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As Washington U. Adjuncts Consider Union, Issues Arise On Both Sides

Washington University's Brookings Hall
Washington University

As part-time instructors at Washington University ponder whether to join a union, two major questions have arisen about the campaign.

  • Has the university kept its pledge to remain neutral, providing information but not taking sides?
  • Has the union used tactics, like visiting instructors at their homes or classes, that are too aggressive?

Ballots sent earlier this month to a little more than 400 adjunct instructors at Washington U. have just one question: ““Do you wish to be represented for purposes of collective bargaining by Service Employees International Union, Local 1?” Voting ends Jan. 2, with ballots to be counted Jan. 5.
If a simple majority of those voting favor the union, it will become the bargaining unit for the part-time instructors, negotiating with the university over issues such as salary and job security. If the measure fails, adjuncts will continue to work the university individually.

Once the SEIU submitted a petition seeking the election, it entered into a cooperation agreement with the university that laid out how the election would be run.

In it, the university pledged not to take a position on how eligible faculty members should vote on the union question and to be “objective and informative" in its communications.

For its part, the union said it would not “seek or encourage student, political or other activism on campus or in the media regarding this campaign.” Both sides said they would “work cooperatively to limit any disruptions on campus (including, but not limited to, pickets, sit-ins, walk-outs)” as the campaign continued.

Still, as with any agreement, interpretation of the terms can vary.

As the fall semester came to a close, the office of Provost Holden Thorp sent out a series of emails to faculty members. Some recipients thought the information was straightforward and stuck to the guidelines of the cooperation agreement; others, like writing instructor Chris Boehm, thought they crossed the line.

“They’re not in the spirit of cooperation,” Boehm said in an interview. “The presentation of information in his emails, one could look at it and call it objective, as an explicit statement of fact.

“But the implicit level is not factual. It's being framed in a very specific way to perpetuate misinformation. I think it will take already anxious people and discourage them from voting in favor of the union.”

On the other side, some undecided adjuncts thought the union was becoming too aggressive, in some cases visiting the classes or the homes of those eligible to vote. Mark Manteuffel, who teaches biology, thought the tactic would backfire.

“I'm really concerned about how oblique the whole process has been,” he said in an interview, “how aggressive and rude and stalking the representatives were of the union, how they have not reached out and contacted us in a way that is inviting, rather than stalking us.

“I know that I'm not the only one that voices that concern, and I consider myself to be normally pro-union, but they have really turned me off by the whole process that they used.”

From the provost

Since discussions began about the SEIU representing adjuncts at Washington U., Thorp has been the main source of information about the process. His office has sent out regular emails to those eligible to vote and has maintained a website on the topic, including a list of frequently asked questions.

In addition to the information provided by his office, Thorp said in an introduction to the site, “I also encourage you to do your own independent research into issues that may be significant to you in making this important decision. You will receive a mail ballot in mid-December. Whatever your point of view, I urge you to vote to ensure that the election result is determined by the majority of all affected faculty members.”

Provost Holden Thorp
Credit Washington University
Provost Holden Thorp

Among the messages on the site:

-- An email sent Dec. 3 that made clear to instructors that the SEIU can make promises about what it can achieve, but the claims are simply bargaining chips, not binding pledges.

“In collective bargaining,” he said, “a union has the right to ask an employer for anything, and an employer has the right to say no to each of the things the union has asked for, so long as the parties are bargaining in good faith.”

-- An email on Dec. 22, emphasized that point, saying:

“The question only you can answer for yourself is whether you will get value for your investment in the union, financially and otherwise, if similar contracts were negotiated here.  We know for certain that with collective bargaining comes uncertainty and we know that unions seek dues from those covered by the contracts they negotiate.”

It then asked a series of questions about who would negotiate on behalf of the faculty, whether their goals would match individuals’ goals, how much union dues would be and how they would be collected.

-- And the FAQ on the site added this:

“All that can be said with certainty about negotiations is that there are four possible outcomes if an agreement is reached: faculty could get more than they have today, the same as they have today, or less than they have today, or no agreement is reached.”

-- A final message, sent out on Christmas Eve, concluded this way:

"We recognize that, as with any election, emotions can run high leading up to the election and afterwards, particularly for voters who are disappointed with the outcome.  Regardless of your position on this issue, thank you for being respectful of those who have a different opinion and for your continued commitment to providing a quality education for Washington University students."

Some backers of the union proposal have pointed out that the attorney hired by the university during the election, John P. Hasman of Armstrong Teasdale, includes on his list of specialties helping “non-union employers with union avoidance efforts.”

