Part-time instructors at Suffolk University have voted by a 2-to-1 margin to form a union, in the latest in a series of recent labor victories across the country for the low-paid ''adjuncts" who represent an enormous number of college faculty members.
Adjuncts at Suffolk voted, 194 to 89, in favor of the union, to affiliate with the American Association of University Professors, according to a tally of mail-in ballots at the National Labor Relations Board's Boston office yesterday.
The drive reflects a national movement against colleges' practice of relying on part-time instructors who lack the security of tenure and who generally receive low pay and no benefits. Adjuncts at Syracuse University have recently organized, and a new union at the University of Vermont is negotiating its first contract.
At Suffolk, part-time instructors -- who outnumber full-time instructors -- are looking for the kind of improvements in pay and benefits that their counterparts down the street at Emerson College received with their first contract in 2004, said Robert Rosenfeld, who teaches philosophy part time at Suffolk and at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
In fact, Rosenfeld said, Suffolk has given its part-time instructors more frequent raises since Emerson's union formed, suggesting that Suffolk's administration was already feeling the heat.
''We don't want to be shoved on the back burner like we were before Emerson organized," said Rosenfeld, who served on the Suffolk organizing committee.
The Suffolk provost, Patricia Maguire Meservey, expressed disappointment. ''It's very important to us to interact directly with our part-time faculty, and having a third party involved makes it more challenging," she said. ''But they have made a decision, and we will support that and move forward."
The next step will be for the union and the administration to begin contract negotiations. Along with seeking more pay and benefits, the union will probably push for some part-time jobs to be converted into full-time.
Nationwide, 43 percent of American faculty members have part-time positions, according to a recent federal report. At Suffolk this semester, university officials say they have 412 part-time instructors, compared with 339 full-time faculty members.
The full-time faculty includes tenured and tenure-track professors, as well as instructors on shorter-term contracts.
The adjuncts, on average, are paid $3,500 per course, Meservey said. She said most of the part-time instructors at Suffolk are professionals who have other employment and who teach only one course a year at the university.
But many others cobble together teaching assignments at several universities to make a living. A few years ago, Suffolk began offering health benefits to adjuncts who had taught two classes a semester at the school for more than seven years. Only 32 people qualified, and 13 took the offer.
''Unions are really the only hope," said Lawrence Kaye, vice president of the faculty union at UMass-Boston and one of the organizers of the Suffolk drive.
Rosenfeld said Suffolk treats its adjuncts better than some other local schools do. But ''down the line," he added, ''we could get an administration that's much more bottom-line oriented."
Even as the number of unions for adjuncts is growing, unions for full-time faculty are something of a dying breed at private universities, because of a Supreme Court decision that said private schools do not have to recognize them.
Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at email@example.com.