Power in Numbers

Adjuncts turn to citywide unionizing as their best hope

M. Scott Brauer for The Chronicle

William Shimer, an adjunct at Northeastern U., related his support of unionization to an “accumulation 
of indignities,” like having his Volkswagen towed because he forgot to display his campus parking pass.
April 14, 2014

It’s the lull between Northeastern University’s afternoon and evening classes, and adjunct instructors drift in and out of a windowless room set aside for them in Ryder Hall. Lacking offices on campus, they come here to log on to shared computers or to grab books from shelved cardboard boxes that serve as their makeshift lockers.

Having to share a small workspace is just one of the many frustrations they share. They commiserate about meager earnings, unpredictable teaching loads, and their belief that a bloated administration gobbles up too much of the tuition revenue they help bring in.

Most of the instructors here decline to talk on the record, citing fears of being denied future contracts or otherwise punished for it. But Deborah O’Toole, a senior lecturer who earns about $2,200 per three-credit course teaching English to international students, is fed up enough to speak out. She argues that part-time faculty members like her are being abused and need to form collective-bargaining units if they want their concerns heard.

"Our hope is in the union," she says.

Such sentiments have put Boston at the center of a nationwide labor-organizing effort bent on changing the lives of all adjunct faculty members, unionized or not. Rather than simply try to establish unions of adjunct faculty at individual colleges, it seeks to unionize them throughout entire metropolitan areas, to drive broader improvements in their pay, benefits, and working conditions.

The approach seeks to shift labor-market dynamics, turning a buyer’s market in which colleges have broad leeway to set employment terms into a seller’s market in which adjuncts can take the highest bid for their services. The strategy assumes that college administrations will be less resistant to the formation of unions, and to union demands, if officials are assured that competing institutions are in the same boat.

The thinking behind the approach holds that sufficient union saturation of a given local labor market will not only produce big gains at unionized colleges, but put nonunionized ones under pressure to treat adjuncts better, too. Those colleges might be prompted to improve pay or working conditions to be able to compete for talent or, in some cases, to discourage potential unionization drives on their own campuses.

The strategy’s chief promoter has been the Service Employees International Union, which has long used the same approach, with considerable success, in industries such as health care and janitorial services. The union’s higher-education campaign, Adjunct Action, has spread to 10 metropolitan areas, where it has formed, or is working to form, unions at more than 30 campuses employing a total of about 25,000 adjuncts. It has already unionized about 70 percent of adjuncts at colleges in Washington, D.C., and has gained footholds in Boston, Los Angeles, and around Seattle.

Other unions have taken up the cause, too. Both the American Federation of Teachers and SEIU have mounted efforts in the Philadelphia area, and the United Steelworkers is working to unionize adjunct instructors in and around Pittsburgh.

Greater Boston, which is home to nearly 60 private colleges, looms as an especially crucial target, a Goliath whose conquest is likely to spur on unionization drives elsewhere.

Malini Cadambi Daniel, director of the SEIU’s national higher-education campaign, says the success of a Boston drive has the potential to set the standard across the country, partly because many of this area’s colleges have high profiles and are emulated elsewhere.

"Boston," she says, "has the capacity—if you can organize the whole market—to really change people’s idea of what they can do in their area."

Part-time instructors, who now account for about half of the faculty of the nation’s public and private nonprofit colleges, have long complained about poor pay and working conditions. For the most part, however, their options have been to form advocacy groups to publicize their problems, to join education unions dominated by tenure-track faculty members with their own agendas, or to simply quit teaching at colleges. The new citywide organizing efforts seek to give their advocacy efforts teeth.

The SEIU jump-started its Boston campaign a year ago by gathering more than 100 part-time instructors representing about 20 colleges for a labor-organizing symposium at the city’s John F. Kennedy Library. Anne F. Fleche, a lecturer in media and screen studies at Northeastern and a leader of its unionization effort, recalls SEIU staff members at the symposium changing the thinking of adjuncts who were "used to not even thinking of getting anything" from their institutions’ administrations.

