The Duck of Minerva

Unionizing Adjuncts at Georgetown (Updated, and Again)

2 October 2012

UPDATE: the author of the Chronicle article, Peter Schmidt, discussed the issue on the Kojo Namdi show yesterday.

The SEIU wants to unionize adjunct professors at Georgetown University. As their card makes clear, this is part of a broader effort to unionize contingent labor at colleges and universities. George Washington’s adjuncts unionized in 2006, and won a significant pay raise this August. American University’s and Montgomery County’s adjuncts are also unionized.

From today’s Chronicle of Higher Education article:

SEIU Local 500 began a campaign to organize an adjunct union at Georgetown University in August, having previously unionized adjuncts at two other local private institutions, American University and George Washington University, and at Montgomery College, a public institution with campuses in three of Washington’s Maryland suburbs. 

By organizing new adjunct unions at Georgetown and other colleges in and around the nation’s capital, the union hopes to gain enough of a presence in the area that all colleges in the region will feel a need to improve the pay, benefits, and job security of adjunct instructors to remain competitive for such workers, Kip Lornell, SEIU Local 500’s vice president for higher education, said on Monday. 

If adjunct faculty members at Georgetown vote to form a collective-bargaining unit affiliated with it, Local 500 will represent a total of roughly two-thirds of adjuncts in the nation’s capital, Mr. Lornell estimated. That share, he said, should be enough to give Local 500 significant influence over pay and benefits of adjunct faculty members throughout the area, even if it falters in its planned efforts to also bring on board adjunct faculty members at Howard University and the Catholic University of America. 

“It won’t be particularly easy, and will probably take us a year or two at each place to do this, but we clearly have a record of success,” said Mr. Lornell, who is an adjunct professor of Africana studies and music at George Washington University. Negotiations with colleges over adjunct pay and benefits “will be a very different conversation when all of the part-time faculty in Washington, D.C., are unionized,” he predicted.

The Georgetown administration’s response is, for lack of a better term, carefully stated:

Last week Georgetown’s provost, Robert M. Groves, sent the university’s faculty members an e-mail in which he acknowledged the presence of an adjunct-unionization drive on the campus and said that Georgetown “has a long history of working productively” with labor unions that represent other employees. “Because this is a process that is governed by the principle of majority rule, we encourage all adjunct faculty members to educate themselves about the process and their rights under federal labor law,” his e-mail said. 

It seems to me that the debate over unionization of contingent labor provides, among other things, a clarifying moment for everyone who bemoans the decline of reliance on tenure-track and tenured faculty at colleges and universities.

Is the goal simply to improve the working conditions and pay for adjuncts? To drive up the price of adjuncts so that colleges and universities revisit the economics of relying so heavily on them? Or are there ways in which better conditions might render all faculty contingent? Is that good or bad?

I’m curious of Duck readers have opinions on the matter.