Minnesota private college professors join militant SEIU union

July 24, 2014

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ST. PAUL, Minn.—Hamline University’s part-time professors in June voted decisively to join the Service Employees International Union.

seiu-at-workThe momentum appeared to be with SEIU organizers, as the first private college campus in Minnesota to unionize adjunct professors quite possibly cleared way for an even bigger domino in July—the University of St. Thomas.

“I’m confident that our success today will help empower other workers, including adjunct faculty like ourselves at schools like St. Thomas, to change working and learning conditions in higher education,” said David Weiss, a Hamline University adjunct professor in the religion department..

Higher education relies significantly on adjunct educators, who typically earn $4,000 to $6,000 per course without benefits or tenure. Minnesota’s union-friendly reputation led to the Twin Cities making a list of 10 cities and states targeted by SEIU’s “Adjunct Action” national campaign to organize collective bargaining units for part-time faculty.

“Minnesota adjuncts are joining a fast-growing union movement, as adjuncts come together to take on this crisis in higher education that has turned what was once a good middle-class profession into a low-wage, no-benefits job without any job security from semester to semester,” stated an Adjunct Action news release. “Now their vision is to take this work a step further — to unite adjunct faculty market wide … .”

The lead-up to the July mail-ballot election involving more than 250 adjunct professors at the University of St. Thomas focused on the same issues — pay increases, faculty evaluations, health care and other benefits. Their counterparts at another Catholic institution that recently voted to join the SEIU — Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. — even weighed in to encourage a pro-union vote.

“Gains bargained through union negotiations are protected by a contract and cannot be arbitrarily taken away from you. Higher education has changed and will continue to change, and a union provides a clear structure for negotiations in the future,” wrote the six members of Georgetown University’s adjunct bargaining committee. “Please vote ‘yes’ for yourselves, your colleagues, your students, and our national movement.”

But the solidarity stopped there. When the National Labor Relations Board tallied the results of SEIU’s test at the University of St. Thomas on Monday, the union got a failing grade — 136-84.

“I want to thank each of the adjunct faculty, who held varying opinions about union representation, for participating in the constructive dialogue that has occurred since the petition was filed two months ago,” said St. Thomas University president Julie Sullivan in an email.

The setback left SEIU with a split decision on the two Twin Cities private college campuses where union votes occurred. An apparent lack of support led SEIU to pull out of an earlier private college campus election planned at Macalester College in St. Paul.

So how did the University of St. Thomas administration prevail? In part by doing what universities do, namely educating adjunct faculty on the ABCs of how a union on campus might play out. One fact sheet emphasized that adjunct faculty would be required to pay union fees or dues to an organization that spent $114 million on political activities and lobbying in 2012.

“The election of a union could curtail the University’s latitude to engage the best qualified adjunct for a particular position. Certain adjuncts (particularly those working primarily outside of higher education who teach to share their professional expertise) may not be willing to pay union dues or agency fees to teach for us. Additionally, union contracts often prioritize and reward seniority over other employee qualifications,” according to a university online position statement.

Administrators worked to get out the educators’ vote amid an assertion that most St. Thomas faculty already get better pay than contracts negotiated by SEIU at other institutions. One organizer suggested the university also capitalized on goodwill shown toward the institution’s new leader.

“They have a new president, she just started and their line was give me a chance to work with you, and I guess it worked. I guess they’re going to give her a chance,” said Soo Jin Pate, a former adjunct professor at Macalester who supported SEIU in organizing drives on both campuses.

The SEIU’s wake-up call clearly gave St. Thomas administrators a crash course in the concerns shared by many adjunct professors.

“We’re pleased with the decision and as soon as they (NLRB) certify the results, which will be a week from now, then we’ll initiate a plan to address the priorities we’ve identified and go from there,” said Doug Hennes, University of St. Thomas vice president for university and government relations.

Authored by Tom Steward

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