December 4, 2016

Webster University adjunct faculty gets closer to union vote

This story has been updated with the administration’s response. 

Washington University became the first St. Louis institution of higher education to successfully vote to form an adjunct teachers union. The vote of 138-111 was tallied by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Jan 5.

One of the core members of the union organizing committee Scott Granneman said it is time for Webster University to think about the well-being of the instructors and most importantly the students as Washington University has. Granneman, who is an adjunct professor at both Washington and Webster University, said Webster has had a “good ride” in terms of hiring adjuncts to teach for low wages.

Universities hire adjunct professors or part-time faculty to pick up classes when departments are short-staffed or if contingent faculty are unable to handle heavy course loads. Adjuncts typically earn lower wages with little or no benefits allowing the University to cut costs.

Granneman said universities may be saving money when they hire adjuncts for low wages but this results in adjuncts paying less attention to students due to lack of financial security.

“If your teacher is stressed out and worried because they are not going to be making enough money to cover their mortgage payment or their kids braces or medical payment, then that’s bad for the students as well,” Granneman said. “If you have happier instructors, then I will contend that the students will also receive a better education.”

Forming a union would enable collective bargaining, which would allow the voices of all adjuncts to be heard through a representative who would negotiate deals with the administration. Topics of negotiation could include wages, hours and working conditions.

Webster Vote by Spring

Jeff Maret, Webster adjunct professor, said the vote to form an adjunct teachers’ union is approaching.

Over 100 adjuncts at Webster have already expressed their interest in joining a union by signing a Union Representation card, which says they want union representation, Maret said.

In order to get a vote to unionize, 30 percent of the adjuncts would have to sign a petition with the NLRB. About 70 percent of webster professors are adjuncts, and according to Collegefactual.com, Webster had 1,324 part-time professors in 2013.

Maret is a part of a core group of 10 other Webster adjuncts and union organizers from Service Employees International Union (SEIU). SEIU is the group responsible for organizing the campaign called Adjunct Action that has already united adjuncts at university’s including Howard University, Georgetown University and Tufts University.

Maret, who also teaches at Lindenwood University and Maryville University, said if momentum continues adjuncts at Webster will be able to vote by April. Getting to that point will not be easy, he said. Some adjuncts refuse to vote to unionize because they fear administration retaliation.

”You are just voting against yourself,” Maret said. “Why wouldn’t you want to be represented? Why wouldn’t you want to sit down and negotiate with someone rather than them just dictate the terms to you?”

Maret believes the fear became even more real after an email was sent to Webster adjuncts over the summer by Provost and Senior Vice President Julian Schuster. The email said Webster was “firmly opposed” to unionization and felt it had no benefit as the administration treats “adjunct faculty as valuable members of (Webster University’s) academic community.”

Provost and Senior Vice President Julian Schuster said the administration respects the individual rights of Webster’s adjunct faculty members. He decided to send the email to the adjuncts after many of them expressed their “upset and concern” with being contacted by SEIU members over the summer.

“While we (the administration) respect whatever opinions and actions our adjunct faculty members take in this important matter, we also thought it was important to make clear the university’s stance on this issue,” Schuster said in an email on Jan 23.

Sitting Down with Department Chairs

The first Webster adjunct to serve on the Faculty Senate, Terri Reilly, has been communicating with the chairs of each department since the Provost’s email. She has asked them to remain neutral, as Washington University’s administration has, so she can reassure adjuncts that department chairs will not retaliate against them.

“I knew 100 percent that no department chair would (fire an adjunct) for being a part of the union process,” Reilly said. “That’s not what this university is about…but adjuncts are fearful for their jobs.”

She said the letter from Schuster halted the unionization process because many adjuncts were intimidated by the response. Reilly said Webster administration may have wanted to voice its opinion about adjunct unionization but the way this opinion was presented to adjuncts brought the feeling of intimidation.

Granneman said neutrality of the administration at Washington University was a big component of getting to a vote to form the union because its “hands-off” approach encouraged voting. He said Webster University will find it more difficult to form a union because administration is not on board for allowing at least a vote.

“I hope the university realizes that it’s in everybody’s best interest that they let the adjuncts themselves debate and discuss this and vote on it,” Granneman said.

He said he hopes Webster will change their “negative campaigning route” to a route of support for the Webster adjuncts.

Until then, Granneman and other adjuncts at Washington University are currently filling out a survey listing their top interests for negotiations and achievements they would like to accomplish under the union. Representatives from the adjunct faculty will be picked shortly after the survey is complete.

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  • Ben Brink

    Sierra,

    With the election on this issue approaching in a few days, why not do a follow on article and interview some adjuncts that oppose the SEIU?

    Ben Brink
    Adjunct