Unionized Adjuncts in Washington, D.C., Seek to Craft a Citywide Contract

March 25, 2014

Having organized well over two-thirds of part-time faculty members at this city’s colleges, labor organizers connected with the Service Employees International Union are now working to devise a common labor agreement covering all unionized adjunct instructors here.

At a national meeting for adjunct instructors held by the SEIU on Monday at Georgetown University, Kerry B. Danner-McDonald, a lecturer at Georgetown and leader in the city’s adjunct-organizing effort, told the audience that those working to devise such a contract still have "a lot to work out." But, she said, they expect to come up with a master agreement that sets minimum pay levels for all colleges but has the flexibility to tailor contracts to individual institutions.

Local SEIU leaders at the meeting said they expected such a citywide agreement to provide adjuncts with health- and retirement-benefit packages pro-rated to the number of hours worked at specific institutions. They also expect it to establish a "hiring hall," an organization that colleges would contact to be matched with adjunct instructors from a single hiring pool. Provisions creating such organizations are a common feature of union contracts in some industries, such as construction.

"Since nobody has ever done this before, we are right now setting the template for what a citywide contract might look like," said Kip Lornell, vice president for higher education at SEIU Local 500, which covers Maryland and Washington.

Mr. Lornell, an adjunct professor of Africana studies and music at George Washington University, said the District of Columbia’s status as "a compact area with relatively few schools" makes the task of devising a common contract for its colleges more manageable than it might be elsewhere.

About 70 percent of the city’s adjunct instructors now belong to SEIU-affiliated collective-bargaining units as a result of union elections held at Georgetown University last year, at American University in 2012, and at George Washington University in 2005.

Adjunct faculty members at both Howard University and the University of the District of Columbia have filed petitions to hold elections to form such unions, creating the possibility that more than 80 percent of the city’s part-time faculty members might soon be represented by the SEIU. The SEIU also represents adjunct instructors at Montgomery College, in Washington’s Maryland suburbs.

"The contract at GW really has served as a template for all the other contracts here already," Mr. Lornell said, so coming up with a common contract for all Washington institutions does not represent that great a leap.

Local adjunct-union organizers are being advised in their efforts by officials of SEIU unions in other industries, such as health care and maintenance services, where multiple employers are covered by workers’ contracts.

About 40 adjunct instructors involved in unionization efforts gathered for Monday’s meeting. The SEIU staged the event in part to announce its establishment of the Adjunct Action Network, a new online community and tool set devoted to helping adjunct instructors organize.

Mary Kay Henry, president of the SEIU, told those on hand that adjunct instructors needed to organize from their institutions on up to the national level to push for policies improving how they are treated. One of the chief tasks before them, she said, is shattering a widely believed myth that "somehow people are choosing to work part time for low wages" rather than having no choice, given how few tenure-track faculty members are being hired.