Since then, the campaign has racked up two decisive victories: adjuncts in Tufts University’s School of Arts and Sciences, in Medford, voted 128 to 57 in favor of unionization in September, and those at Lesley University, in Cambridge, approved unionization by a 359-to-67 vote in February.

The Boston campaign has also suffered a setback, however, as adjuncts at Bentley University, in Waltham, shocked labor organizers who had predicted easy victory there by rejecting unionization by a 100-to-98 vote last fall.

It remains unclear whether the SEIU can unionize enough Boston-area colleges for its metropolitan strategy to have a marketwide effect.

Ms. Daniel says that the SEIU is committed to organizing Boston’s adjuncts over several years, and that adjuncts know "we are here to stay."

Nevertheless, even unions that are highly effective in organizing often have difficulty pulling off citywide campaigns, says Marshall B. Babson, a former member of the National Labor Relations Board who now represents colleges as a lawyer. If some institutions can beat back union drives, others in the same market are likely to be emboldened to oppose them more strenuously.

Most colleges that are the targets of adjunct unionization drives resist them to some extent. Administrators often say, in letters they send to adjuncts, that unions threaten shared governance and collegial relations between the administration and the faculty. Unions require members to pay dues without ensuring them substantial increases in pay, many administrations have also said. They warn adjuncts that it can be tough to oust a union once they vote it into place. And at the many colleges where turnout in union elections has been low, they question whether those voting to form unions are truly representative of the adjunct faculty.

Many adjuncts, meanwhile, worry that their lack of job security leaves them exposed to retaliation for union involvement—a fear that, in some cases, has been determined by the NLRB to be well founded.

Further complicating adjunct unionization efforts are some of the major differences between colleges and other types of employers. Colleges stand out, for example, in how varied they are in their financial conditions and revenue sources, which restrain their ability to increase workers’ pay. Many institutions define their competitors based not on proximity but on mission and prestige, potentially leaving them less affected by the unionization of colleges in their backyards than colleges hundreds of miles away.

One potential obstacle to the SEIU’s Boston-area campaign is the area’s high concentration of religious institutions, including more than a half-dozen Roman Catholic colleges, which might challenge adjunct unionization based on the argument that National Labor Relations Board oversight would violate their religious freedom under the First Amendment. Pacific Lutheran University, in Tacoma, Wash., has slowed down the SEIU’s Seattle-area campaign by making such an argument, and Duquesne University, which is Roman Catholic, has done the same to the United Steelworkers’ campaign in Pittsburgh.

Working in favor of such campaigns in many big cities are living costs so high they give adjunct instructors incentive to seek better wages.

In connection with both its Boston and Seattle campaigns, the SEIU has issued reports comparing local adjuncts’ earnings with what they need to get by. Its Boston report estimates that instructors there need to teach from 17 to 24 classes each year to afford a home and utilities, and up to four more classes to cover grocery costs. Maria Maisto, president of New Faculty Majority, an advocacy group for contingent faculty members, estimates that most adjunct instructors who try to make a living off such work teach three to seven courses a semester, with those at the upper end of the range often pulling off such a schedule by teaching online.

Among the Boston-area colleges where it has been organizing adjuncts, the SEIU estimates that most adjunct instructors earn, per undergraduate course, roughly $5,000 at Bentley, $3,000 at Lesley, $5,200 at Northeastern, and $6,000 at Tufts.

"Our situation here is intolerable, and as long as it remains intolerable there is going to be pressure to do something about that," says Douglas C. Kierdorf, a 67-year-old adjunct assistant professor of history at Bentley who was involved in the failed unionization drive there and is helping to mount a new one. He says he relies on Social Security, food stamps, and outside work as a test grader and proctor to make ends meet.

Also likely to help the SEIU’s campaign here is the geographically confined layout of metropolitan Boston, which enables adjuncts to teach at multiple campuses, leaves them more choices of where to work, and will make it easier for union organizers to network and spread word of any victories.

