Nine months after contract talks with newly unionized adjunct instructors began at Washington University, negotiators have tentative agreements on a dozen workplace issues.
But the thornier issues of salary and benefits still remain to be settled.
Adjuncts voted 138-111 last January to join the Service Employees International Union. Those in favor of the union cited a number of issues – salary, benefits, stability of employment – that they hoped would improve through collective bargaining.
Jill Friedman, a spokeswoman for the university, said that by design, the initial negotiating sessions have addressed non-financial issues. Because the talks are ongoing, she said, she could not be any more specific about which items are covered by the tentative agreements reached so far.
But, she added, the pace of the talks has been consistent with what has happened at other universities where adjuncts have unionized, if not quicker.
“There isn’t a defined timeline,” she said, “but we’re committed to the process, and we are optimistic that the issues will get resolved.
“In one recent case, at one eastern university, it took 18 months to complete. So we’re certainly pleased with the progress we’ve made. We’ve come to these negotiations in good faith and are firmly committed to addressing the issues, and we still stay on it.”
Michael O’Bryan, an adjunct English instructor who has been a leader in the unionization movement, said the agreements on non-money issues have been a good start.
“One of the things that was really upsetting a lot of people,” he said, “was the extent to which a lot of people who have been teaching there for years didn’t have access to basic things like space where they could meet with their students.
“So happily, we’ve already had an agreement about all that. The university worked with us very well. So we’ve moved on to the next issue of job stability, which involves the length of our appointments.”
For long-time adjuncts, O’Bryan added, that topic is key.
“Most adjuncts at this university are characteristic of adjuncts many places around the country,” he said. “Which is to say that they’ve been teaching for many years at the same institution, in stable course patterns, and yet the contracts that they receive are always only one semester long. I think there’s a growing sense that this is just not an acceptable state of affairs.”
A growing movement
The SEIU has been active in recent years in efforts to organize part-time college and university instructors and improve their working conditions and financial position. It has cited victories at schools like Tufts and Boston University, and it has staged walkouts at other campuses to highlight its cause.
Locally, its record is mixed. At St. Louis Community College, adjuncts overwhelmingly approved joining the union in November. But at Webster University, where officials actively opposed the unionization effort, it lost last May.
At Washington U., O’Bryan said, the negotiations are part of what he called “a tide that’s rolling across the nation. You’ve got the sense that pressure is building in this movement.”
As the time approaches for the negotiations there to move on to financial issues, Washington U. has made news on two fronts. Last month, it announced that its fund-raising campaign has been so successful, it was raising its goal to $2.5 billion, for a drive that is set to end in 2018.
It also announced an increase in tuition for the coming school year, to $48,950 for undergraduate students, a rise of 3.5 percent. The university’s endowment stood at $6.9 billion at the end of June 2015.
Friedman noted that money for salaries at the university are separate from money in the endowment, which often is restricted for specific purposes. “The issue of the funding sources is really not what’s most relevant,” she said.
But O’Bryan said that higher education finance is a big concern to adjuncts, calling it “one of the cornerstones of this movement to unionize contingent faculty across the nation.
“Spending priorities sometimes are a little bit questionable to the general public, in the sense that tuition goes up, but instruction costs stay level or even go down. One wonders where all the money’s going. I don’t think that finding money to pay instructors a living wage should be an issue for an institution as well-to-do as Washington University.”
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