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PLU instructors fight for union, part of national campaign for right to organize

Teachers at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma are part of a nationwide trend, fighting for the right to organize. (Image courtesy PLU)

Labor union membership has fallen to an almost 100-year low with just more than 11 percent of American workers belonging to a union in 2012. But teachers at a private college in Tacoma are part of a nationwide trend, fighting for the right to organize.

This is not about tenured professors or faculty on the tenure track. It’s a campaign by the largely part-time, contingent faculty at Pacific Lutheran University, those hired year to year.

“This is not a good working life to have and we can make it better,” said Jane Harty, a long-time faculty member in the music department. She said contingent faculty, sometimes called adjunct faculty, get paid a fraction of what tenured faculty make and many don’t have benefits.

“We’re saying ‘equal pay for equal work.’ This is not fair. We have people that have been teaching there for a very long time, have all this experience – in some cases even greater training than tenure-line faculty – and they’re paid hardly anything.”

Surveys suggest that between two-thirds and three-quarters of faculty at some colleges and universities are not tenured or tenure-track.

“Seventy-five percent of the teachers are like me, they’re contingent, they’re adjunct, they don’t know from one semester to the next if they will be back so there’s something the matter with that picture,” said Harty.

Similar efforts to unionize are underway at private colleges in the Northeast and in California, organized by the SEIU, Service Employees International Union, which is targeting college instructors and represents an estimated 15,000 college faculty members nationwide.

Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C., recently decided not to oppose a union organizing effort on campus.

At PLU, Harty has been renewed for 35 straight years. She’s earned senior lecturer status. So, why would she stick her neck out in this union fight?

“I kind of just got fed up and didn’t want to be afraid anymore of speaking up and I’m over 60 years old and I don’t want the next generation to have the working life I’ve had.”

This fall, contingent faculty at PLU cast ballots on the union organizing effort but the ballots remain in a box, uncounted.

“We’re opposed to it,” said Provost Steve Starkovich. PLU is challenging the election to the National Labor Relations Board. “This has to do with whether the NLRB has jurisdiction over institutions that have a church affiliation and it’s an issue that’s not settled.”

Previous court rulings have sided with private colleges and universities in their opposition to union organizing efforts on campus.

There are other issues. Starkovich claims PLU’s compensation is competitive. He also argued that a union would weaken what he considers a “robust, accessible faculty governance system.” There’s also something called the “community of interest” issue. Starkovich and PLU don’t think that the different classifications of contingent faculty should be lumped into a single bargaining unit. Some are part time, some are full time. Besides that, Starkovich pointed out that before organizing campaign began, efforts were underway to address issues of fairness.

“There are some differences between our tenure-line faculty and our contingent faculty in terms of some of the benefits,” Starkovich conceded. “We have faculty who have benefits and others who don’t and we’ve been trying to fix that.” But he said the organizing campaign has, by law, put that on hold.

Starkovich insisted that he understands the issues facing contingent faculty.

“We have a great respect for our contingent faculty, I was a contingent faculty member at PLU for five years so I know what that life is like and it’s not a stable life,” admitted Starkovich.

For now, the ballots cast by PLU contingent faculty are locked up at the National Labor Relations Board office in Seattle until legal challenges are resolved, something that could take months. And if court appeals follow, it could take years.

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