The Lesley University Adjunct Faculty Union Victory: Why It Matters
Regular Open Media Boston viewers may recall that I'm an adjunct university professor in addition to my duties here. Over the last several months, I've been part of a union drive for adjunct faculty - contract professors with low pay, and no benefits or security - at Lesley University. And I'm extremely pleased to announce that my colleagues and I won our union election this week - with a final tally of 357 yes to 67 no votes. Which is an excellent outcome any way you slice it.
This may not seem like a big deal. But it is. Not only because unions have been doing poorly over the last 40 plus years in the US, and any labor win is a good thing for those of us who believe that unions are the only major institution standing between working people and the many depredations of neoliberal capitalism. But also because adjunct professors - like all workers in insecure contingent jobs - are very hard to organize into unions since they are so easy for management to get rid of. For example, if there's any rebellion in the adjunct ranks, all college administrators have to do is simply not hire adjuncts for another contract - and, hey presto, "problem" solved. "Troublemakers" eliminated. Time to bring in more of the vast "reserve army" of higher education labor in the form of the legions of scholars graduating with terminal degrees every term to replace the ones they've "fired without firing" ... and continue business as usual.
So the SEIU Adjunct Action campaign is to be commended for taking on the Sisyphean task of trying to organize adjunct faculty in private universities - which it is able to do thanks to a loophole in the Supreme Court's infamous Yeshiva Decision. A court case that ironically has prevented most regular faculty in private universities from organizing unions like their fellows in public universities by the cheap trick of declaring salaried faculty to be "management" and therefore not eligible for union membership.*
After initial successes in Washington, DC, SEIU started a campaign here in Boston last year, and is in the process of opening up fronts in several other university clusters around the country. So far the Boston campaign has netted wins at Tufts University and now at Lesley University, and suffered a tough loss at Bentley University by a mere two vote margin.
With Massachusetts public college adjuncts organized long represented by the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and with existing private college adjunct unions under the American Association of University Professors at Suffolk University and Emerson College - both the result of an early wave of adjunct organizing in the late 1990s and early 2000s coordinated by the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor - it's now possible to imagine all the working adjuncts in Boston and Massachusetts unionized within a few years.
If all or even a majority of adjunct jobs are organized, then adjunct unions can think about demanding structural reforms across the vast higher education sector in the Commonwealth that could lead the way to regularizing employment for adjuncts at both public and private colleges statewide. Which in turn could serve as a model for changes at the federal level that would mandate living wages with benefits, long-term contracts and ladders to permanent employment for adjuncts nationwide. Ending the growing phenomenon of some of the highest educated workers in the country also being some of its poorest, and pointing the way towards reform for other types of contingent workers - the millions of people in part-time, temp and contract jobs involuntarily.
Hopefully, we're heading in direction. Over 70 percent of college professors nationally are now adjuncts. If something doesn't change soon, we'll be consigning future generations of college educators to an unwanted role as the serfs of the academy. And it will be rather difficult for college administrations to guarantee a quality educational experience when many professors are using food banks and struggling to make ends meet on a combination of $1,500 to $4,000 a course, weak public assistance and even weaker federal health programs.
For the moment, please join me in offering big congrats to all my Lesley University colleagues and to all the SEIU Adjunct Action staff. Job well done. Soon we have to start negotiating our first contract with the Lesley University administration. No easy task to be sure. But this week it's party time.
Wish us luck. And if you'd like to help the main national adjunct faculty union drive out, contact SEIU Adjunct Action.
*Note: Incidentally, you can thank the former president of Boston University, the late John Silber, in part for that ruling. Although, the leadership of Yeshiva University started the original case that led to the Supreme Court decision in question, Boston University's support was instrumental in its victory - as Silber was desperate to bust the BU faculty union who was demanding his ouster in the late 1970s.
Jason Pramas is Editor/Publisher of Open Media Boston. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Communications at Lesley University.