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Lawrence Harmon

Exploited adjuncts ripe for a union

No one would confuse the work life of a part-time lecturer at a private university with a tomato picker in the fields of Immokalee, Fla. But not so fast. Each performs piece work. Each hits a wall when trying to address marginal pay and working conditions. Even their salaries, in some cases, aren’t worlds apart.

Adjunct faculty members are the working stiffs of academia. They can hold their own with tenured faculty on subjects ranging from analytic geometry to literary criticism. But they work for little money, often in the $3,000-$6,000 range per course. Some survive by cobbling together four or more courses per semester. Even then, they might stretch to earn $35,000 annually. Yet their numbers are growing. From 1993 to 2011, the percentage of faculty members without tenure jumped nationally from 57 percent to 70 percent, according to the American Association of University Professors.

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This is red meat for the Service Employees International Union, which has mounted successful efforts to unionize adjunct faculty at private universities, including American University and George Washington University. Locally, adjunct faculty at both Tufts and Lesley have voted to join the union. We’re not talking about radicalized instructors who run around campus chanting, “The People United Will Never Be Defeated.’’ For the most part, these are committed educators who are looking for fair pay, a modicum of job security, basic benefits, and a voice on campus. And more and more of them are discovering that nothing short of unionization will achieve these goals.

The current “Adjunct Action’’ is focused on Northeastern University where about 950 part-time faculty members will receive ballots from the National Labor Relations Board later this month asking if they want to be represented by SEIU. Northeastern, to its credit, is making strong efforts to hire more full-time faculty members. Part-timers carry only 27 percent of the teaching load on campus, according to university statistics. Yet the debate is especially hot on Huntington Avenue due, in part, to the university’s decision to hire an outside law firm with a reputation for anti-union warfare. Unlike Tufts administrators, who remained neutral for the most part, Northeastern officials argue that unionization isn’t in the best interest of students or the campus culture.

In a recent letter to adjunct faculty, Business School Dean Hugh Courtney raised the specter of a unionized “uniform wage rate.’’ Such a system, he argued, could increase lecturers’ salaries in some departments but lower the pay in academic units with a higher scale, such as business.

This argument didn’t resonate with lecturer Bill Shimer, a law school graduate who teaches introduction-to-business and business-writing courses at Northeastern. Before the arrival of the anti-union mail, said Shimer, he had little or no contact with Courtney or his predecessor during his four-year teaching experience at the university. And Shimer has received as little as $2,215 for teaching a business course in Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies, which caters to working adults.

An oversupply of PhDs fuels this low-paid, highly educated workforce model. And there is little economic incentive for universities to change. The students, for the most part, don’t have a clue whether they are being taught by a tenured professor or an adjunct lecturer. And parents, who may be paying $50,000 a year, are also unaware. But they wouldn’t be happy to learn about late-arriving contracts that force lecturers to pull together course materials on the run. That’s when student learning suffers, said Shimer.

Adjunct faculty members can hold their own with tenured faculty on subjects ranging from analytic geometry to literary criticism. But they work for little money.

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More often, however, students benefit at the direct expense of the lecturer. Adjunct lecturer Antonio Ochoa, who earned a PhD in comparative literature, teaches first- and second-semester Spanish at Boston University, the next battleground for SEIU. It’s doubtful that too many tuition-paying parents would complain about those credentials. But for Ochoa, who earns $6,000 per course, life isn’t so sweet. He lives in the red, working extra jobs to survive. Last weekend, he went deep into his own pocket to attend the Northeast Modern Language Association annual meeting in Harrisburg, Penn. Serious scholarship requires such attendance. That’s why SEIU bargains for funds that enable lecturers to attend professional meetings.

On many campuses, adjunct faculty members pay for parking. That takes a much bigger slice out of their paychecks then it does for full-time professors. Office space is at a premium for lecturers, when it exists at all. The low pay is bad enough. But what many lecturers resent more is the feeling they are invisible.

The universities had this coming. SEIU organizers will soon be the big men on campus.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.
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