By Sam Hananel
WASHINGTON: Thousands of part-time college professors are joining labor unions, a growing trend in higher education that’s boosting the ranks of organized labor and giving voice to teachers who complain about low pay and a lack of job security at some of the nation’s top universities.
The move to unionize at campuses from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to Tufts University near Boston follows a shift in hiring practices at colleges that rely more than ever on adjunct faculty to teach classes.
Last month, adjuncts at Tufts became the latest to join the 2.1 million-member Service Employees International Union, which has been aggressively targeting college instructors. Adjuncts at Georgetown formed a union with SEIU in May, and part-time instructors at nearby American University joined the union last year.
SEIU now represents more than 18,000 members at 10 colleges and universities, compared with 14,000 five years ago. The union is preparing to file for elections at more colleges in the Los Angeles, Seattle and Boston areas.
Adjunct professors now make up more than half of all college faculty nationwide; in the 1970s, about 70 percent of college instructors were tenured professors or on a track to tenure.
Unlike full professors, most adjuncts earn just a few thousand dollars per class, with scant benefits and little job security.
“What started out decades ago as a way to supplement experience on college campuses by using adjunct professors has flipped,” said Malini Cadambi, SEIU’s national director of higher education. “They are the majority of faculty labor on many campuses now, and their position has not improved.”
Kip Lornell, an adjunct music professor at George Washington University in the District of Columbia, has been teaching students for 25 years and is the author of 13 books on American music. He earns less than $23,000 a year teaching three classes at GWU. By contrast, a full professor at the university earns an average salary of $156,000 a year, according to data compiled by the American Association of University Professors.
Lornell says conditions have improved since GWU adjuncts formed a union in 2006 and won a contract two years later.
The American Federation of Teachers has added more than 50,000 new members in higher education since 2000. The majority of that growth has come in “contingent faculty,” a category that includes part-time adjuncts, graduate assistants and full-time nontenured faculty.
“We’ve identified this as one area we’re going to put significant resources into,” said Craig Smith, AFT’s director of higher education.
William Shimer, a part-time lecturer in management and organizational development at Northeastern University in Boston, said he never imagined being part of the union movement. But he has been rallying colleagues to support an upcoming vote on whether to form a union.
“It’s not that people want to unionize, but we really don’t see any other way. There’s nowhere to turn and nobody is looking out for us,” said Shimer, who teaches five classes at Northeastern and two at another local university.
The university has responded by hiring a prominent law firm used by many corporations to discourage union organizing.
Northeastern’s provost, Stephen Director, sent a letter last summer warning part-time faculty about the impact of “ceding your rights” to negotiate with the university to “an outside organization which is unfamiliar with our culture.”