Why Are Adjuncts Joining Unions?

In a new post at Vitae, I argue that adjuncts and other university professors have something in common with pilots at JetBlue airlines who have recently voted to unionize after two previous failed attempts to do so.

Join the Union

The question I attempt to answer in the piece is why have these pilots just now decided to organize, when just a couple years ago they were adamantly anti-union? I believe the answer to this question will shed light on why adjunct professors have also just recently begun to unionize in large numbers.

Both groups traditionally believed that a union was unnecessary. As I point out in the article, both groups have also been regularly fed a diet of propaganda by management that attempts to convince labor they’re better off without the help of a union.

As the past year has proven, that argument has worn thin. Adjuncts, like the JetBlue pilots, have begun to stand up for themselves and call out management for its unfulfilled promises.

Read more: We’re All Labor Now.

Fighting For an Adjunct Union in San Francisco

Adjunct professors at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) are attempting to unionize under the SEIU’s metro-organizing strategy, which is now spreading across major cities of the west coast. It’s another exciting opportunity for the successful higher ed organizing group Adjunct Action.

But SFAI administrators are fighting the union drive. The school has hired attorney Ron Holland to represent it. A bio of Holland explains that his practice “focuses exclusively on representing management in traditional labor law and employment law issues.” The union-busting campaign is underway according to Jennifer Smith-Camejo, who works in the communications department of SEIU Local 1021.

Adjuncts at the school are fighting back against the anti-union rhetoric being disseminated by SFAI and their attorney. Some have written on their personal blogs about the opposition they’ve faced, and a tumblr page has also been created to keep people posted on the latest updates. The tumblr links to a petition that anyone can sign to show support for the right to vote.

Students and teachers from SFAI and other area schools will be meeting over the next few days on and off campus to discuss the next steps.

For more information about the union effort at the San Francisco Art Institute, contact:

Jennifer Smith-Camejo, SEIU Local 1021

Adjunct Action Bay Area

Hey Unions! Wake Up!

Yesterday I was unabashedly pro-union. Today I’m going to play a bit of a skeptic.

That’s pretty much the way I’ve always dealt with unions. I like them in theory, but I sometimes wonder how much they actually do for their members. I think it’s good to challenge the union occasionally to keep it working hard for the people.

I have a little union experience myself actually. My first paycheck came from a union job. I bagged groceries at Kroger, and I paid union dues out of every paycheck. $4.23 a week. That was 1996 and I was sixteen years old.

As far as I could tell the main thing we got in exchange for our membership was a due process system that basically made it impossible to be fired. Stealing was about the only justifiable cause for a supervisor to can one of us.

Truth be told, most of my fellow baggers and cashiers—myself included—deserved to be fired at least once a week, but the management’s hands were tied. I remember thinking it was kind of absurd that our jobs were that locked down. I witnessed aggressive insubordination and drug-fueled, on-the-job antics that always went unpunished. All in exchange for $4.23 a week.

I’m sure there were serious grievances also being filed, but I never heard about any during the two years I crammed groceries into paper or plastic. The union system seemed like it was just existing. Just feeding off the corporation in some kind of asymbiotic state of dependence.

These are the times when I question the value of unions. When they seem to have stagnated and just gotten comfortable making very small token gains occasionally—just enough to project the illusion of helpfulness so people will continue paying dues.

Union Dependence

Is your union getting lazy?

On Monday, the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources released a new report known as the “Two-Year Institution Faculty-Salary Survey” that details pay raises for faculty members at community colleges and other two-year institutions. The report indicates that many faculty unions at two-year colleges are existing in the same kind of comfortable “maintenance mode” that my union at Kroger occupied.

Salaries at schools with faculty unions increased by 2.1% this year. No issue with that number per se—a raise is always a good thing. The problem is that this salary increase is almost identical to the average salary increase for faculty members at schools without faculty unions. Salaries at these schools were up 1.9% this year.

So what exactly did the unions do here? When it comes to salaries, not much. Professors did just fine without the unions and they didn’t have to pay dues, so they probably actually came out ahead financially.

Obviously there are lots of intangible benefits to having union representation. Job security for professors is probably more of a concern than it was for me and my grocery-bagging buddies, for one. And sometimes just having a union stand behind you keeps potential management bullies at bay. No question that’s also a valuable benefit that shouldn’t be denied. But is it enough to make it all worth it?

Despite my critiques, I’m of course pro-union. I think faculty unions are almost always a good idea, but I do think it’s important to shake them up a little bit from time to time. Make sure they haven’t fallen asleep and gotten comfortable living off the system. When a union is making salary gains identical to those at non-unionized schools, that’s a red flag and it should be explored more deeply.

Adjunct Action Continues to Gain Strength

There’s an excellent piece up today at The Chronicle of Higher Education on adjunct professor faculty unions. No sense trying to replicate the top notch reporting that Peter Schmidt has done regarding Adjunct Action and the SEIU. Just head over to The Chronicle‘s site and read the article.

Peter Schmidt is a senior reporter at The Chronicle, and he is the newspaper’s specialist on faculty unions. His stuff is always worth reading, but this in-depth piece of reporting on the work of Adjunct Action is especially strong.

Ever since I saw the Adjunct Action Twitter account a year or so ago, I knew the group was on to something big. I’ve been an outspoken proponent of their work since day one. The first unionization victories in Washington, DC led to the “metro-organizing” strategy which seeks to unite adjuncts by region rather than by school.

Adjunct Action Continues to Gain Strength

This makes much more sense because the turnover rate for adjuncts at a given school can be relatively high—too high to count on the strength generated by the adjunct numbers alone. Plus, if an administration found a way to force out a group of adjuncts, the union would be significantly weakened.

Not so with the metro-organizing strategy because this union gains strength from several area universities and is therefore less affected by the staffing changes at any one school.

It was this metro-organizing approach, in particular, that caught my attention. Since those early days, I’ve watched with excitement as Adjunct Action has spread from city to city: DC, Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, St, Louis, and others. New cities are being added regularly to the group’s organizing roadmap.

Adjunct Action is the closest thing I’ve seen to a national union for adjunct professors. Lots of promise and potential here. I’ll continue to promote the organization and relish its victories as it spreads across the country.

Unfortunately, as a southerner, there isn’t much chance a union will come my way in the near future. But I will, of course, be cheering on the successes of my colleagues in the north, midwest, and west coast as Adjunct Action continues to grow and gain strength.

The Unions Are Coming! What Shall We Do??

Q:   What’s the best way to prevent workers from forming a union?

A:   Make sure they don’t need one.

In the new piece at Vitae, I remind college administrators that professors at their colleges are beginning to organize in record numbers as a result of the way they are being treated.

Union Busting

The solution to this issue of union opposition is simple: Treat workers with the respect they deserve and pay them a living wage. If employers would just take these easy steps, the desire to organize and battle the administration will immediately fade away.

Until working conditions change, life will only get worse for colleges and their administrators. In 2013, adjunct professors unionized in record numbers. To learn more about the adjunct organizing drive that is currently sweeping the country, check out the article in my Off Track column:

How to Bust an Adjunct Union