Union vote could help Bay Area adjunct professors get living wage

From San Francisco Chronicle:

The American dream is built on this axiom: If you go to school, then you will make more money and be more successful than the guy who didn’t go to school. High school and elementary teachers with years of training already know this is a myth. But when someone graduates with a Ph.D. (known ominously as a “terminal degree” because you can’t go any further even if you wanted to), there’s an assumption that the person will make a comfortable living at a nice university.

But universities have found a convenient truth about the academic market: There are many times more applicants for tenure-track professor positions than there are open positions. This basic problem of oversupply is one reason Dominican University of California adjunct professors are taking a union certification vote Dec. 5-19, asking the basic question: Do we need to unionize to get paid what we’re worth?

The approximately 300 teachers at the university in San Rafael are part of a nationwide strategy by the Service Employees International Union and others to organize the tens of thousands of teachers who teach at the university level but rarely have health benefits, pay equal to tenure-track professors, or job security. There already have been successful adjunct union votes at Mills CollegeSan Francisco Art Institute and the California College of the Arts. St. Mary’s College in Moraga is also taking a vote this winter.

As the cost of education climbs — UC Berkeley recently announced a 28 percent tuition hike over the next five years — the cost to the universities of filling classrooms with qualified teachers actually drops with each new adjunct hired. One has to wonder where all the extra cash is going, because it definitely isn’t going to teachers’ salaries.

Why should someone outside of higher education care about the adjunct unionization? Because nearly everyone knows a college student, and nearly every one of those students will be sitting face-to-face with an adjunct professor at some point. If it were my son or daughter in the student’s chair, I would want them to have the most motivated person in front of them working the room.

The irony is that the most motivated teachers tend to be adjuncts, because the most prestigious professors at the most prestigious universities very often are rewarded more for books published and papers written than how well their students are taught.

Yet these motivated souls are often working for pay that’s below a Bay Area living wage. For example, if an adjunct professor teaches two classes, and works 30 hours a week in combined class and preparation time, he or she might make $9,600 over a 16-week semester. That amounts to $20 an hour before taxes — not bad, if you were working full time and lived in Kansas, but at three-quarters time and no benefits, it’s not a livable wage for the Bay Area, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator online tool.

The union vote discussions among adjunct faculty at Dominican were exactly what you’d expect from people living in one of the most educated metro areas in the country: impassioned, intrusive (imagine a string of really annoying “reply-all” e-mails), often overwrought. Sometimes even entertaining.

Universities are like any other large institution. They would rather not have to deal with a union as a negotiating partner, even while they acknowledge that the very core of a social justice mission to which many subscribe demands that workers are paid what they’re worth. U.S. labor history shows that, without a union, workers cannot depend on the benevolence of their employers, even if they love working for that employer. But note to parents: Whether you are pro- or anti-union, if you are sending your child to a university with the hope that he or she will make more money than you did, focus on making sure some of your hard-earned tuition dollars go in the pockets of motivated, fairly paid adjunct professors.

Josh Green teaches political science as an adjunct professor, this semester at Dominican University.

Read this op-ed online here.