We’ve been collecting cards for some time,” said Brody Burroughs, a member of the organizing committee who wants to form a union for adjunct instructors at Ithaca College. “We have to get to the point where we’re confident we have enough cards to file for an election.” Burroughs said that his group would like to collect significantly more than is needed in order to show the college that a clear majority of adjuncts want a union. He said he believes they reach that point in “a month or two.”
Ithaca College recently became aware that some part-time faculty members have expressed an interest in forming a labor union,” said Senior Associate Director for Media and Community Relations David Maley. “It is yet to be seen if a majority of the college’s part-time faculty will adopt this view. This is an important issue, and the college encourages those involved to get as much information as possible before making a final decision.” The organizers have to collect the signatures of 30 percent of the adjunct population in order to induce a ballot. They would like to reach 50 percent.
At IC part-time adjuncts are in a different category from full-time non-tenure track instructors (“n-tens”). Part-time employment is capped at 58 percent of full time. For a studio art instructor like Burroughs, this means he can only teach three courses per year (studio classes are long), but other adjuncts may manage as many as four.
“You don’t know when you will get what,” said Burroughs, “so it is hard to plan your life. It isn’t as much of a problem at IC as at other places, but under-enrolled classes can be canceled at any time and you will receive no pay at all.
Burroughs said that he has been at IC “in some capacity or other” for 10 years and an instructor for five. Some instructors that he knows, however, have been there for 20 years. Adjuncts have not received a raise in five years.
“I would like to feel that I was building something here,” he said, “and not feel stuck in a perpetual entry-level position.”
A year ago Burroughs got an email from SEIU (Service Employees International Union). “At first I thought it was a phishing scam,” he said, “but I looked into it and found out it was part of larger national push to build membership, and the upstate New York and Vermont part of it was underway.” Burroughs said the SEIU representatives then visited the places where they got the most responses to their email. IC adjuncts sent them a lot of responses.
The adjunct art instructor said that the first stirrings toward unionization began in 2011 when the student group Labor Initiative Promoting Solidarity (LIPS) managed to pressure the college administration into asking Sodexo, the multinational corporation that runs its food service, to raise the lowest wage in the kitchens to $11.11 per hour, which was at the time what Alternatives Federal Credit Union determined was a living wage. Workers had been paid as little as $8.19 per hour.
At the time the student group had also done some work toward better working conditions for adjuncts, but nothing had come of it. Burroughs said that the faculty council at IC has also brought to the attention of the administration the issue of adjunct pay. He acknowledged though that the decision lies with the college’s board of trustees. He has been told that budget constraints and market forces prohibit changes in adjunct wages.
Burroughs likes SEIU because they are not an educator’s union. “They seem like a good fit for us,” he said. “They will write rules that work for us and that fit the school.” Because SEIU represents many different types of workers—in health care, custodial and maintenance, government workers, and public school employees—they will be flexible in their approach rather than trying to fit adjunct professors into an existing mold.
Rachel Kaufman, a part-time instructor in the writing department at IC, just got the last of her W-2 forms in the mail. She also teaches at Binghamton University and Elmira College. Her total (gross) income in 2014 from teaching six courses among three schools was $20,331. “According to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator,” noted Kaufman, “my total gross income from teaching is below the gross living wage salary for an adult living in Tompkins County ($21,382) and less than half the gross living wage salary for an adult with one child, $45,146.”
Kaufman, who has taught at IC for three years, is also a member of the organizing committee at the college. Kaufman has a master’s degree in interdisciplinary humanities from Binghamton University and is “all but dissertation” in her Ph.D. in the Binghamton English department. Her focus is on “women, gender, and sexuality.” She got involved in the unionization effort after getting an email from Burroughs. She said that a union has been “a long time coming” and that there are two basic issues.