Union for adjuncts possible

The PLRB will decide if the union can continue as proposed.

Adjunct professors at Temple are making strides toward unionization, which could guarantee job and wage security among other benefits, but no changes can occur until multiple conflicting parties come to an agreement.

In mid-December, adjunct professors filed authorization cards with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board for unionization with the Temple Association of University Professionals and the United Academics of Philadelphia. TAUP represents about 1,400 full-time faculty members, not accounting for those who teach in the health professional buildings.

Art Hochner, TAUP president, said that for an election for unionization to go through, the PLRB requires at least 30 percent of eligible candidates to sign authorization cards. Temple has more than 1,000 eligible adjunct professors with the support of well over the majority, Hochner said.

The next step for unionization is a conference call that’s scheduled on Feb. 10 between TAUP, PLRB, the United Academics of Philadelphia, the American Federation of Teachers and the university which will determine a date for election. If an agreement isn’t met, both sides will have to go to a hearing.

University participants on the conference call will include Sharon Boyle, associate vice president for Human Resources operations, and Susan B. Smith, senior associate university counsel as well as outside counsel.

In a joint interview Thursday, Smith and Boyle said they believed unionization could limit progress they said has been made with regard to adjunct relations in the past few years, including updating the adjunct handbook, advocating improved communication to adjuncts and monthly meetings to discuss adjunct concerns.

“What’s happened since then is we are really in a kind of holding pattern,” Boyle said of the petition to the labor board. “It kind of halts our plans on implementing improvements to some degree. We now have to follow this [PLRB] process.”

Boyle and Smith said the union’s goals – which could include higher pay and possible restructuring of the way classes are scheduled – could put a strain on the university’s current allocation of resources.

“We have some pretty serious concerns about that from an operational standpoint … from the impact it will have on students,” Boyle added. “It has the potential to seriously limit the way we deliver classes, the cost of an education at Temple and the quality of that education.”

Smith said the “natural tension” between full- and part-time faculty could worsen if unionized adjuncts try to compete for resources like merit pay increases.

“When you’re talking about resources, dollars, the university obviously doesn’t have an endless pot of money,” Smith said of the pool accessible to full-time faculty.

“If adjunct faculty are added to the union, it’s likely that the union will push hard for adjuncts to share in some of that money,” Smith added. “So each dollar they take is a dollar out of a full-time faculty member’s pocket.”

A letter from Provost Hai-Lung Dai dated Sept. 29, 2014 reminded adjuncts that unionizing is binding, dues would have to be paid and withdrawal would be difficult.

“We are concerned that once the union files a petition for representation, we cannot continue the meetings we have had with you, the adjunct faculty, until there is an election,” Dai wrote. “If the union is certified, we cannot make any changes to compensation, benefits or other terms of employment without coming to agreement with the union.”

“Ultimately, it is your decision whether or not you wish to be represented by TAUP and AFT,” Dai added. “In the meantime, we want to reaffirm our interest in continuing to work directly with our adjuncts without third-party involvement.”

Hochner said some faculty that are currently a part of TAUP are concerned that more benefits for adjuncts will mean less for them, but overall, unionization is important for security on multiple levels.

“[Unionization will] mean a voice, mainly. And, what they want to use that voice for is up to them,” Hochner said. “Typically, they want to negotiate for regular pay increases and some access to benefits and for some measure of job security. What exactly these adjuncts at Temple want is something we’re going to have to find out.”

Hochner said an election will likely take place sometime this semester.

The Temple News reported last spring that adjuncts – who make up more than 40 percent of educators at Temple – are paid between $2,500 and $4,000 per three-credit course, with limitations on how many classes they’re allowed to instruct.

Wende Marshall, an adjunct professor at the College of Liberal Arts who’s currently instructing her fourth semester, is just one of the many who filed an authorization card. Marshall said she hopes for better job and wage security with unionization.

“Adjuncts are low-wage workers who are highly committed to the enterprise of teaching,” Marshall said. “I think that at the end of the day, it’s really important that adjuncts be represented along with other workers on campus. In a lot of ways, adjuncts carry a disproportional load.”

Elizabeth Spencer, another CLA adjunct who signed an authorization card, said she joined the movement when she began to see adjuncts assigned to fewer classes with less wage security. She said the thought of unionization was “the first thing that gave [her] hope about [her] future in teaching.”

When she began teaching at a community college in 2011, she taught five classes and said she was the most financially secure she’s ever been. But now, Spencer only teaches one class at Temple, and said she’s thankful she lives in a household with a spouse who has a higher salary. She said there was once a time where adjuncts “could count on having two classes at Temple” and that security is diminishing. In addition, she said adjuncts aren’t finding out about what classes or how many they will instruct for the upcoming semester, and there’s a greater possibility of classes being canceled before they begin.

“A lot of adjuncts are living close to poverty and of course it’s going to affect their teaching,” Spencer said. “I’ve seen new buildings go up, I’ve seen tuition go up for students, and I think that giving the adjuncts more stable working conditions, more supportive working conditions in terms of having access to basic supplies … will benefit the students,” she added.

Joe Brandt and Patricia Madej can be reached at news@temple-news.com or 215.204.7419

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