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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

At Wash. U. and Webster, a Fight to Unionize Adjunct Professors -- With Different Results

Posted By on Wed, Jul 15, 2015 at 6:30 AM

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  • Photo by Kelly Glueck
  • Steve Findley

Steve Findley signed his union registration card and went to the first organizing committee meeting in January 2014. He was one of its first members and says he never feared repercussion.

"Getting fired from an exploitative job is not the worst thing that could happen!" he laughs. "And the full-time faculty at Webster were pretty supportive of the unionizing effort, I think, as were many department chairs."

Already in a precarious financial situation, Webster had much to lose if its adjuncts unionized, which is likely a big reason the university chose a much different path than Washington University. Wash. U. agreed to stay neutral during the union drive. Webster did not.

Both schools hired J. P. Hasman, a lawyer who works for Armstrong Teasdale and specializes in "union avoidance" campaigns. And though not all of Washington University's informative letters to faculty from the provost seemed completely neutral, Boehm says that Webster was far more aggressively anti-union: "They fought hard, and they fought dirty."

In informational meetings, Boehm claims, Webster "perpetuated misinformation about dues, the negotiation process and how the union would change relationships between professors, administration and students." These meetings were moderated by Jason Greer, a former National Labor Relations Board agent who now specializes in union avoidance and stopping union drives.

At the meetings, Boehm says, adjunct faculty were told that if they unionized they would no longer be able to talk with administrators, and that the administration would only be able to communicate through the SEIU. The union, it intimated, would make all their decisions and become a wedge between the parties.

Another key difference between the two organizing efforts? Their business schools.

To determine who can vote to unionize, the NLRB looks for a "community of interest," a legal definition for who will be included in a potential bargaining unit. At Wash. U., the business school was not included in that community. But at Webster, the business school was.

According to a spokeswoman for the NRLB, the vote at Webster was part of a "stipulated election," with an agreement between union organizers and university administration determining when the vote would be held and who would get to participate, among other things. In its stipulations, SEIU agreed to include all Webster adjuncts, including those who teach at its business school.

In hindsight, that may not have been the best strategy.

According to Findley, Webster's Walker School of Business and Technology has the most adjuncts, "and they were actively opposed." Webster calls its business school adjuncts "professional practitioners" — teachers who already have well-paying jobs and want to "give back." Observes Findley, "Their charity keeps the adjuncts in arts and sciences living in poverty."

Jeff Stockton, who has taught business classes in Washington University's University College, voted against unionizing that campus. He is also on the roster as an adjunct at Webster, though he "hasn't accepted offers for a year or two." Outspoken in his "no" vote at Washington University, he was also vocal in the "no" campaign at Webster.

He places blame for the failed Webster campaign entirely on SEIU, for whom he spares no vitriol.

"I'm not against unionizing. I'm not against collective bargaining at all," Stockton insists. "I'm against SEIU. SEIU practices the lowest forms of union behavior, most of which are anachronistic for the 21st century, and certainly out of synch with higher education at a top-tier university."

As one example, Stockton claims, "The local leadership had not taken the time to even learn that Wash. U. was not a Catholic school."

(Boehm denies that, calling it "ridiculous." "One of the things that makes Washington University particularly appealing for SEIU," Boehm says, "is the school doesn't have some of the issues that surround religious institutions when it comes to unionization.")

Stockton is also disdainful of SEIU's communications.

"They're incompetent in maintaining a website that you, as an educator and as a faculty member at Wash. U., could be proud of," he says via email. "Communications that come from or are represented by the SEIU are typically coarse, poorly worded, embarrassingly peppered with typos, misspellings and wrong word choices."

Instead of getting to know the workers they now represent at Wash. U., Stockton complains, the organizers used the same tactics they've employed to organize hotel workers.

"They do not understand the relative independence of thought and self-direction that most adjuncts at Wash. U. (and Webster) bring to their jobs at a university. They certainly do not understand, or care to understand or appreciate, the mostly collaborative and collegial environment that we want and work to create and maintain," he continues. "It is in the nature and function of the SEIU to create discord between adjuncts and unrepresented faculty and staff, and even between adjuncts who wish to join the SEIU as members and those who do not."

