Regional Labor Panels Are Hailed as Likely to Improve Colleges’ Relations With Adjuncts

March 28, 2017

When this city’s construction companies need to hire plumbers, they turn to a single citywide union, United Association Local 1, to provide them. As much as non-tenure-track faculty members might cringe at being compared to such workers, might they benefit from having colleges near them similarly hire contingent faculty members from a single pool?

The idea of having colleges recruit contingent instructors from "hiring halls" like those used in construction trades — or, at the very least, create entities to collaboratively deal with such instructors’ workplace concerns — drew remarkably strong interest here on Monday at a conference on academic labor negotiations.

Among the roughly 50 representatives of college administrations or faculty unions at a panel discussion of the subject, both sides were nearly unanimous in answering yes when asked if they viewed the idea as worth considering.

"This is an area where you are breaking new ground, and you’ve got to do experimentation," Peter B. Doeringer, a labor arbitrator and emeritus professor at Boston University, told the crowd gathered here as part of the annual conference of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions.

“We don't really have a model for universities yet.”
"We don’t really have a model for universities yet," but outside of higher education such multi-institutional labor-management committees typically have emerged as a product of contract negotiations, Mr. Doeringer said. Typically, he said, such panels are focused not on day-to-day labor-management issues, but on the long-term concerns shared by employers and their workers.

At the forefront in advocating the creation of such panels is Local 500 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents contingent faculty members at 10 colleges in Washington, D.C., its Maryland suburbs, and nearby Baltimore.

In Washington, where it represents about four out of five contingent faculty members, it has been pitching the idea of creating a common labor agreement for all its collective-bargaining units for contingent instructors for the past two years.

David Rodich, the SEIU local’s executive director, said the effort had been complicated by resistance from other faculty unions with a presence in the area. Nevertheless, he said, his union continues "to engage the schools, one by one by one, to see if there is shared interest" in such an undertaking.

Building Trust

Mr. Rodich cited several reasons why the conditions are right for such a regional entity to emerge. Among them, the contracts his local has hammered out at each college in the area all have common features, including an emphasis on providing adjuncts with professional development and a sense that they are part of the broader faculty.

Many of the contracts have common language, he said, and the colleges’ administrations already collaborate with one another in other endeavors, such as lobbying.

Getting a regional labor-management committee to take hold, he said, might require colleges to pull off some modest collective effort, such as establishing a jointly financed center that would provide adjuncts who work at nearby colleges with resources and space to work. The trick, he said, is to "figure out some early wins so we can build trust."

“There has got to be something in it for everybody.”
Among other participants in Monday’s panel discussion, Scot L. Beckenbaugh, deputy director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, said employers would need to see a clear benefit from joining such an effort. "There has got to be something in it for everybody," he said.

Nicholas Anastasopoulos, who represents colleges in labor negotiations as a lawyer for Mirick O’Connell LLP, a law firm in Massachusetts, said he could imagine such an undertaking having benefits such as streamlining hiring processes and enabling colleges to work together to save labor-related costs.

But, he said, such a multi-institutional entity probably would need to answer tough questions, such as resolving differences between institutions in how they evaluate the qualifications of contingent faculty members, or determining how it can dissolve itself, if necessary. He asked, "What would a divorce look like?"

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.