The Boston area’s friendliness to organized labor is also likely to help the campaign. The city councils of Boston and Cambridge have passed resolutions urging colleges not to stand in the way of adjunct unionization efforts. Most part-time instructors at public colleges here already belong to collective-bargaining units affiliated with the National Education Association. Two private institutions, Emerson College and Suffolk University, have adjunct unions affiliated with the American Association of University Professors, and adjuncts at a third, the Berklee College of Music, belong to a faculty union organized by the American Federation of Teachers.

Ms. Daniel of the SEIU predicts it will take only the unionization of a substantial share—perhaps not even half—of adjuncts in a given metropolitan area to leverage marketwide improvements in working conditions. She describes the SEIU’s efforts as complementing—rather than competing with—those of the other unions in the same market. Leaders of other unions say they share that view.

The SEIU’s plan for Boston "is the right goal," says Randall Phillis, president of the Massachusetts Society of Professors, an NEA-affiliated union that represents both tenure-track and contingent faculty members at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and negotiates contracts alongside the NEA chapter at the university’s Boston campus. The unionization of adjuncts at Boston’s public colleges has already affected the labor market, he says, because instructors at private colleges have been leaving for better-paying gigs at public ones.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, similarly says she is not worried about competition between the AFT and SEIU in Philadelphia. She says that market, with about 15,000 adjunct instructors, is big enough for both. Moreover, she says, the AFT, which has a history of organizing tenure-track and mixed unions, appeals to a different subset of the adjunct population with an approach to organizing more focused on professional concerns.

The first win of the SEIU’s metropolitan Boston campaign, Tufts University, represented a relatively soft target. Its adjuncts already had rank as among the area’s best compensated, and its administrators did little to oppose their unionization.

A committee of adjunct instructors began negotiating their first contract in February, with the help of a professional negotiator from the SEIU. Carol Wilkinson, a committee member and lecturer in English at the institution, characterizes the bargaining talks as "respectful and collegial."

In a separate interview in late January, while her bargaining committee geared up for contract talks, Ms. Wilkinson said her union would seek improvements in pay and job security sufficient to alleviate adjuncts’ perceptions of second-class status. "We would like," she said, "to see teaching valued as much as it deserves to be."

Elizabeth Leavell, another English instructor on the bargaining committee, said a major challenge would be formulating a contract that can cover every academic department and rectify big pay discrepancies within and between them. Adjuncts’ pay per course here ranges from just over $5,100 in the Romance languages to more than $10,000 in chemistry.

A fledgling union’s long-term survival can depend on its ability to negotiate a first contract that pleases members, says Gary Zabel, a full-time philosophy instructor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston who helped organize the AAUP-affiliated unions at Emerson College and Suffolk University. He speaks from experience: He and other members of a local chapter of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, an activist group, sought to organize Boston adjuncts a decade ago but watched the effort peter out as Emerson College, the site of their first victory, spent years fighting adjuncts’ proposals to improve working conditions.

Ms. Daniel of the SEIU says her union has urged the bargaining committees at Tufts and at Lesley, where she expects contract talks to begin in June, to see themselves as representing adjuncts beyond their campus. Their goal, she says, should be winning contracts that set the bar for other colleges.

"They need to keep their eyes on this larger prize," she says. "This is about the market."

"They need to keep their eyes on this larger prize. This is about the market."

A long-term goal of the SEIU’s campaigns in Boston and Washington, D.C., and of the AFT’s in Philadelphia, is to get multiple colleges to sign common, citywide contracts.

The idea is not entirely new. Educational workers at the City University of New York’s campuses, for example, work under a single labor agreement negotiated by a systemwide bargaining unit, the AFT-affiliated Professional Staff Congress. The SEIU’s efforts on behalf of janitors and health-care workers have led both to multi-employer labor agreements and to the creation of umbrella organizations, like the League of Voluntary Hospitals and Homes of New York, representing several employers at the bargaining table.

At a meeting held by the SEIU at Georgetown University last month, adjunct union leaders in Washington D.C. said they were already working on a citywide contract. They want it to set minimum pay levels for all union members and to provide health- and retirement-benefit packages, with colleges’ contributions to be pegged to how many courses an instructor teaches at their institution.

