Daily Trojan: Adjunct Faculty Seek to Unionize

By Kate Guarino

April 15, 2015

A few clicks was all it took for professor Rachel Roske to realize her health benefits would disappear the following semester. When Roske looked at the schedule of classes last spring, she was shocked to find that her name was listed next to only one course. Teaching just one class — rather than the two classes she’d taught for the prior two years — meant Roske would lose the health benefits the university provided her and her husband.

“I had to suddenly come up with an extra $450 a month to pay for affordable healthcare coverage,” said Roske, an adjunct professor of drawing and painting at the Roski School of Art and Design.

Roske is just one of a number of non-tenure-track faculty pushing for unionization at USC.

Recently, more than 70 USC faculty members signed an unofficial letter voicing their support for a unionization effort on campus. The document states that many East Coast universities including American University, Tufts University and George Washington University have formed successful unions that represent part-time and non-tenure-track faculty. These unions argue for pay increases, improved job security, fair and transparent evaluations and access to benefits on their behalf.

The movement is also gaining ground within the state of California. In January, the Service Employees International Union chapters in the Los Angeles area and in Northern California won faculty elections to represent part-time professors at several California universities. SEIU is now vying to represent faculty at USC.

A Long Way to Go

In order for SEIU to become the bargaining agent for contract negotiations at USC, the National Labor Relations Board requires a petition to be filed showing support from at least 30 percent of employees.

According to Vice Provost Martin Levine, there are approximately 5,000 non-tenure-track faculty at USC, including both part-time and full-time faculty. This means in order to meet NLRB requirements to begin the election process, roughly 1,500 non-tenure track employees would have to sign an official showing of interest.

The local 721 chapter of SEIU would not divulge how many faculty members have signed the showing of interest so far, but officials did say that the decision to call elections will be made by faculty leaders when they feel they have garnered enough support.

If a petition is filed, the NLRB will survey employment conditions at USC and determine who is able to participate in a vote to elect the union.

Some faculty have also launched a website with information about the movement. Last month, faculty and local union leaders attended a public forum in Exposition Park meant to garner interest in faculty unionization.

Among those who spoke at the event was Noura Wedell, an adjunct professor at Roski. Though she has a PhD from Columbia University, Wedell, who is in her 40s, said she lives with three roommates and moves in with her mother over the summer to help cut living expenses.

“I struggle to pay my bills,” Wedell said.  “I don’t go out. I don’t buy clothes [and] worse, I’m really not as available to students because I have to do other work and I cannot buy the books and go to the conferences and do the research and travel that I need.”

Wedell said she is considering going back to school and potentially changing careers. She sees unionizing as the only way she can stay in her current position.

The Issues at Hand

The SEIU’s national faculty forward campaign is advocating $15,000 per course for adjuncts. The average salary for adjunct professors at USC is $3,000 to $5,000.

Though it has been common for part-time faculty to teach at more than one institution in the past, for many that is no longer an option.

Many adjunct faculty at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, the School of Cinematic Arts and the School of Dramatic Arts were required to sign “adjunct acknowledgment forms” (PDF) at the beginning of the spring 2015 semester.

The form stated that the university has a policy against part-time faculty teaching simultaneously at USC and other institutions because “instruction or course creation for other outside enterprises may be inconsistent with a faculty member’s responsibilities to USC.”

If faculty members wish to teach at more than one institution, they must seek approval from the dean of their particular school and “take responsible steps to ensure the proposed activity will not create conflict or the appearance of conflict with any USC program.”

Though the adjunct acknowledgement form’s legality has been called into question by some faculty members, its language does not completely prohibit other employment. It states that one must obtain permission to work elsewhere.

“It probably passes legal muster, [but] I do see that the agreement would be a great organizing issue,” wrote Bruce Harland, an attorney who has dealt with cases involving labor arbitrations and collective bargaining negotiations in an email.

Levine said that the university has long had a policy of not allowing adjuncts to teach at multiple universities but is hoping to clarify the policy in the coming year.

One adjunct, who wished to remain anonymous because of fear of repercussions, has two masters degrees, and says she is paid $4,000 per class in the fall and the spring. In addition, she was given a total of $4,000 to teach five classes online over the summer. She is the sole provider for her child and has worked at six other jobs over the course of her time at USC. She is leaving the university to take an undisclosed job that she says will pay six times as much.

The acknowledgment form also stipulates that part-time faculty are required to have a full-time job elsewhere, but for some professors in professional schools such as Cinematic Arts or Roski, working as an artist or screenwriter does not guarantee a steady source of income.

