Petitions drafted in support of adjunct professor unionization

Several students, alumni and full-time professors at Boston University have launched petitions to advocate for the unionization of part-time faculty, a change they say will provide adjunct professors with greater job security, higher wages, better working conditions and a wider range of benefits.

College of Engineering sophomore Declan Bowman, a member of BU’s Student Labor Action Project, drafted a petition July 24 asking BU administration to take a neutral stance on the potential unionization of adjunct professors. Don McLean, a class of 1967 BU graduate, has drafted a similar petition on behalf of BU’s alumni, and BU professor of law and philosophy David Lyons has done the same.

All three petitions, though petitioning in favor of unionization, are asking the BU administration to stay neutral, allowing adjuncts to decide for themselves whether or not to form a union, free of discouragement or misinformation from the university.

“Many employers faced with unionization of their low-wage employees put up a fight, sometimes with firing, sometimes with misinformation,” Lyons said. “We just wanted BU to refrain from doing that sort of thing.”

As it stands, BU hires adjunct faculty on a class-by-class basis each semester, and adjuncts can teach a maximum of two classes per semester. According to Adjunct Action’s BU fact sheet, adjunct faculty at BU are paid from $3,750 to $9,563 per course, while full-time professors reportedly earn an average yearly salary of $91,000 to $157,000.

“If the adjunct professors decide to unionize, it gives them more bargaining power at the table with the school itself,” Bowman said. “Right now, they’re at the whims of the offerings of the school. They are just given a certain amount of money in the contract and don’t have any power to negotiate benefits or higher pay.”

Part-time faculty can voluntarily contribute to a supplemental retirement and savings plan, but they must work at least 50 percent of a full-time schedule for two years to qualify for BU’s standard retirement plan. They are not provided with healthcare or daycare, though BU does have a program through which adjuncts can pay for eligible healthcare and daycare expenses with money taken from their paychecks before income or Social Security taxes have been deducted.

“In order to make a living, adjuncts often have to teach several courses, sometimes in different colleges and universities, and they don’t have the time to spend with students,” Lyons said. “Sometimes they don’t have time before a course begins to prepare adequately, and they have to do it on the run. It’s those kinds of conditions which we think unionization would help to minimize or eliminate.”

Several members of BU’s part-time faculty have been pushing to unionize through the Service Employees International Union, a labor union who currently represents adjunct faculty at Northeastern University, Lesley University and Tufts University.

BU has formed a Part-Time Faculty Working Group to explore issues such as classroom and meeting space, compensation, benefits and job security, conditions which adjunct professors seeking to organize say need to be improved.

“While a union can’t guarantee all that adjuncts might seek, neither, to be fair, can the Working Group,” BU wrote on the university’s part-time faculty website. “But the Working Group is at least comprised of our own folks, not outsiders with a national or citywide agenda.”

According to the Office of the Provost, the Working Group has already agreed to begin issuing two-semester contracts to faculty who are “excellent proven teachers in courses with steady demand in both semesters.”

The Working Group has also encouraged Deans to develop orientation sessions for part-time faculty, create handbooks outlining policies, procedures and expectations for part-time faculty, and extend school or college business hours in the opening weeks of a semester to “make it easier for part-time faculty who teach after 5 p.m.”

According to Adjunct Action’s BU fact sheet, 41 percent of BU’s faculty were part-time employees in 2012, filling positions McLean said enhance students’ learning experiences in ways full-time faculty may not be able to.

“A person who’s a practitioner, who hasn’t been a full-time academic, might have a broader basis for relating to students,” he said. “Students might benefit from someone who has interests outside of the teaching discipline, someone who has started a business, who has written film scores, that kind of stuff.”

Before adjunct professors could potentially unionize, they must first vote on whether or not they would like to collectively bargain with the university through the SEIU. Organizers are currently collecting signatures from members of the adjunct faculty in order to gain enough to establish a vote to unionize.

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