by Ellen Michaud Martins, UMass Lowell
On May 18, 2012, the Adjunct Faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell overwhelmingly ratified their first-ever union contract–between the University and United Auto Workers Local 1596. In voting to ratify, the adjunct faculty made history at UML and became part a growing trend of unionization in academia by adjunct professors.
The situation at UML, where 64% of faculty are adjuncts, reflects a national trend. An advocacy group for adjunct and contingent faculty, the New Faculty Majority, estimates that 73% of all college instructors are adjuncts—up from 22% in 1970.
The Union could not have won its first contract without the full support of the UAW, a small group of full-time faculty and friends at other UMass campuses. PHENOM was a supporter, as were unions on other campuses who stood in solidarity with the adjunct faculty as well.
The students at UMass Lowell were vocal supporters of their teachers. They saw them in the classroom every day, doing the same work as full-time instructors, and knew them to be committed, caring professionals.
Adjunct faculty without unions work for near-poverty wages with no benefits and no job security despite the fact that at UMass Lowell the large majority of part-time faculty hold advanced degrees and teach on all levels from introductory freshmen through graduate level courses.
Challenges to Unionizing
Organizing adjunct faculty presents unique challenges. Unlike 9-5 workers, adjunct faculty do not share common work space or schedules. In order to make a living, most adjunct faculty hold positions in multiple universities, or work in their discipline in the private sector. Many work three or more jobs. They are often overworked and stressed, and lacking any kind of job security. It was a scary prospect for many to associate with a union before a contract was signed.
Much credit goes to the early pioneer faculty members Dr. Greg DeLaurier, Dr. Amelia Freedman (now teaching at Merrimack College in Andover), Dr. Eric Bourgeois, who now teaches full-time at Bristol Community College, and Teresa George, Senior Adjunct Faculty in the Manning School of Business.
They realized they were creating a new union. This was not only new to UM Lowell but was also a new concept—a stand-alone union of part-time faculty within the University of Massachusetts system. One of the catalysts for this action was that on the other campuses of UMass, part-time faculty were already organized, and had been represented by the faculty unions for many years. Those part-time faculty wages were significantly higher, with health benefits, a voice in governance in some cases, and some job security.
UM Lowell’s Experience
In 2009, Dr. Greg DeLaurier, adjunct faculty in Political Science, began working with a small group of part-time faculty. They spoke one-on-one, in person, to other adjuncts, inviting them to sign union cards. They explained that part time faculty were the majority at UML, with full responsibilities for class-design, teaching and grading. Yet they earned a fraction of a full-time salary. The faculty organizers also pointed out that adjuncts were unionized at the UM system campuses in Amherst and Boston. Those faculty members were already earning significantly higher salaries and had some job security and benefits. As more faculty members joined in the effort, the Union of Adjunct Faculty at UML was certified on October 1, 2010.
Collective bargaining began in March 2011. After 15 long, tense, demanding months of bargaining, an agreement was signed, and overwhelmingly ratified by members in May 2012.
The Union did not, of course, get everything it wanted. Rather than part-time benefits, which adjunct faculty on other UMass campuses have, the University offered a Health and Welfare Fund. This is open to renegotiation in 2015.
Key victories in the first contract include significant raises (UML adjunct faculty had not had a raise for 10 years prior) office space, job security (not tenure) for long-term part-time faculty, professional development opportunities, a grievance procedure, a statement of part-time faculty rights, a fair evaluation system, inclusion on department web pages, and more.
A Worthwhile Effort
The Union had to battle many foes, but the biggest was the perception that adjunct faculty aren’t “real teachers,” and therefore weren’t real members of the academic community. This attitude was expressed both directly and indirectly throughout bargaining. The University was strongly opposed to any contract language that gave part-time faculty rights similar to those of full-time faculty, rights such as participation in department meetings, office space or inclusion on department web sites. Any form of health benefits and job security were hard-fought skirmishes.
The lesson from this victory is that change is possible through solidarity. In a large negotiating team, such as the one at UML, there was diversity of thought and inevitable conflict. But there was an overarching commitment to members that carried the team through.
The activists felt honored to work for this cause, one capable of improving the working conditions of so many faculty and enriching the learning environment of thousands of students.