Campus, Investigative

‘They don’t know who we are’: Part-time faculty union advocates for better treatment from BU

By Karyna Cheung and Chloe Cramutola

When they aren’t teaching classes, Boston University part-time faculty remain on campus, handing out buttons with the message: “Call Bullsh*t. Make BU pay living wages.” 

They’ve designed flyers with provocative slogans: “Let them eat buildings” and “What’s eating your tuition dollars?”

Part-time faculty consists of adjuncts, lecturers and instructors, according to BU Human Resources. Collectively part-time faculty unionized in 2015 and are still raising awareness about their current job instability, low wages and lack of institutional support as they feel that BU is unresponsive to their needs. 

“We teach the same courses, we have the same qualifications,” said Janet Bailey, lecturer in BU Metropolitan College. “And yet it’s been a very hard road trying to get BU to recognize that and treat us fairly.”

Janet Bailey, part-time-faculty union member of Boston University’s Metropolitan College. Part-time faculty, consisting of adjuncts, lecturers and instructors, are spreading awareness about their current job instability, low wages and lack of institutional support. ANDREW BURKE-STEVENSON/DFP PHOTOGRAPHER

As negotiations persist, so do their worries.

The next contract has not yet been finalized, meaning that the part-time faculty have been working based on the agreements of a contract that expired in August. 

“[My students] don’t know that I’m any different from a professor who’s been here for 40 years,” said Andrew Smith, part-time lecturer in the College of Communication. “They don’t know who we are [or] what we’re paid. And the university loves keeping it that way, I’m sure.” 

BU spokesperson Colin Riley and Executive Director of Employee and Labor Relations Judi Burgess declined to comment, citing that BU does not comment on ongoing labor matters.  

Bailey said wages are a key point in the union’s efforts for part-time faculty.  

Due to inflation, $100 in September 2019 is equivalent to $119.58 in August 2023, a change of 19.58%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Part-time faculty’s wages haven’t matched this, instead increasing by 8.5% in that time, according to the 2019-23 contract.

“We’re in a position where we’re saying, at the very least, we should be kept up with the cost of living,” Bailey said.

Total cost of attendance at BU has increased roughly 15.6% year-over-year from September 2019 to September 2023, according to prices from TuitionTracker. The union’s latest proposal aims to increase their salaries by 8.09% during the first year of their contract, according to the union’s counterproposal from December.

BU offered the part-time faculty a quarter of that percentage: 2.5%, according to a counterproposal from management written in November.

“They’re trying very hard to make sure that it doesn’t go to us,” Bailey said about BU’s tuition they get from students. 

Rachel McCleery, the lead internal organizer at Service Employees International Union Local 509, said BU has not adjusted their offer accordingly with tuition.

“[BU has] provided no justification for why their numbers look the way they do,” said Rachel McCleery, who is also the chief negotiator for the union. “Because they’ve not been able to offer a rationale for their proposal, our members have been very reluctant to change ours.”

The part-time faculty union is a part of the larger Local 509, which represents graduate and resident assistant units in bargaining with BU. The bargaining units are the separate unions that make up Local 509.

BU’s current policies regarding new part-time faculty are prompting some to consider job prospects other than teaching.

“I have a one-year-old. I have to care about my family,” Smith said. “I can’t teach here just because I love it.”

Starting September 2022, part-time faculty are paid at minimum either $1,750 or $2,100 per credit, according to their 2019-2023 contract. To earn the higher rate, part-time faculty members must complete four calendar years of employment or teach eight courses.

McCleery said closing the pay difference among part-time faculty is one of their “biggest priorities.” 

After one bargaining session for part-time faculty union members in July, McCleery said she asked for updates over the course of three months, but she said she received no response until the end of October.

All together, the BU bargaining Local 509 unit has filed four unfair labor practice charges in the last six months. These charges are still open cases.

RAs are in the beginning stages of negotiations with the university, McCleary said. The graduate student workers union drafted its first contract with the university last spring.

“To [BU], not having a contract for another month means that they get to save money, but for us, it might mean that we can’t make our rent,” said Meiya Sparks Lin, a teaching assistant and second year PhD student in the College of Arts and Sciences. 

The part-time faculty’s button campaign originated from the union’s discontent with the progress of negotiations, said Bill Marx, a union steward and master lecturer in COM.

Buttons made by the part-time-faculty union read the message, “Call Bullsh*t. Make BU pay living wages.” ANDREW BURKE-STEVENSON/DFP PHOTOGRAPHER

“I don’t want to say that improvement hasn’t been done or that the collaboration has not been effective, because it has,” Marx said. “But, there is considerable room to improve. We’re at a moment of real frustration.”

This current negotiation period has taken longer than the last. Part-time faculty and the university reached a tentative agreement in November 2019, less than four months after the previous contract expired, according to the 2019-2023 contract.

Now, they’re working off an expired contract.

“We don’t have offices,” Smith said. “We don’t have a presence on campus except for that classroom, where people think we’re paid the same as some tenured professor who’s been here for 30 years.” 

While the deadlock in negotiations continues, some of the union workers, like Smith, feel the weight of the unknown. He is a SAG-AFTRA actor whose only current job is at BU.

“I love [acting and writing] so much that I want that to translate to a classroom full of students,” Smith said. “But I’m at risk of walking out the door, because there’s not a lot holding me here. Because the same loyalty I give to BU is not the loyalty I get back.”

 

This is part of an ongoing Daily Free Press investigation.

One Comment

  1. Hannibal Lecturer

    The graph is perhaps a bit misleading because it shows rates of change rather than the cumulative effect (therefore, to a casual glance, it looks as though things have “evened out”).

    Otherwise, excellent article. The university has long treated even the most experience and accomplished adjuncts poorly. These people have terminal degrees and vast expertise, and they teach thousands of classes each year, but receive almost no respect, recognition, institutional support, or job security. So at the very least, they should get fair wages.

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