Push to unionize adjunct faculty gains traction at Twin Cities institutions

As higher education institutions increasingly rely on adjunct faculty to supplement their teaching workloads, one of the largest union organizations in the country is urging these contingent employees to unionize.

Many adjuncts say their careers have been plagued with long hours for low pay with little job security. Now, the nationwide effort aiming to unionize adjunct faculty members is gaining footing at Twin Cities institutions, including the University of Minnesota.

The Service Employees International Union’s campaign, Adjunct Action, started its push to unite contingent workers last year, and it has found success at colleges from Washington, the campaign’s birthplace, to the West Coast. SEIU currently represents 18,000 adjunct faculty nationwide.

Adjunct Action campaign director Todd Ricker said the movement has picked up steam since the Minnesota office started reaching out to faculty at the University’s Twin Cities campus this semester. It’s also growing at the University of St. Thomas, Macalester College and Hamline University.

Because of the University of Minnesota’s size, some say it’s crucial to unionize instructors to make their voices heard.

“The University of Minnesota is a big business. ... Often, the best way for employees to negotiate with a big business is collectively,” said Pamela Butler, an American studies visiting assistant professor at the University who has worked as an adjunct at schools around the U.S.

The University’s Office of Human Resources said in an email statement that any would-be unions must work with the state to ensure their organization is in compliance with state law.

The University is still in early stages, Ricker said, but there’s been strong interest in a union from faculty so far.

Joining the SEIU helps adjuncts around the country petition their universities for better contracts, Ricker said, as less-than-ideal working conditions sometimes hinder their teaching, cause financial problems and add stress.

Adjunct faculty accounted for nearly half of all higher education faculty last year, according to a recent report by the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee. Though they are a large portion of the instructor population, adjunct faculty make about half the annual salary of full-time professors and instructors on average, the report said.

This salary shortfall has been a driving force of the Twin Cities unionization campaign.

Working long hours for what some consider low pay can take a physical and emotional toll on adjuncts like SooJin Pate.

Pate works in Macalester College’s American studies department as a visiting assistant professor, which is a type of adjunct position.

Last academic year, Pate taught three classes and worked at least 40 hours per week. The job paid $15,000 for the year, she said, which forced her to pick up freelance work to support herself and her child.

Pate is currently on an adjunct contract through May, but she isn’t convinced she’ll make enough to stay in teaching. That’s a tough pill to swallow, she said.

“Quite frankly, I would make more and get better benefits working at Starbucks than I do as an adjunct,” she said. “Teaching is something I love to do. To be honest, I’m heartbroken. I have to fight back tears.”

Impact in the classroom

The problems adjuncts face can trickle down and affect students.

Because of their extra stress, many adjuncts frequently leave and switch schools, making it difficult for them to form lasting relationships with their students, Butler said.

“It’s about students, too,” she said. “It’s not just about labor.”

Lucy Saliger teaches one English class at St. Thomas as an adjunct professor and is involved with Adjunct Action. During her time as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, Saliger said she saw her instructors grapple with these challenges.

Her adjunct professors were some of the most helpful, she said, but they weren’t treated well. One of Saliger’s adjunct instructors even left the University for a higher-paying job, she said.

High education, low pay

More than half of adjuncts in the country have a Ph.D. and most hold at least a master’s degree, according to the House report, which has led many adjuncts to feel they’re underpaid.

“It’s a weird situation. In some ways, you’re so thankful for the opportunities,” Saliger said. “And yet, at the same time, I think that there should be livable wages for the work that we do.”

SEIU director of higher education Malini Cadambi Daniel said while many who pursue advanced degrees hope to teach, most won’t land a tenure-track job.

The large issues stem from structural flaws in higher education, she said.

“Administrators need to recognize ... that this is something their faculty are demanding and they should respect the process,” she said.

Cadambi Daniel said organizing a union at the University is more complicated than at smaller, private institutions.

Josh Tilsen, the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services commissioner, said adjuncts have long been excluded from collective bargaining agreements at University-system campuses, which means they aren’t considered University employees for purposes of the state law that defines public employees.

Faculty members at the University’s Twin Cities campus are not currently unionized, so it’s possible a change in state law would be required if adjuncts move to officially band together.

Still, Cadambi Daniel said the payoffs of unionizing are greater than the struggles adjuncts may encounter along the way.

“I think that faculty recognize that this is not an easy fight but that they need to go through with it,” she said.