One cinematic arts professor, who wished to remain anonymous because of fear of repercussions, said she has taught at USC for more than 20 years and receives $4,900 per semester.

Non-tenure-track faculty said they are often left in the dark about program restructuring and changes to the schedule of classes.

“This is a common thing here that people just shake their heads and shrug their shoulders and wonder what’s going on and that to me is not very acceptable,” said Jamal Ali, a full-time non-tenure-track professor in the Middle East studies program.

Roske said when she and her colleagues inquired about why their course load had been changed, they were given a series of vague and contradictory answers. One of her colleagues, Roske said, took a semester off from teaching at USC to develop her artistic career but was never invited back again by the university. Roske added that another professor, who had attended USC as a student, was told the department was trying to hire fewer USC graduates, but the class her colleague lost was given to another professor who graduated from USC.

Roske and Wedell agree that the uncertainty of a semester-to-semester contract can make it difficult to mentor students and provide a promise of long-term support. Roske said she loves her students and gave up other teaching jobs to come to USC.

Still, Ali said many of his colleagues feel disheartened by the administration’s lack of transparency and support of the union.

“People are afraid that if they go public with their union support they’ll lose their job,” Ali said.  “[But] the actual feeling that there needs to be change is pretty widespread.”

University Response

USC administrators became aware of SEIU’s effort on campus early in the spring semester, and the university’s response has been surprising to many faculty members.

“I hold USC to a pretty high standard and I expected them to be neutral on the movement to unionize, but unfortunately that has not been the case,” Roske said.

In a letter to faculty in February, Michael Quick, who was recently named provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, discouraged faculty unionization.

“The issue is whether a union is good for faculty at a particular university — our University of Southern California. My opinion is that it is not … We at USC have a strong system of faculty governance, which emphatically includes non-tenure-track faculty.”

The university launched a website aimed at providing information for non-tenure-track faculty about options for participation in the Academic Senate and noting some of the practices of SEIU. The website includes frequently asked questions with answers provided by Quick. In one answer, he said:

“USC’s peers nationwide are the 62 major research institutions that are members of the  Association of American Universities (AAU). At only two of the 62 have adjuncts voted for the SEIU (Washington University in St. Louis and Boston University.) The SEIU does not represent faculty at any other AAU institution.”

Change from Within

The university has made strides to include non-tenure-track faculty in governance. Next year, for the first time in university history, the president of the Academic Senate  — the body tasked with representing faculty interest on campus — will be a non-tenure-track faculty member.

Ginger Clark, president-elect of the Academic Senate, said the Senate works closely with Levine and Quick, and one of her goals as president is to increase part-time representation. She said as a non-tenure-track professor she hopes to provide insight to the governing body.

“I come in with knowledge that someone who comes from the tenure-track may not have about what it’s like to be non-tenure track faculty on campus,” Clark said. “I feel a great responsibility to make sure that they are represented along with our tenure-track colleagues, and I think it’s important that their issues be addressed.”

Currently, part-time faculty cannot vote in the Academic Senate. Voting in the Senate occurs by school. The 16-member Committee on Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Affairs is predominantly made up of full-time non-tenure-track faculty, but also includes some part-time faculty and tenure-track faculty. It is not a voting body.

Professor Eric Trules, who worked as an adjunct in the School of Dramatic Arts for 17 years and now works as a non-tenure-track faculty member, said he previously served on the CNTTFA, and during that time he often felt bullied by the faculty senate.

“The general opinion is that adjuncts are third-class citizens and [non-tenure track] are second-class citizens based on a dysfunctional and not very practical tenure track system that’s dying out,” Trules said.

Clark, however, disagrees. She said at times there was a “difficult melding” between tenure and non-tenure-track faculty, but the relationship has softened.

In a statement to the Daily Trojan, Quick said there will be a concerted effort to continue to better the experience of part-time faculty.

“USC has made tremendous strides over the past few years in improving the conditions of part-time and [non-tenure track] faculty, and we will continue to do more,” Quick wrote. “An SEIU faculty union would set up an adversarial model that I don’t think is good for our faculty.”

Clark said if faculty were to ultimately unionize, the school would adjust.

“Some of the challenges have to do with ensuring that everyone has the same access to resources; everyone has the same benefits and everyone is treated with the same level of respect,” Clark said. “I think we’re making good progress there but we definitely still have some work to do. If there is a union formed on campus among faculty members then we will adjust to it.”

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