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Adjunct professors move towards unionization with SEIU

In response to the growing presence of Service Employees International Union organizers on campus, Georgetown’s provost Robert Groves addressed an email to all faculty members reaffirming the University’s respect and support of the right of employees to unionize. The SEIU, which represents 2.1 million workers in the healthcare, property, and public services sectors, began work this semester to unionize adjunct professors on the Hilltop.

“The policy, I was just reminded of yesterday, it’s really kind of cool,” Groves said to the Voice last week on Georgetown’s Just Employment policy. “The more that people have careful thinking and discussion on [the unionization process]…if there is some sort of vote with large participation, and everybody expresses their opinion, this would be a good thing for all of us.”

The Just Employment policy affirms the right for all working members in Georgetown to “freely associate and organize,” as well as the “rights of employees to vote for or against union representation without intimidation.”

SEIU Director of Research and Strategic Planning Anne McLeer was encouraged by the Provost’s email.

“I believe that they are going to stand by their ethical and religiously moral stance to respect workers’ rights to freely organize. I think that was a very good first step,” she said. McLeer added that, so far, the response from Georgetown’s adjuncts has been “very positive.”

Adjuncts are part-time professors hired on a contractual basis. The category is large, ranging from professors with no access to benefits to “visiting professors” who enjoy a status similar to those of tenured professors. Some of these benefits include health insurance, job security, office space, and paid research.

SEIU seeks majority support among adjuncts. According to University spokesperson Rachel Pugh, adjuncts teach 22 to 27 percent of main campus courses. “This excludes faculty who may have adjunct in their title but are not actively teaching and full-time employees who also teach courses,” she wrote in an email.

Seventy-five percent of instructors in America are adjuncts, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. This past February, American University adjunct professors voted in favor of unionization with SEIU. At AU, almost 50 percent of faculty members are adjuncts.

Georgetown professors are SEIU’s next target in their “metro-organizing” strategy to unionize as many colleges in the District as possible. “The philosophy behind the strategy is to represent the majority of the labor pool of part-time adjuncts in the city to really raise the standards of how part-time faculty are treated, compensated, and what benefits they have access to,” McLeer said.

Georgetown adjunct professor Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute, would like to see a union and is working with SEIU to represent adjuncts. Eisenberg has worked at Georgetown for 12 years and believes that adjuncts deserve better benefits.

“We have in higher education a serious caste system, in which the adjuncts are basically the untouchables,” Eisenberg said. He added that about 48 percent of Georgetown’s faculty is comprised of adjunct professors.

On WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show this week, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Peter Schmidt highlighted some of the main issues facing adjunct professors. “Sometimes we can’t even share work with other adjuncts,” Schmidt said. “You have to play ball if you want recommendations and advancement.” Some adjuncts fear participating in a union may jeopardize their ability to move up the higher education ladder.

There is a contingent of adjunct professors who receive benefits or have very strong secondary jobs to support their lifestyle. “Someone from SEIU stopped by my class last Tuesday, but I didn’t have much time to talk to him. He was an organizer,” adjunct professor of Linguistics Emma Violand-Sanchez said. “I have not considered organizing.”

Violand has taught at Georgetown for 11 years, but receives the bulk of her salary from a secondary job. Being an adjunct for Violand is “more like an enrichment opportunity,” she says, and she commits most of her work to her position as Chair of the Arlington Public School Board in Virginia.

“I think one of the characteristics of adjuncts is that we are, in a way, isolated,” Violand said. “I personally don’t know other [adjuncts].” For Violand, teaching at Georgetown is a chance to engage with college students, not other professors.

According to Barbara Wein, a professor in the Georgetown’s Justice and Peace Studies program and spokesperson for SEIU, Georgetown allocates 2 percent of its overhead budget to adjuncts. Pugh neither confirmed nor denied this claim before the Voice went to print.

Wein believes Georgetown’s support system for adjuncts is minimal and unsatisfactory. “I don’t have an office for students to sit in.  I just have to meet outside. There are no support services,” she said. “At American, they give a ton of support to their adjuncts. They offer to take a professional photograph, technological support training, orientation. I don’t get any of that at Georgetown, and obviously very little pay.”

According to adjunct professor of bioethics Erick Valdes, Georgetown offers adjuncts higher pay than American does. A course at American University will pay an adjunct $3,000, whereas Georgetown pays adjuncts about $6,000.

Valdes says even this number is not enough. “If you are teaching two courses … that means you should be able to live on $2,000 a month. The system is perverse. The system forces you to rush between universities…and even by doing that you’re not able to get a living wage.”

Valdes juggles four jobs: American University, George Mason University, Montgomery College, and Georgetown. He chose not to participate in American’s union. “Unions are necessary, but they should change their method,” he said, citing what he saw as organizational issues within the unions at Montgomery and American, as well as a lack of tangible results for professors.

Even so, Valdes thinks something must be done to improve the lot of adjuncts.

“You have the same responsibilities and same obligations as full-time professors,” he said, “but the detail is, you don’t have the same rights. You don’t have any kind of insurance, any kind of benefits. The only thing you have are responsibilities and obligations.”