Attention American University students: Some of the folks who compile your report cards will soon carry union cards.
In a month-long election administered by the National Labor Relations Board, 379 AU adjuncts voted to be represented by Service Employees International Union Local 500. 284 voted against. AU joins about a dozen U.S. private college campuses where adjunct professors have unionized, most in the last decade.
At AU and elsewhere, many adjuncts complain about inadequate wages, poor job security, and a lack of respect on campus; some see unionization as a way to address their grievances.
“Universities recruit adjuncts to cut costs, even as admissions are up, tuition is up, administrative overhead is way up, building construction is up, everything is up except pay for instructors,” says Mark Plane, a part-time anthropology professor at AU and a supporter of SEIU. “This is a moment in which people are saying ‘enough is enough.’”
The results were tallied and certified yesterday at the NLRB’s downtown office. About 1500 professors—including some who last taught a course as far back as 2010—were eligible to vote. Plane says he looks forward to “somewhat better pay, somewhat better job security, and substantially more dignity.”
But the AU administration argues that the vote wasn’t a referendum on how the university treats its employees. “Many of our faculty are historically and politically supportive of the organized labor movement, so we are not surprised,” says a university spokesperson. In an email last night to students and staff, Provost Scott Bass gave a respectful nod to the election result, and said the university expects “a constructive dialogue with the union regarding issues related to adjunct faculty employment.”
AU proclaimed its neutrality during the election period, though it did engage in some pointed pamphleteering, distributing warnings that unionization might endanger the culture of flexibility and individuality that AU academics enjoy.
Local 500, which already represents adjuncts at George Washington University and Montgomery College, will now form a “bargaining team” of professors to negotiate a contract with AU. Union representatives are still sorting out when exactly this process will begin.
AU profs could very well end up with a contract similar to that of George Washington adjuncts, who joined SEIU in 2004: a bump in pay (SEIU says that a typical per-course increase was from $2,500 to $3,300; minimum pay is now $3,400 to $3,915 depending on credentials), protections against arbitrary termination, a guarantee that adjuncts will retain a course after teaching it for four semesters. But they’ll pay a projected $26 per paycheck in union dues.
However, part-timers there still lack benefits and still take home a fraction of what tenured professors earn. AU’s teaching corps is equally stratified: many adjuncts receive $3,000 to $4,000 per class, while the average tenured professor makes $150,025.
“There are fewer and fewer tenure track jobs,” says Christopher Honey, communications director for SEIU Local 500. “It’s very important that we find a way for people who are in this profession to achieve a decent middle-class lifestyle.”