Anti-Union Vote in Minn. Is Rare Setback in National Campaign for Adjunct Unions

July 24, 2014

The Service Employees International Union is accustomed to winning—persuading adjunct faculty members to unionize on campuses around the country.

But this week, the SEIU suffered a rare setback when adjuncts at the University of Saint Thomas, in St. Paul, voted against forming a union.

The union movement is still growing in Minnesota, though, as it is across the country, SEIU officials said. They characterized the defeat at Saint Thomas as stemming from a unique situation in which many adjuncts wanted to try to work with the university’s leadership before forming a union to negotiate.

"It’s disappointing, but we’re all incredibly proud of the gains that we’re getting," said Denise Welte, organizing director at SEIU Local 284. "It brings to light what adjuncts face every day in their day-to-day life. We’ll continue to fight."

The SEIU’s national campaign to organize adjuncts has focused on metropolitan areas such as Boston, Los Angeles, Washington, and the Twin Cities. The effort seeks to put competitive pressure on colleges in large, urban labor markets to improve working conditions for their own adjunct instructors.

Until adjuncts at Saint Thomas rejected unionization this week, the SEIU’s campaign had seen few losses: Last fall adjuncts at Bentley University, in Boston, voted, 100 to 98, against forming a union. Last month adjuncts at Macalester College, also in Saint Paul, called off a union vote the day before ballots were due to be mailed out.

The campaign has had some success in Minnesota, however, as adjuncts at Hamline University voted last month to unionize. And the SEIU’s string of recent victories in markets outside Minnesota has continued: On Wednesday it announced that adjunct and contingent faculty members at Antioch University Seattle, another key city in the union’s national effort, had voted, 85 to 14, to form a union.

Significant Turnout

At Saint Thomas, 136 adjuncts voted against unionizing, while 84 voted for it. Ms. Welte asserted that the vote did not reflect a new mind-set among adjuncts and that the result wouldn’t deter her from continuing to work with the university and other institutions.

The union bid certainly drew the attention of the university’s adjunct faculty members, with 73 percent of eligible voters casting ballots in the election, a significant turnout, said Lucy A. Saliger, an adjunct English instructor who worked with SEIU representatives.

Ms. Saliger said those who voted against the union had done so because they were either ideologically opposed to unions or wanted to trust administrators to bring about change. But "this is just business" for administrators, she said. "Personal trusting is inappropriate."

Julie H. Sullivan, the university’s president, asserted that she had never been given the opportunity to change policies on adjunct faculty members. Instead, she said, some adjuncts approached her only when they decided to file the petition to unionize.

"I was disappointed they came to me to tell me they filed the petition when we just started the discussion to address adjunct faculty concerns," Ms. Sullivan said. "I said, ‘I recognize your needs, and we’ve been talking about your needs, but in my view we can best do that working together without interference from a union.’"

This is Ms. Sullivan’s first year on the job. The university also has a new provost and new head of human resources, said Kim R. Sovell, an adjunct faculty member in marketing. She said administrators had not had enough time to solve adjuncts’ problems, including compensation, benefits, and respect.

"I am not anti-union, but I looked at this simply as we need to give this administration an opportunity," said Ms. Sovell, who has taught as an adjunct at Saint Thomas for nearly six years and who voted against the union. "If they fail to not equalize [faculty members] across campuses and at least bring us to the table and try to improve compensation and inclusion on campus—if they fail to do that, then we can unionize."

Meanwhile, organizers at Bentley University are ramping up for a second campaign for a union vote. Adjunct faculty members are again working with the SEIU, said Douglas C. Kierdorf, an adjunct assistant professor of history at Bentley.

"There are dark jokes made about how impoverished we are and stuff like that," he said, "but you don’t realize how widespread, how deep the feeling is until you start talking about it."

Since the last campaign at Bentley, university officials have changed adjuncts’ titles from "instructors" to "professors," Mr. Kierdorf said. But that was only a symbolic move. "Our conditions are intolerable, and until that problem is responded to, this will go on," he said.

Likewise, in Minnesota, Ms. Welte said the union debate at Saint Thomas was not over. She will work with faculty members there who want a "strong collective chance," she said, "every step of the way."