University spokeswoman Jill Friedman said that Washington U. is “sharing information in an objective way, to help faculty who are eligible to vote on this matter formulate their own opinions. The university has not taken a position on how eligible faculty should vote. 

“Anyone retained by the university would be instructed and obligated to follow the university’s commitments under the agreement in the same way as the leadership of the university itself.”

Asked about answers to questions raised by some adjunct faculty members, such as whether unionization would lead to higher tuition at University Colleges, where many part-timers teach, or affect class sizes, Friedman said, “It would be premature to speculate either about the outcome of the vote or the potential impact if the unionization effort is approved, since the questions you raise must be considered within the context of a proposed contract.”

Such responses don’t please Boehm, an adjunct who teaches writing. He feels the information coming out of the provost’s office doesn’t always conform to the neutrality pledged in the cooperation agreement.

Initially, he said Thorp sounded supportive and encouraging and dedicated to improving the lot of adjuncts. But, he added, “What's happened since then has been less encouraging. It's been disappointing, frankly.”

Chris Boehm
Credit Provided
Chris Boehm

Boehm noted that since he comes from a union family  -- father in the autoworkers, mother with the electrical workers – he may see the issue differently from his fellow adjuncts. He thinks Thorp’s approach appeals to worries that instructors who aren’t as familiar with labor unions may have.

“There is a very specific way in which this discussion is being framed in the emails on behalf of the provost that I find to be really unfair and not cooperative and discouraging,” he said. “It spreads a lot of fear. I've read a lot of emails from concerned adjuncts that pointed to the provost's emails who are deeply concerned about what's taking place. So if they were intended to inform, they have failed at that mission.”

Boehm hopes turnout for the election can hit 70 percent, and he hopes the outcome is a positive one for the union, to help adjuncts achieve more stability in how many course they teach.

“Job security is a big issue for all of us,” he said. “When you don't know in December if you're going to have work in January, it's a little difficult.”

Tale of two unions

For Manteuffel, who teaches biology not only at Washington U. but also at St. Louis Community College, the issue has become one of how the SEIU is campaigning to win the election.

He notes that at the community college, he is part of the National Education Association, and “I greatly respect and appreciate that union.”

The Washington U. experience has been different, Manteuffel adds.

“They haven't really done any of the things that the union that I'm currently a part of does," he said. "Everything seems so unclear and rushed, and they have not laid on the table clearly what they're doing, and why, and I haven't been invited to be a member of the union, in terms of leadership.”

Mark Manteuffel
Credit St. Louis Community College
Mark Manteuffel

He said that because the courses he teaches at Washington U. are largely online, he isn’t on campus too often, so it may have been hard for SEIU representatives to find him. But, he added, that fact is no excuse for the way he says his wife was treated at their home.

“They were just very pushy and rude,” Manteuffel said of the union representatives, “demanding my cell phone number. And they didn't introduce themselves first off, they just approached her and asked for me. So she stood back and asked them who they were and why they were looking for me. And she said that I would contact them if I was interested after they introduced themselves. 

“The second time, the person said that they would show back up again, and she said no, he will contact you if he's interested. And they kind of huffed and puffed and said again that they would show up, and she said no, you're not listening to me, if you show up again, I will call the police and have you removed. Then the gentlemen seemed to get it.”

A union spokesman would not address the issue on the record but acknowledged that representatives had visited faculty members at their homes.

Like Boehm, Manteuffel said he would like to see improvements in how adjuncts are treated at Washington U. But, he said, the union needs to use a different approach.

“Here's an example,” he said. “We were given a notification to get together informally and discuss the union, the day before the day that meeting was to take place. I'm busy. I have two jobs, I have a family, I'm an author, I am publishing. It's near the end of the semester, with all the grades that are due.

“To give one day's notice for something as significant as this is outrageous and unprofessional. That's the example of how this unionization process has proceeded.”

As far as the information from Thorp’s office, Manteuffel is more appreciative and understanding than Boehm is.

“That's not how I perceived it,” he said, when asked whether the provost’s messages crossed the line into anti-union advocacy. “I appreciate the information from the provost. That is how I became aware of the union process.”

Asked whether he thinks the SEIU will prevail in the election, Manteuffel said he did not expect the union to win. If it prevails, does he expect his job at Washington U. to improve?

“I don't think so,” he said. “That's my biggest concern. The union at the community college I definitely feel is in my favor, and has improved my lot there.

“Initially, I thought well, great, we’ll have union representation at Wash. U., but that's not the indications I get from this union.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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