They also envision its ensuring ample advance notice of class assignments or cancellations, and potentially requiring colleges to hire adjuncts from a single union-administered labor pool, akin to "hiring halls" of unions in the construction industry.

Nicholas DiGiovanni, a Boston lawyer who represents colleges in labor talks, says efforts to forge contracts covering several institutions will be complicated by vast differences in how much colleges rely on and compensate part-time instructors. Officials of the SEIU and AFT predict, however, that colleges will find it in their financial interest to band together in providing adjuncts with health insurance and other benefits.

Just unionizing adjunct instructors at a single college can be difficult. Among the challenges is establishing how many adjuncts work on a campus and are eligible to vote in a union election. Administrators generally refuse to provide such numbers or to release adjuncts’ contact information. An initial effort by Lesley adjuncts to petition the NLRB for a union election failed for a lack of signatures from at least 30 percent of potential union members because organizers there had underestimated the total size of Lesley’s adjunct work force by well over a third.

Adjunct faculty members also tend to spend little time on campus except when they are actually teaching, which can make them difficult to find and otherwise hinder their interaction with fellow faculty members. Their lack of job security can leave them fearful of being associated with a unionization campaign. Those who regard teaching as something they do on the side, on top of some other well-paying job, can be unsympathetic to pleas that they should join a union to improve their peers’ working conditions.

Such obstacles are being blamed for dooming the SEIU’s first organizing effort at Bentley University, a business school with a strong liberal-arts focus. Adjuncts there account for about 40 percent of the faculty and teach just over a fourth of the classes.

Mr. Kierdorf, the history instructor on food stamps, says the SEIU’s organizers there "fostered an aura of optimism" but "misunderstood the culture." Joan L. Atlas, an adjunct assistant professor of English, says the SEIU staff members who worked the campus alienated some adjunct instructors who "felt like they were accosted outside class."

Union advocates blame their defeat partly on last fall’s federal government shutdown, which delayed ballot counting. Their projections had them well ahead, but a wave of last-minute voting resulted in exceptionally high turnout—198 of 265 adjuncts cast ballots—and the other side narrowly won.

Faculty advocates of unionization invoked Bentley’s emphasis on business ethics to argue that it betrayed its own principles by exploiting part-time instructors. Their organizing drive ran into opposition from adjuncts with pro-management leanings, some of whom hold full-time corporate or professional jobs that disallow their union involvement.

"We have heard from several of our current adjuncts that if Bentley becomes unionized, they would no longer teach here," said Michael J. Page, Bentley’s provost, and two deans in a email to faculty members before the election.

Like officials at many other colleges experiencing union drives, Bentley administrators also argued that an outside union’s intervention in their dealings with faculty would undermine collaboration and shared governance.

That argument is dismissed by Ms. Atlas, the sole adjunct representative on the Faculty Senate, who says her many calls for improvements in adjuncts’ pay and benefits "didn’t ­really get anywhere."

In Morison Hall’s "adjunct alley"—a warren of basement offices shared by five to more than a dozen part-timers—people from each side of the debate cited fears of retaliation from administrators or their peers in refusing in January to talk on the record. A philosophy instructor said he specifically opposed involvement with the SEIU because he sees it as "a propaganda arm of the Democratic party." An English instructor called her vote for unionization a stand against classism because Bentley administrators, in making the case against adjuncts joining the SEIU, had pointed out that the union represents janitors.

David J. Fionda, a business consultant and alumnus who teaches classes in accountancy, said that his father and grandfather belonged to blue-collar unions but that he felt no need to join one here. He called teaching "something I love to do" and said he was happy with benefits such as access to the university athletic facilities and a faculty dining room.

Introducing a union, as a third party, into his relations with the administration "just makes it more complicated," he said, adding that he is skeptical unions can actually win much on adjunct’ behalf.

"It is not as if we are making minimum wage," he said. "If you want to teach full time, go back and get your doctorate and apply for a full-time lecturer position."

Union organizers hope to make a successful second attempt at Bentley, and they express confidence that their loss there will prove to have been an anomaly.

