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BU adjunct professors vote to join union

Part-time faculty seek workplace rights

Adjunct professors at Boston University voted Wednesday to unionize, joining part-time faculty at other Boston-area schools in a nationwide push to increase workplace rights for the instructors who play a growing role in higher education.

More than 750 BU adjuncts will join Faculty Forward, a part of the Service Employees International Union Local 509, as a result of the vote, the union said. The action passed by a 2-to-1 ratio.

BU spokesman Colin Riley said the school respects the decision.

“We’re looking forward to working with the union,” he said.

Riley said 36 percent of BU faculty are adjuncts, but those instructors teach only 21 percent of all courses, and only 9 percent in the College of Arts and Sciences, where most BU undergraduates take their core courses.


Jason Stephany, a spokesman for Local 509, said contract negotiations will begin soon.

“Those discussions will begin the collective bargaining process,” he said, “over wages, working conditions, civility, investments in the classroom, and other issues that impact both students and faculty on campus.”

Bayla Ostrach, who serves on the BU union organizing committee, said she hopes to change the current system, under which adjuncts can work for weeks preparing a course and then be paid nothing if it is canceled because of low enrollment.

“Every adjunct I’ve spoken with, our number-one priority is being able to focus on our students and focus on our teaching,” Ostrach, 34, said, “and it’s really hard to do that when you don’t know until the first week whether you’re going to have class.”

Faculty Forward, which includes adjuncts in the Boston area, will now have 2,600 members.

SEIU, emboldened by the growing ranks of part-time professors, has been pushing for unionization across the United States.

Full-time faculty at BU do not belong to a union.

Nationwide, part-time professors now hold more than half of college teaching jobs.


That number has grown from 30 percent in 1975, according to the American Association of University Professors.

Adjunct faculty are paid a national average of about $3,000 per three-credit course, the SEIU has said. About 80 percent of them receive no health insurance from their employer, and about 86 percent are not provided retirement benefits.

SEIU Local 509 has helped organize adjunct faculty at Tufts University, where part-time lecturers signed a contract in October, as well as at Northeastern and Lesley universities, where negotiations are underway.

“There’s certainly been a groundswell of support on campuses throughout Greater Boston and across the country,” he said, “and I would absolutely expect that there are going to be more contingent faculty coming together to form unions on campuses in the area in the coming months.”

Dan Hunter, an adjunct who has taught playwriting at BU for 15 years, said the university requires adjuncts “to have the same training, the same preparation, and they’re held to the same standards” as full-time professors, but they do not receive the same income, benefits, or opportunities for advancement.

“I’m proud to be associated with the university, but I don’t think adjuncts have been treated fairly,” Hunter, 61, said. “I think for a university that claims the mantle of Martin Luther King, that’s a problem.”

Hunter said the move to unionize is not intended to be divisive.

“This is about uniting under one faculty and recognizing that some faculty have been invisible and cannot be ignored anymore,” he said.


Ostrach said that in the 2013-2014 academic year, her first at BU, she taught six classes in three programs but was paid so little that she was eligible for Medicaid and food stamps.

“Last year the Massachusetts taxpayers were subsidizing Boston University’s profits,” she said. “When I taught a class of 58, 57 of those students’ tuition was pure profit for the university.”

Ostrach, a single mother, said she explained the vote Wednesday morning to her 9-year-old daughter, telling her that unionizing would mean “that things aren’t going to be as hard.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox. Andy Rosen can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @andyrosen.