Marguerite Spencer: University of St. Thomas adjuncts should not unionize

The University of St. Thomas adjunct faculty members have been voting on whether to unionize since July 03. Both the Administration and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have been very vocal. Just prior to the vote, two other collectives entered into the fray with great urgency, both of which wanted to grant the Administration time to work directly with adjuncts before unionizing. Despite their pressure, the Union gambled on winning more “yes” than “no” votes, rather than cancel the vote as it did at Macalester.

The first collective was made up of adjunct faculty members of the Theology Department, including myself. While not ideologically opposed to unionization, we concluded that the best strategy was to deliver to the Administration a proposal that would have required it to meet certain benchmarks by January 31, 2015, or those who signed would restart the unionization effort without reservation, and with greater unity. The proposal demanded that adjunct faculty be considered equals at President Julie Sullivan’s table in efforts to secure higher pay, health and retirement benefits, job security, professional development funds and other rights. Nearly 60 adjuncts signed on to our proposal.

At the same time a second collective emerged asking adjuncts to vote “no,” with the same goal of restarting the unionizing process if necessary. Their concern was with the rapid pace at which the SEUI had moved. All faculty at St. Thomas are tasked to teach students, “to think critically, and to act wisely.” This collective believed that adjuncts were not being given enough time to do either of these on their own behalf. Between 90-100 adjunct faculty signed on to this effort. The Union, however, did its own math.

At one of her last brown bag gatherings, Dr. Sullivan repeated her strong commitment to improve the working conditions of adjuncts without union interference. When directly and specifically asked whether a “no” vote would cause adjuncts to lose their leverage or bargaining power, she took two steps forward and stated adamantly that it would not or she would lose all credibility, not only with adjuncts but with full-time faculty, the staff, the students, the alumni, the community at large and the Board of Trustees as well. Also in attendance, the Chair of the Board, Mr. John Morrison affirmed that he fully supports Dr. Sullivan and would do whatever it takes to help her succeed.

I was a member of the original union organizing committee. As a Senior Adjunct, I have taught at St. Thomas for 23 years. I have never received health care or other benefits and the compensation I receive per class is inadequate, having increased only marginally over the years. Like many adjuncts, I forwent a more secure career-track to raise children. Like all, I am very committed to what I do here. Adjunct faculty are critical to the education of students at the St. Thomas. It is reported that 90 percent of the 100-level English courses this fall are to be taught by adjunct faculty.

For these reasons, I was strongly in favor of unionizing until I and several other members of the organizing committee met with Dr. Sullivan. Fully aware of what union-busting efforts look like, I gradually stepped back from the committee in order to discern what exactly to do with her pledge to improve our lot. When the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Terry Langan professed his belief in Dr. Sullivan’s promises, in stark contrast to his disdain toward the policies of past administrations, I changed my course. If Dr. Langan would feel betrayed by Dr. Sullivan for failing to deliver, so would I.

Votes are to be received by July 18 and counted on July 21. It was not a sign of weakness to ask the Union to cancel the vote nor is it one to vote “no.” Instead, it is a gesture of good will towards and a sign of faith in Dr. Sullivan, something that adjuncts ask for in return. What unfolds in the next few days will define the tone and nature of this relationship. I am voting “no” and am confident that the Union will lose out on its gamble – at least for now.


Marguerite Hattouni Spencer, A.M.R.S., J.D.
Senior Member of the Adjunct Faculty
Department of Theology,
University of St. Thomas
2115 Summit Avenue
JRC 119
St. Paul, MN 55015
mlspencer [at] stthomas [dot] edu

POINT(-93.0899578 44.9537029)
  • Marguerite, of course, has the right to her individual opinion - but she offers no real reason for adjuncts not to unionize beyond her own altered sentiments that we should all trust and have faith in the newest individuals filling administrative roles at the top - individuals who have no track record of doing anything on adjunct labor justice issues in an administration which likewise has no record of this kind, either. She claims to have no objection to unions ideologically, yet the reasons she offers for trusting her (and our) employers to do the right thing for adjuncts could be applied to all employees whose employers all of a sudden cry out for trust when their workers attempt to unionize and start trusting in a democratic collective bargaining process rather than the benevolence of whomever fills the thin layer at the top. Regardless of one individual's shifting feelings about taking care of ourselves versus hoping to be taken care of at long last by the senior administration, her story speaks for itself. I too was there when we met with the president and told our stories about our experiences as adjuncts. The fact that someone could work well over 20 years for a university, teaching enough classes to amount to far more than 40 hours per week of work and have no health insurance, no disability income / sick leave for illness or injury, no pension, and an income that is about what my dad made as a postal carrier when he retired from the post office in the mid-1990s (a union job - WITH health insurance, sick leave, and a pension) speaks volumes. As we in the humanities know, storytellers cannot decide on our readings and critical analyses of their stories. As for the gamble - voting "no" is the gamble - a gamble that adjuncts would somehow get a far different result than what adjuncts have already gotten from the administration over the course of decades. I don't know why some people persist in doing the same thing that repeatedly brings a poor result. At any rate, I and so many others are glad to cast our lot with our coworkers, the union, and a collective bargaining, democratic model. This was a model that Marguerite herself claimed to fully believe in not too long ago. It has a long history of delivering far better results for workers. As for the claims about "collectives" - there were two groups emailing petitions around to try to stop a federally regulated, democratic, secret ballot election by the NLRB. One of the people on the list told me that they did not know that their name would be sent around that way (and says they're voting yes for the union). Another said that even now as the content on what is still sent around keeps shifting, the same names are listed without consulting them. These approaches are problematic in some of our views in their public listing of names who in some sense could be seen as "loyal" to what the administration wants. This parading of names would never meet the standards for a democratic NLRB election. The relationship between employers and employees is one of highly unequal power - thus the need for a regulated election - and in many of our views, a union. Other adjuncts sometimes have sent the emails with these lists to me. I saw both on the morning of the day that ballots were mailed. One had 57 names on it. The other had 28. There were 15 people whose names appeared on both. The total was thus 70 - out of 301 adjuncts. These two groups did not choose to submit their petitions to any of the SEIU organizers involved in our campaign (organizers whose contact information these groups and/or the UST senior administration kept giving out) and they did not submit them to the UST Adjunct Union organizing committee, either. One emailed me to graciously and honestly say that they hadn't gotten the numbers they'd hoped for and that some who'd signed would still vote for the union. As I have said before, we were not about to stop a democratic election because (big surprise) some people planned to vote no. The standard for any election is not universal consensus. We have spoken with many, many adjuncts who have eagerly looked forward to casting their vote to win a union, and we were not about to deprive them of that right. Many of us have not changed our minds - we recognize that the conditions have not changed at all and will not change in ways we can count on without winning a union. Thus I and many others have proudly voted "YES"! - by Lucy Saliger on Tue, 07/15/2014 - 6:25pm
  • College admin has consciously and increasingly adopted a staffing model which treats highly educated, qualified instructors with absolute disrespect. At any point, administrators could have changed this, but did not. Only when serious, public exposure to their despicable treatment of adjuncts surfaced did they make any movement toward better treatment and wages. Give them more time and hope for their benevolence? What nonsense. They've had all the time in the world to right this and didn't. Unionize. Time's a-wasting. - by Joanne Simons on Sat, 07/19/2014 - 3:02pm

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Marguerite Spencer