More than a year ago, part-time adjunct faculty at the University of the District of Columbia voted to unionize. They were following the lead of hundreds of other adjuncts who had unionized and won contracts at some of the city’s prestigious private universities, like George Washington, Georgetown, and American.

But at D.C.’s only public university, one of the nation’s most successful metropolitan area adjunct organizing drives has hit a roadblock as adjuncts face unforeseen bargaining challenges coming from the administration. UDC adjuncts and their union officials with Service Employees International Union Local 500 say that at first the school dragged its feet while they waited at the bargaining table. But now that they’ve finally come to the table, the union alleges that the administration refuses to negotiate on most contract demands because of D.C.’s public-employer-friendly collective bargaining law.

Protection by the National Labor Relations Act has led unions most recently to target organizing adjuncts at private schools. Public university faculty, however, are subject to state-level collective bargaining laws, which can vary greatly. At UDC, that’s made getting a contract difficult.

“There is a very wide management rights provision in the law,” says Steve Schwartz, counsel for the Local 500, restricting concessions that are normally subject to collective bargaining. “It takes a lot of things right off the table without any further discussion. The system is not set up for dialogue.”

For the UDC adjuncts, who are public employees, the administration has the right to not negotiate over matters of job security, retention, evaluations, and some instances of safety on the job. Union officials say that this is impeding the bargaining process and dragging out negotiations. “The frustrating thing is that we’re having difficulty even talking to them. They are fearful of waiving their management rights” by even agreeing to talk about those specific demands, Schwartz says.

In a statement to Washington City Paper, UDC would only say that contract negotiations are ongoing and that the “parties continue to negotiate in good faith and look forward to a positive resolution.”

The SEIU Local 500’s adjunct efforts began about ten years ago in a contentious battle to reach a contract agreement for part-time faculty at George Washington University. After the first win, Georgetown came next. Then, like dominoes, adjuncts on campuses around the District kept voting to unionize one by one. SEIU’s national headquarters took notice early on of the successes happening in their own backyard and used the local D.C. effort as a springboard into an ambitious national adjunct campaign first dubbed Adjunct Action and later renamed Faculty Forward.

“Faculty in Washington, D.C., blazed the trail for a national movement that is both raising standards in higher education and creating a new level of activism on campus,” SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said in a statement. “Since their success joining together in SEIU Local 500, faculty at dozens of colleges and universities have joined SEIU.”

UDC is a highly dependent on part-time instructors—about 55 percent of the faculty are part time, according to 2013 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, which includes both two-year and four-year faculty. And the union is working to bring issues of low pay, tenuous employment, and an implicit exclusion from the institution’s mainstream to the bargaining table.

“They’re refusing in many ways to respect and value the importance of their part-time faculty,” says SEIU Local 500’s Higher Education Director Anne McLeer. “They feel disrespected. They feel disposable.”

Over the past couple years, Colin Cooper has worked as a part-time adjunct for the psychology department. She has a PhD in industrial organizational psychology and was a tenured professor at Bowie State University in Maryland. Before coming to UDC, Cooper had previously taught at a number of other universities, including Catholic University and University of Maryland, College Park. As an African-American woman, she had wanted to come to UDC to mentor students of color in the psychology department. And a friend had told her that UDC’s pay for adjuncts was better than at Catholic, so she took a teaching position. But she soon realized that teaching part-time at UDC was different than her previous schools. “When I got there, I wasn’t given the pay I was told,” Cooper says. “It was not a consistent, transparent selection process or salary process in terms of determining pay.”

At her previous schools, Cooper says there was a clear ranking system for adjunct appointments and pay. But at UDC, colleagues who had less academic experience were apparently getting paid far more than her.When it came to mentoring UDC’s students of color—about 60 percent of its students are black—she was only paid for her time spent teaching and grading. Everything else was on her own time.

“They want to maintain the power, an ad hoc pool that they can pull out as they please and not something that will provide any structure,” Cooper says.

Patricia George has worked as an adjunct at UDC for about a dozen years, most recently teaching English, writing composition, and reading improvement at the UDC Community College. Her employment is never certain, and can depend on the whims of enrollment numbers semester by semester. In addition to that uncertainty, she says that at about $3,000 per course the pay is low compared to other universities in the city. Plus, the pay is irregular. “They only pay us twice a semester,” says George, who is a member of the collective bargaining team. “You have to wait ’til midterms and finals to a get a paycheck.”

Such grievances—a lack of job security and consideration of experience, among others—are some of the issues the union is trying to address with a new contract. But so far, UDC appears to be resisting meaningful dialogue by using D.C. labor law as a legal shield.

Meanwhile, Local 500 continues to push onward in other places. Rather astoundingly, the union has organized about 80 percent of the city’s adjuncts—a success that’s unmatched by any other organizing effort. It’s currently bargaining an adjunct contract at Howard University, which would be a first at a historically black college or university. Also, after most recently unionizing adjuncts at Trinity Washington University, the union is now launching into contract negotiations. The biggest holdout beside UDC is Catholic.

It’s also moved beyond the District’s borders, unionizing adjuncts at the Maryland Institute College of Art and Montgomery County Community College and holding a vote at Goucher College in Baltimore, though the results are being contested in the NLRB. The union says that a number of other small private schools and possibly more community colleges in Maryland are in the pipeline.

The local’s success among adjuncts in the D.C. metro area could set them up to be even more of a beacon. Union strategists in the adjunct movement have theorized about the possibility of negotiating citywide contracts once part-timers are unionized to hold enough leverage over administrations. Ideally, this could lead to citywide compensation floors, joint retirement funds, and what would essentially be an adjunct job bank.

So as Local 500 continues to broaden organizing to Maryland (and possibly for-profits), it’s also thinking about the next steps in D.C.

“Little by little, we’re trying to put the pieces together,” McLeer says. “We have to finds ways and means, carrots and sticks to get the employers to come together to bargain in some way.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery