Attention, part-time profs: Are you in or are you out? Starting today, adjunct faculty at American University will begin voting on whether or not to join the Service Employees International Union.

Supporters say collective bargaining can help improve pay and job security for adjuncts, the academic world’s version of migrant labor. Non-tenure-track faculty are generally paid much less than their tenured counterparts ($3,000-$4,000 per course at American, according to union advocates; the average salary at the school is $70,626 for an assistant professor and $150,025 for a full professor).

“We’re over 40 percent of the faculty at AU, but we essentially get four percent of the salary budget,” says Erik Cooke, an adjunct instructor in the university’s philosophy department and supporter of unionization. “We’re highly-trained, committed faculty members, just like full-time professors,” he says.

At AU, some 500 adjuncts handle roughly 30 percent of the courseload, according to Camille Lepre, an AU spokeswoman. The school is hardly alone in relying on cheap scholarly labor. In his book How the University Works, Marc Bousquet writes that non-tenure-trackers now represent 75 percent of all teaching positions in American higher education, up from 25 percent in 1970.

“I know adjuncts who cobble their life together with part-time jobs outside of school. They work evenings, they work weekends,” says Mark Plane, a Public Archaeologist in Residence at AU. Plane is teaching three classes this year for $2,900 apiece. He is also providing administrative support in the anthropology department. For his efforts, he takes home a total of $19,700, with no benefits.

Plane’s employer, though, is not so fond of the notion of a union. In an email, Lepre disputes the union advocates’ assertions about adjuncts’ wages. “$3,000-4,000 is not a viable average and the university doesn’t agree with it as a ballpark,” she writes. “There are many adjuncts outside that range.” (She wouldn’t say what range the university thinks is more accurate.)

Besides, she says, full-timers have responsibilities beyond teaching. “Tenure and tenure-track faculty are not only teaching classes; they perform research, serve on department committees, represent the university in other ways, and have other obligations and responsibilities that adjunct faculty do not have.”

The school’s public response to the election has been muted. Questioned about AU’s stance on the election, Lepre directed Washington City Paper to a December letter to the campus community from Provost Scott Bass. “As the election process unfolds, the university welcomes free and fair exchange of views on the advantages and disadvantages of the union for our community,” Bass wrote.

Bass cast AU as a decent employer, noting increases in the budget for adjunct pay, free parking, and professional development grants. Though the administration says it has “concerns” about unionization, it has professed its neutrality in the coming vote.

What are those concerns? Under the mantle of “Frequently Asked Questions,” on a website devoted to the union vote, the university notes that most SEIU contracts require union membership as a condition for employment, it is very difficult to “decertify” a union should the professors change their mind, and that adjuncts should expect to pay $26 a paycheck in union dues.

It’s true that SEIU would represent all AU adjuncts, according to Anne McLeer, Local 500’s director of research and strategic planning. McLeer contests that $26-a-paycheck claim, though: Local 500 union dues are $29 a month, she says, and professors who choose not to join the union would pay a fee equivalent to about 85 percent of member dues. That works out to $24.65 a month.

The votes will be counted on Feb. 16. A simple majority will determine the outcome.

What AU’s adjuncts will get for their dues isn’t entirely clear. The organize-the-adjuncts campaign has been going on at private universities across the country. Locally, SEIU has represented George Washington University adjuncts since 2004. SEIU hasn’t eradicated the gap between part-timers and full-timers, but they have scored increases in pay. After unionization, the minimum per course jumped from $2,500 to $3,300 in GWU’s English department, an increase that McLeer said was typical across departments. Now, adjunct faculty at GWU are paid at least $3,400 or $3,915 a course depending on credentials. “If I made that, last semester would have been a hell of a lot easier,” Plane says.

The only major benefit available to GWU adjuncts is a retirement plan with no university contribution. As for job security, GWU is now obliged to give back to adjuncts any course they have taught for four semesters or more, unless they stop offering it to students altogether.

Across the District line, SEIU Local 500 organized adjuncts at Montgomery College in 2008. But at this cash-strapped community college, the union only got an 11 percent pay increase, according to McLeer. Other perks in the contract include a professional development fund and the opportunity for veteran adjuncts to get annual appointments. The union has gotten enhanced paid leave and a stipend for participation in the school’s wellness program, but not health insurance or other benefits.

Nationwide, only 8 percent of adjuncts at private colleges and universities are unionized. Most of their unions have sprung up within last ten years. “The range in gains is tremendous, from virtual revolution in conditions and pay to small incremental gains,” according to Joe Berry, author of Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education. Columbia College in Chicago may be on the “incremental” end of that range. Before adjunct faculty there unionized in 1994, they earned $1,440 per course. Now they get anywhere between $1,500 and $4,770, but still don’t enjoy any benefits or job security measures. New York University adjuncts have been more successful. When they joined United Auto Workers in 2004, they secured a 19 percent pay raise over six years. They now also have access to health insurance, a pension, and an arbitration process to address employee grievances. And at the New School, UAW won dramatic increases in minimum pay. It was about $35 an hour before 2005; by 2008 hourly pay ranged from $53 to $95.

Despite the uneven gains elsewhere, union supporters at AU enter the election period confident. “It just makes sense,” Cooke says of unionization. “We have just as much training and just as much commitment to our students as other faculty members. The disparity there needs to be equalized.”