Adjuncts at St. Louis Community College approve joining a union | St. Louis Public Radio

Adjuncts at St. Louis Community College approve joining a union

Nov 1, 2015

Updated at 7:43 p.m., Nov. 1, with results of vote: ​Part-time instructors at St. Louis Community College have voted overwhelmingly to join a union.

Jonathan Huskey, a spokesman for the Service Employees International Union, reported Sunday night that two days of balloting over the weekend resulted in approval of the union proposition by a vote of 188-15. He said 574 adjunct instructors were eligible to vote in the election.

The approval comes after adjuncts at Washington University also voted to join the SEIU but their counterparts at Webster University voted down a similar proposition.

The administration at the community college had not taken a stance on the union proposal one way or the other but had said it would work with adjuncts which ever way the vote went.

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Our earlier story:

After a win at Washington University and a defeat at Webster University, organized labor holds a third election this weekend for adjunct instructors at St. Louis Community College.

The secret-ballot election will be held on Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon at each of the college’s four campuses, with results expected to be available Sunday night. The sole ballot question: “Do you wish to be represented for the purpose of collective bargaining by Service Employees International Union Local 1.”

College spokesman Dan Kimack said the administration has “worked diligently to share information” with them about the upcoming election but is taking no stance on what the outcome of the election should be. He said the college has more than 630 part-time faculty members.

“The faculty are partners in our mission to deliver high quality, affordable education to the St. Louis community,” Kimack said in an interview. “We do not expect that to change regardless of the outcome of the election.”

Maryanne Angliongto, who teaches astronomy one day a week at the college’s Wildwood campus, said she feels the union will be a much more efficient and effective way for part-time instructors to get their needs taken care of. She also teaches full-time at Jefferson College.

Angliongto cited low pay and a lack of job security as two of the major issues involved.

St. Louis Community College at Meramec
Credit STLCC website

“A lot of times,” she said, “we don’t know whether we’re going to be teaching a class or how much the pay is going to be. Sometimes, classes get dropped at the last minute, classes get added at the last minute, so you have to scramble around.”

In that situation, Angliongto added, students aren’t served as well as they could be or should be.

“Having lower wages and fewer benefits can be stressful and detracting from the mission of educating,” she said. “It’s a wonderful career, a wonderful job. We just have to make it a little more efficient.

“As part-time instructors, we love our students. We love to teach them as well as we can. Hopefully, with the union, we can get some of our professional and financial needs taken care of so we can do that to the best of our ability.”

In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio during the summer, Jeff Pittman, chancellor of the community college system, said faculty have a right to unionize.

“We have had adjunct faculty that came forward at the last couple of board meetings and have expressed their interest to organize,” Pittman said. “So we are in the process of developing board policy for that that will be on a future agenda and that will provide adjunct faculty the opportunity to move forward and organize if that's what they desire to do.

“That's really ultimately their decision, but we're going to create the means for them to do so.”

Board policy on the issue was modified during the summer, Kimack said.

That stance is sharply different from the one taken by administrators at Webster University, where unionization met with stiff resistance. Part-time faculty members at Webster voted in May not to join the SEIU.

The outcome was more positive for the SEIU at Washington U., where faculty members voted in favor of unionization. At Washington U., the administration sent out a large volume of information that was designed to be neutral. Since the election was held late last year, the union and university have been negotiating on a possible contract. 

Michael O'Bryan, who has been active in the adjuncts' drive for a union contract, said in an email that 10 bargaining sessions have been held so far, with a few more scheduled for this semester. He said a tentative agreement has been reached guaranteeing adjunct access to university resources that they did not universally have before. Basic issues standard to most labor contracts have also been agreed upon, he said.

"With these issues wrapping up or concluded," O'Bryan said, "we have begun to move into issues that we consider the core of our fight for dignity and respect on campus--a fight that is itself one example of a national struggle for the same principles. In our case, this means multi-year appointments rather than the semester-long contracts we currently hold, significantly higher compensation, and some access to benefits. While we have begun to introduce articles addressing these issues, we have not, to date, reached agreement on them with the University."

He said the union wants to emphasize how much of Washington University's teaching corps is made up of adjuncts, which he said is a major shift in higher education.

"When teachers are paid poverty wages for their sections," O'Bryan wrote, "teachers must take on so many courses to make ends meet, often at campuses spread far apart, that it becomes physically possible for them to spend as much time as they would like on crucial outside-the-classroom mentoring and instruction. When teachers don't know what classes they will be teach next semester, and often don't receive their contracts until a few weeks before the semester starts, they don't have adequate time to peruse potential new course materials, order new textbooks, or modify their syllabi to better fit student needs. For these reasons, higher wages and longer appointments for adjuncts will benefit students and society as much as it will teachers.

"We remain hopeful that the bargaining team for Washington University in St. Louis will show that it understands these basic facts."

Mizzou grad students seek to organize

At the University of Missouri-Columbia, it is graduate students, not faculty members, who are weighing whether to join a union – in this case, the National Education Association.

Connor Lewis, a doctoral candidate in history who has been on campus since 2012, said as many as 2,800 graduate workers could be eligible to be part of the union. He said the effort is on an ambitious timeline, with the goal of an election by the end of the year and a contract in place in the two years after that.

He said that until recently, grad students thought there may have been some support for a union within their own individual departments, but now they are starting to realize the sentiment is more widespread.

Graduate students at Mizzou were vocal about their opposition this summer to a decision by the campus to rescind subsidies for their health insurance – a move announced with one day’s notice.

The quad at Mizzou

After the outcry, the university changed course. But Lewis said that issue is just one of several that graduate students are considering in the drive for unionization.

“That really was the issue that lit the fuse on a slow-burning powder keg,” he said. Noting that on-campus child care has been eliminated recently, he added:

“What we’ve seen is not only that we’re not getting paid well, but all of the things that make it livable to be a graduate student at the University of Missouri have been gradually disappearing over the past couple of years.”

Lewis said graduate student unions are common on large public campuses in other states like California, Wisconsin, Massachusetts and New York, but if the union drive at Mizzou is successful, “we would be pioneers in the state of Missouri.”

He said the administration so far has been quiet.

“We’ve gotten the sense they’re trying at least for the moment to take a relatively hands-off approach,” Lewis said. “But unofficially, we’ve gotten the sense that some administrators realize that this is a crisis of their own doing.”

In an emailed statement, a university spokesman said:

"MU leaders are committed to working with our graduate student government leaders as we have in the past. We will continue to meet with them and work to address their concerns in an effort to improve their experience at Mizzou. We will continue to do this in the future regardless of whether a union is formalized or not."