations at individual schools where adjuncts have won unions. Some recently unionized adjuncts are balking, however, at a strategy of proposing one figure to the media while asking for substantially less at the bargaining table. At Bentley University, where adjuncts voted to unionize with SEIU last month, some faculty organizers say they were confused when the union rolled out the $15,000 proposal publicly, then told them that aiming for a pay increase of that magnitude in their upcoming contract negotiations was unrealistic.

“This doesn’t seem to square with the Faculty Forward initiative,” says Jack Dempsey, an adjunct professor of English at Bentley who helped lead the union drive. “Why should our own negotiators be telling us to settle before we even reach the bargaining table?”

Seattle University’s Louisa Edgerly, meanwhile, acknowledges that $15,000 is a “long-term goal,” but sees value in symbolically linking the struggles of low-wage workers inside and outside of the academy. “Frequently, there’s a public perception that professors have it all,” she notes. “Sharing our experiences with other low-wage workers shows them that they are not uniquely persecuted in their particular jobs—this whole economy is bad for workers.”

She adds that the campaign for a $15 minimum wage in Seattle likewise “galvanized” her fellow instructors: “The more we can see the connections between the conditions we are struggling with and the conditions other workers are struggling with, the stronger we get.”

On April 15, the same day that fast-food workers plan to rally nationwide in the next phase of the Fight for 15, adjuncts will join the call for higher wages with a day of action coordinated through Faculty Forward. Learn more here.

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