In the first union-organizing election among faculty members at a private college in Minnesota, adjunct instructors at Hamline University in St. Paul voted to join Local 284 of the Service Employees International Union.
Eligible faculty members at Hamline cast their ballots by mail earlier this month. A vote tally took place this morning at the Minneapolis office of the National Labor Relations Board, with 72 percent voting in favor of forming the union.
The victory at Hamline is a shot of momentum for the SEIU’s Adjunct Action organizing campaign both nationally and locally. In voting to form a union, Hamline faculty members joined instructors at Northeastern University, Georgetown University and a growing number of institutions across the U.S.
Closer to home, St. Paul is becoming a hotbed of adjunct union activity. In addition to the 83 Hamline instructors who joined SEIU today, about 300 adjunct instructors at St. Thomas University are scheduled to vote by mail in an organizing election next month.
Contingent faculty members at Macalester College petitioned the NLRB for an election in May, but they have since pulled that petition. No election is scheduled, although organizing continues.
Jhon Wlaschin, an adjunct psychology instructor at both Hamline and St. Thomas who has been active in both organizing drives, said the overwhelming victory at Hamline is proof of a strong appetite for collective bargaining among part-time faculty members.
“It’s confirmation that there’s a lot of other people in my situation, that are trying to earn a living teaching and finding it very difficult, finding that being an adjunct is kind of an isolating lifestyle,” Wlaschin said. “We don’t really know each other, we don’t feel like we have any voice, like we don’t have any future.
“Now we can join together, get to know each other, hear each other’s issues, work together to maybe make teaching a viable living and career in higher education. That’s all very exciting and encouraging.”
While Hamline, like most colleges across the country, has steadily increased its reliance on non-tenured teaching staff, adjunct faculty members at the school have not seen a pay raise in 10 years, adjunct English instructor Jennifer Beckham said. The “vast majority” of adjunct instructors, she said, earn $4,000 per course and do not qualify for benefits like health insurance or a retirement plan.
“I’ve asked for a raise,” Beckham, who has taught at Hamline the last nine years, remembered. “I was told that they don’t do raises, that nobody would receive a raise and as long as there was parity with other institutions in the area, there would not be raises.”
Even those instructors who teach courses at multiple institutions report struggling to afford basic necessities like rent and health insurance, Beckham added. Many instructors are paying off loans they took out in order to gain the degrees necessary to teach at a post-secondary institution.
“I have multiple advanced degrees,” Beckham said. “Most adjuncts have a Ph.D. I think most people, by the time they have the qualifications to do the work we do, are at a stage where you need to be having some kind of stability.
“Many adjuncts delay starting families because the work we do does not sustain our families. Many people won’t be able to retire.”
A new model
Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. Wlaschin knows that from experience.
Before becoming a psychology professor, Wlaschin said, he worked in the film industry in New York. Jobs were temporary, and he bounced from employer to employer as work on one film ended and another began. But because Wlaschin was a member of the Stagehands union, his employers paid into a health and welfare fund maintained by the union.
“It would be great to have a citywide contract, like what we had in the film union,” Wlaschin said. “A union might advocate for a kind of agreement among the different universities to contribute to greater benefits like health care or maybe even a 401k.
“If Hamline or St. Thomas wants to keep adjuncts as part-time workers, it’s still within our rights to try to cobble together a full-time living.”
A citywide contract will require a lot more organizing, Wlaschin and other adjunct instructors acknowledged. But today’s election results were a step in the right direction.
“As adjuncts, we shoulder a huge economic burden in higher education institutions,” Beckham said. “Pushing for our teaching to be valued more, I think, is a small step, but if this is a step back toward more emphasis on teaching and education, then that’s a good thing.”