Hamline's adjunct union raises skepticism for some

David Weiss hasn’t seen his salary increase in about nine years. Since he began teaching as an adjunct faculty member at Hamline University, he said he’s made about $4,000 per course.

But for the first time, his value as an adjunct faculty member could be reflected in his salary.

Earlier this month, adjunct faculty members at Hamline voted to create the first adjunct union in Minnesota. But as adjuncts at other private schools in the Twin Cities gear up to vote to unionize, some are hesitant to move forward.

Adjuncts at other private institutions have shown uncertainty about unionizing, and the University of Minnesota’s adjuncts don’t appear eager to join the nation’s growing trend either.

Service Employees International Union, the organization responsible for the unionization movement called Adjunct Action, has been aiding unions at schools across the Twin Cities, including the University. The group has unionized more than 21,000 adjuncts nationwide, according to its website.

While some of Hamline’s adjunct faculty members are hopeful that the union will give them a stronger voice, some at the University of St. Thomas aren’t convinced that a union will do more good than harm.

Allen Aspengren has taught at St. Thomas as an adjunct for more than 15 years and said he opposes a union.

“I think they have treated me very fairly in terms of salary. There are no benefits, but on the other hand, I don’t need any benefits,” he said. “I see no advantage to me personally to having a union in there.”

Though he recognized that enough people were in favor of a union to create a petition, he said the adjuncts he’s spoken with at the school share his opinion.

Another St. Thomas adjunct, Joe Albright, said though he’d like to see a collective adjunct voice, he isn’t sure it should come from SEIU.

“I think people see the union as [the obvious answer], and there I definitely don’t agree,” he said.

Gordon Shumaker teaches law as an adjunct at the University of Minnesota, Hamline and William Mitchell College of Law.

Shumaker said though he’s been contacted by SEIU about forming a union, he hasn’t heard from University adjuncts on the matter.

If adjuncts at the University are thinking of unionizing, they’re doing so quietly. University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler previously told the Minnesota Daily that although the school tries to treat all its employees fairly, he wouldn’t be surprised if the movement gained momentum at the University.

Administrative pushback

Hamline’s administration said in an email statement that the university isn’t pleased with the decision and fears that the union will create barriers at the school.

“While we will respect the decision of the adjunct faculty members on this matter,” the statement said, “we do not believe inserting a third party between the university and a segment of our adjunct faculty members is the best solution for addressing concerns.”

Ballots will be sent out to St. Thomas adjuncts Thursday, when they can decide whether to involve SEIU in their unionization efforts. But the school’s administration is asking for more time.

Doug Hennes, vice president for St. Thomas’ relations, said the administration has asked its adjuncts to call off the vote or to vote “no” when they receive their ballots to give the university time to negotiate with them.

Like Hamline, the school doesn’t want SEIU involved on campus, Hennes said.

“They are not familiar with St. Thomas; they are not familiar with our mission, community or our culture,” he said.

Weiss said the school inserted a third party of its own, calling on Twin Cities-based law firm Felhaber Larson, to provide pushback against the union.

A new relationship

Though a portion of Hamline’s adjuncts only voted to unionize June 20, some are already optimistic about the potential outcomes.

Weiss, one of the union’s organizers, said he hopes higher pay, room for professional development and job security will come from the new union.

“I’ve been at Hamline for nine years now, but really I could be not invited back next year, and I would never see that coming,” he said.

Shumaker said the schools he works at rely heavily on adjuncts for their experience. As tuition revenues fall at law schools, he said, long-term tenured professors can be bought out and replaced with lower-paid adjuncts.

Juliet Patterson, another organizing adjunct at Hamline, said that as higher education institutions rely more on adjunct faculty members, they should begin to recognize adjuncts as more than temporary workers.

“Adjuncts are more and more becoming a kind of full-time or part-time faculty on campus, and yet nothing has changed in terms of the pay structure or benefit structure,” she said.

But it might take time for Hamline adjuncts to see any benefits from unionizing.

In December 2011, adjunct faculty members at Plymouth State University voted to unionize, and they’re just beginning to see the effects.

The New Hampshire-based institution ratified its contract for adjuncts last December, which included a $25,000 pool for their professional development this year and consistent pay increases through fiscal year 2016.

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