With a $12.2 million shortfall projected for Webster University’s 2015 fiscal year, the hiring of adjunct professors could allow the university to cut costs. Adjuncts receive less than one-fifth the amount Webster pays full-time professors.
Adjuncts are professors who are employed part-time usually at more than one university and teach an average of three to four classes. Webster University’s adjunct faculty make up 87 percent of its teaching body according to collegefactual.com, which is nearly double the national average of 48.1 percent.
Adjunct professor Jeff Maret teaches four classes between Lindenwood University, Maryville University and Webster. He works full-time hours but he is not provided healthcare benefits, disability or life insurance that are offered to full-time professors.
“I like to teach, I like my students, I just don’t like the deal,” Maret said. “And I don’t like the idea that we have no voice.”
Union organizers from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) visited the homes of several Webster adjuncts over the summer to recruit them for their project called Adjunct Action to improve teaching conditions for adjuncts. This includes better evaluation process, job security and increased salary.
Over this past summer, Webster administration became aware of the union organizers reaching out to its adjuncts and the Provost and Senior Vice President Julian Schuster responded with an email on Oct. 21 which stated:
“University administration and academic leadership are firmly opposed to unionization of our adjunct faculty. We see no additional benefit that a union can bring to this important constituency and frankly view unionization as a detriment to our current environment of openness, inclusion, and active participation that we now have with our adjunct faculty.”
In the email, Schuster calls the adjuncts valuable members of the university and tells them about the benefits of teaching at Webster. These benefits include a voluntary tax-deferred retirement plan and a tuition remission benefit that can be claimed after four years or 36 hours of teaching. The tuition remission benefit would allow adjuncts six free credit hours per academic year.
Following suit with Wash U
In late October, Washington University’s adjunct faculty became the first such group in St. Louis to gain enough adjunct signatures to file a petition with SEIU for a union election.
In order to create a union, 30 percent of the adjuncts will have to sign a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). If enough sign the petition, a union election will take place in secrecy in order to obtain the adjuncts confidentiality. The election will determine if the adjuncts will be represented by the union.
Vice President of SEIU Local 1 Nancy Cross said adjunct interest in unionization is not the problem at Webster University.
“The question is whether the administration is willing to let people make their decisions without running an anti-union campaign,” Cross said.
Cross said there have been situations where SEIU has had to run a campaign against the employer in order for the employer to give its employees the option to make their own decision for or against unionization.
She said the email Webster’s administration sent out was intimidating. Emails like that only make people who were neutral, pick a side Cross said.
“I think that (letter) makes people think twice because their employer is saying something is not in their best interest,” Cross said. “And we would expect more from Webster than to have that kind of letter go out to its adjuncts.”
Webster adjunct Terri Reilly is the first adjunct faculty member to serve on the Faculty Senate. She said the committee for salary and fringe benefits send out a survey every year to faculty to see what issues should be solved. This year a raise in adjunct faculty was issue number two. However, a pay increase for adjuncts is not feasible, she said.
“There aren’t any answers because (Webster University) can’t pay adjuncts more,” Reilly said. “The money just isn’t there.”
Reilly said an adjunct task force has been formed about four years ago. The group met and created recommendations for the University to improve adjunct benefits including salary.
“There was recommendations that came out and it basically sat on the Provost’s desk,” “So the work has been done before but there was no outcome.”
Reilly said she proposed to the Faculty Senate over the summer to form another adjunct task force. The proposal was accepted and the task force is currently working towards improving adjunct issues.
However, Maret believes forming a union will be the only way to see improvements for adjuncts. The union would participate in collective bargaining with the university which entails the negotiation of wages and other employment benefits.
He tried forming a union at Lindenwood University but failed to obtain enough signatures for a petition. He said the faculty were too scared of losing their jobs but he hopes unionization at Webster is more successful.
”Obviously we will not have a voice unless we are a unit,” Maret said. “If you’re just one person the University won’t respond.”