The new Boston campaign lacks one serious weakness of the previous, activist-led effort to unionize adjuncts here: a reliance on volunteers who can lose energy or interest. The SEIU has assigned to the new organizing effort 16 full-time staff members, whose functions include the tedious grunt work of digging up contact information for each campus’s instructors.

With such help, adjunct instructors at Northeastern University last month filed petitions with the NLRB to hold a union election there. Northeastern’s adjunct work force, with nearly 1,400 members, is rivaled only by that of Boston University, where a similar SEIU organizing effort is taking place. Officials of the union, who generally make public only campaigns that are well under way, say they are also working to organize adjuncts here at Simmons College and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts.

The local chapter of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor has been revived to assist such efforts. Also pitching in are student groups. One called the Tufts Labor Coalition, for example, has been circulating petitions and pamphlets in support of the new adjunct union there and has persuaded more than 1,000 students to sign a statement in support of its contract demands. Northeastern University’s Progressive Student Alliance is one of several campus chapters of United Students Against Sweatshops that have been demonstrating in support of adjunct unionization drives.

William E. Shimer, an adjunct business instructor at Northeastern, recalls that the SEIU staff member who recruited him to be part of the organizing effort there picked just the right time to approach him. Because he had neglected to hang a parking pass on his rear-view mirror, campus police had just towed the 1996 Volkswagen Golf that he and his wife were paying $800 annually to park on campus and essentially using as their office there.

"There is sort of an accumulation of indignities that one experiences when you are teaching here," Mr. Shimer says. "I think we will continue to get exploited, and things will get worse and worse, if we don’t do something."

Where Unions Are Organizing Adjuncts Across Metro Areas


Adjuncts at Lesley and Tufts Universities have formed unions affiliated with the Service Employees International Union. Those at Bentley University narrowly voted down unionization last fall, but the SEIU plans to try again. Adjuncts at Northeastern University have filed petitions for a union election. The SEIU also has organizing efforts under way at Boston University, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and Simmons College.


The Service Employees 
International Union has 
announced plans to organize adjuncts here but has not named specific colleges.


Whittier College adjuncts have voted to unionize under the Service Employees International Union, and those at the University of La Verne have filed petitions for a union election. Organizers at Loyola Marymount University filed a petition to vote on unionizing under the SEIU. They later withdrew the petition, citing suspicions of unfair labor practices, which the university denied.


Adjuncts at the Maryland 
Institute College of Art, in 
Baltimore, have petitioned for union election under the 
Service Employees 
International Union.


The Service Employees 
International Union is actively working with adjuncts at 
Hamline University, 
Macalester College, 
and the Universities of 
Minnesota and of St. Thomas.


The Service Employees 
International Union is 
actively working with 
adjuncts at Marist College.


The American Federation of Teachers, which represents both part-time and full-time faculty members at the Community College of Philadelphia and Moore College of Art & Design, has announced plans to try to organize adjuncts throughout the city into a 
single collective-bargaining unit. The Service Employees International Union also says it has plans to organize 
adjuncts in the area.


A metropolitan campaign mounted under the United Steelworkers’ Adjunct Faculty Association appeared to win a major victory in 2012, when adjuncts at Duquesne University voted to unionize. The Roman Catholic university, however, is challenging the election on religious-freedom grounds. The campaign has gone public with a drive to organize adjuncts at Point Park University and says it has planning efforts under way at colleges throughout the area.


Adjuncts at Mills College have petitioned for union election under the Service Employees International Union.


Adjuncts at Pacific Lutheran University voted to unionize under the Service Employees International Union, but the ballots have been impounded by the National Labor Relations Board. The university is challenging the election on religious-freedom grounds. Contingent faculty at Seattle University have petitioned the NLRB to hold an election to join the SEIU, but the Roman Catholic institution has opposed the election on 
religious-freedom grounds.


The Service Employees International Union is actively working to organize adjuncts at Lindenwood University and St. Louis Community College.


The Service Employees 
International Union has 
organized adjunct unions at American, Georgetown, and George Washington Universities and at Montgomery College, in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. Adjuncts at Howard University and the University of the District of Columbia have petitioned for union elections.