Contingent faculty taking steps to unionizing

From the St. Mary's Collegian:

“Teaching 2-3 courses a year and making less than $20,000 is poverty, and there’s no social justice in poverty.” This statement from Jack Rasmus is, in one sense, the core of the issue that the contingent faculty of Saint Mary’s College have been experiencing for a long time, and it is also one of the primary reasons that they are now taking steps toward unionization.

The contingent faculty of Saint Mary’s, which consists primarily of lecturers and adjunct professors, make up the majority of the professors and staff who teach classes at the College. However, unlike the full-time or tenured professors who receive job benefits and the comforts of job security, adjuncts and lecturers are contracted on a semester or yearly basis and have no guarantee that they will be employed the following semester.

The situation with contingent faculty at Saint Mary’s is not an unique issue. Due to national economic problems, colleges have begun to hire more adjunct and temporary professors as a way to save money. According to data compiled by the Service Employees International Union, in 1969, approximately 78 percent of college and university faculty were tenured or on a tenure-track, and only about 22 percent were adjunct. But in 2009, this has almost completely reversed, and universities now tend to have only 34 percent of their staff tenured or on a tenure track, while 65 percent or more are adjuncts or temporary lecturers.

Because lecturers are hired with semester-by-semester contracts, and most adjuncts are hired with only yearly contracts, they have to rely on the administrators of their colleges to offer them new contracts, and they never know if they will still have a job the next semester. If the college or university does not need the class a professor normally teaches, they can cancel the class or not offer the professor a new contract — effectively firing them without any prior notice. However, even while a professor is teaching, the amount he or she is paid per course is not representative of the amount of work put in. For each course, professors are paid between $1,000 and $5,000.  If an adjunct college professor gets paid $3,000 per course and teaches six courses in one year (three in the fall and three in the spring), then they would make $18,000 a year, which is about the same amount that a full-time barista at Starbucks makes. Their salary is little more than one tenth the average amount that a full-time, tenured professor makes at a private university (approximately $167,118). Furthermore, the contingent faculty do not get healthcare or other benefits.

To address this issue, professors all over the country have begun to unionize, and professors at colleges in the Bay Area, including Saint Mary’s, are following suit. As individuals, the contingent faculty hold very little power to negotiate or bargain for contracts, so they are hoping to unionize and use collective bargaining to level the field.

Jack Rasmus is one of several contingent faculty members at Saint Mary’s who is leading the move toward unionization, and in an interview with The Collegian, he emphasized that the purpose of the proposed union is simply to help protect the large contingent faculty that work at Saint Mary’s.

“We’re not anti-administration, we’re just pro-contingent workers. [We are] just trying to help ourselves out a little bit,” Rasmus said. “It is not a them-versus-us mentality. That’s important. We’re not mad at the administration. We just want to bring attention to our situation, and we want to sit down with them … and see if we can come to some mutual agreement on improving our situation.”

Rasmus acknowledged that the college administration might have its own limitations on what it can or cannot do, but he also emphasized the fact that the adjuncts and professors have basic needs and rights that are not being provided in their current situation. Rasmus also pointed out his strong belief in the Lasallian social justice values that the College teaches its community; he hopes that the College will recognize the social justice that their own faculty and staff deserve.

Read the full story here.