Stockton concludes, "I encourage you, if you're genuinely interested in the truth, to stop drinking the SEIU Kool-Aid, and start doing your own exploration and due diligence."

I also contacted Jason Greer to talk about his work for Webster. When we spoke on the phone, he told me he had worked as an NLRB agent for three years and had helped with the Dean's Forums at Webster. Then Greer told me there was a phone clarity issue, and he would call back in an hour when he had better reception.

He never called back and didn't respond to any subsequent requests to reconnect.

On May 11, while Elizabeth Sausele tended to the Trader Joe's produce section, federal workers counted ballots cast by Webster University's adjuncts.

At 4 p.m., Steve Findley sat in the hearing room of the National Labor Relations Board. For two hours he had intently watched the final vote count, keeping score himself on a yellow legal pad.

Located in the Robert A. Young Federal Building on Spruce Street and Tucker Boulevard, the hearing room looks like a cross between traffic court and a makeshift church, with a wooden gate and railing to partition witnesses and onlookers from the attorneys and federal employees. Witnesses from SEIU, Webster and Washington universites sat in wooden pews as federal employees opened signed envelopes, confirmed or contested their eligibility, and counted votes. Instead of a stained-glass window or altar, the National Labor Relations Board seal, with its eagle and shield emblem, hung at the front of the room flanked by the American and Missouri state flags.

As Findley sat on his wooden pew, he could soon tell which way the vote was tilting.

The final vote: 212 for unionizing and 268 against.

"I was surprised," he says later. "Frankly, I thought if we were going to lose, it would have been closer."

Not everyone was surprised. Sausele, for one, didn't feel SEIU's goals were realistic.

"SEIU's campaign of $15,000 per class is a pipe dream," she says. "Where's that money going to come from? It's an unrealistic jump to go there from where we are now."

But she's also disappointed that she'll be supporting her passion as if it were a hobby. "As retail jobs, you can't get any better than Trader Joe's," she says, without bitterness. "But it's still retail."

Washington University - PHOTO BY JONATHAN HEISLER
  • Photo by Jonathan Heisler
  • Washington University

At Washington University, the administration and the newly formed adjunct-bargaining committee are currently negotiating a contract. The first bargaining session was April 23, with the union bringing twelve representatives and the university bringing nine.

I attended the first bargaining meeting as an adjunct, and both parties agreed not discuss specific information from that and future meetings with the press. I can say that the first meeting went cordially. Both sides agreed to the bargaining ground rules within two and half hours.

Currently, the two sides are bargaining over non-financial articles in the contract — academic freedom, recognition of which schools are actually included in the bargaining unit and others. It will be a long process.

Chris Boehm seems hopeful about taking the fight to the next college or university — Saint Louis University, St. Louis Community College? SEIU hasn't decided yet. At least, it hasn't made its decision public. The union could also return to Webster next year.

Ironically, Washington University and Webster University already offer the best adjunct pay rates in the St. Louis area, at $4,200 and $3,500 per class respectively. Jefferson College is the worst at $1,900. Fontbonne isn't much better at $2,500. Yet the job market is so bad that many people with graduate degrees are willing to work for substandard wages.

Findley seems discouraged. The system, he says, just isn't sustainable. "The only hope I see is if state legislators get together and decide to make higher education affordable. It's more and more expensive and out of reach for most people in Missouri."

As for Elizabeth Sausele, she's taking joy in her work, even if she has to keep plugging away at Trader Joe's to pay for it.

"I teach because I love teaching," she says. "Even if one student becomes aware of the broader world, I'm thrilled. I don't fit into a university box or career track because I love teaching, not research or publishing. I'm not looking for a tenure-track spot. I'm looking for job security, a contract and, over time, a raise that honors what I do."

Webster adjuncts will need to wait another year before they can vote on union representation again. The results of other union votes in town may determine whether it will be a long year or a short one.

Richard Newman's most recent poetry collection is All the Wasted Beauty of the World (Able Muse Press, 2014). He has served as editor of River Styx for twenty years and currently teaches creative writing as an adjunct at Washington University.

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