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Tufts University adjunct professors vote to unionize

Posted by Matt Rocheleau  September 27, 2013 11:29 AM

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Joining a growing push by part-time faculty at colleges nationwide, adjunct professors at Tufts University voted to unionize and will now move to negotiate their pay, benefits, and other terms of an employment contract with the university.

Ballots were counted Thursday at the National Labor Relations Board and the part-time professors voted to join Adjunct Action, a movement backed by the Service Employees International Union, according to an announcement from union officials.

The vote was conducted by mail over a two-week period. University officials said that out of the 283 part-time faculty eligible to vote, 128 voted in favor of unionizing, 57 voted against and 98 others did not return their ballots.

"This victory is exciting and important for the entire Tufts University community,” Carol Wilkinson, a part-time lecturer who has taught at Tufts since 1986, said in a statement. “I'm happy that my part-time colleagues and I will have a greater say in making Tufts an even better place to work and to learn."

Tufts University officials support the adjuncts' right to unionize and "moving forward, we hope to work productively with the SEIU as the collective bargaining process begins," said a statement from campus spokeswoman Kimberly M. Thurler.

"Throughout this election process, the Tufts administration said that we supported the right of our part-time lecturers in the School of Arts and Sciences to decide for themselves whether or not they wanted to unionize," the statement said.

"We also made it clear that Tufts would do its part to foster a good working relationship with the SEIU, should it succeed in its effort to organize these part-time lecturers," the statement added. "We encouraged all of these part-time lecturers to exercise their right to vote, and we respect their decision. We strive to offer our part-time lecturers the respect they deserve and pay and benefits that are highly competitive with peer institutions."

The vote is part of an effort to unionize adjunct faculty at Boston-area schools as well as colleges in Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and Seattle. Supporters hope that by forming unions they will be able to push for better working conditions, benefits, and wages.

Part-time lecturers at Bentley University began the voting process last week when ballots were mailed out. Those vote are scheduled to be counted on Oct. 4.

The SEIU said adjuncts at Northeastern University are also moving to unionize.

The national movement received particular attention in recent weeks after the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor who taught for 25 years at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Vojtko, who like other adjuncts did not receive health benefits from her employer, died of cancer at age 83 shortly after the university declined to renew her contract.

A lawyer for a union that adjuncts at Duquesne have been trying to join wrote an op-ed piece about Vojtko’s death that was published in the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette and ignited a nationwide debate over the treatment of adjuncts.

In April, the SEIU said it met with part-time professors from more than 20 local colleges to discuss their interest and efforts to unionize.

“Though once a quintessential middle class job, adjuncts have become part of the low-wage workforce,” said a statement from the SEIU, which has unionized more than 15,000 adjunct professors nationwide.

Part-time and non-tenure track faculty represent the majority of faculty at universities in the United States, and their numbers continue to rise, according to the SEIU.

In 2011, part-time faculty held 50 percent of teaching jobs at colleges, up from 34 percent in 1987 and 22 percent in 1970, the SEIU said. Adjuncts on average earn about $3,000 per three-credit course. About 80 percent of adjuncts do not get health insurance from their college and about 86 percent do not receive retirement benefits, according to the SEIU.

Among private, nonprofit universities in the Boston-area, 66.8 percent of faculty are non-tenure track and 42 percent are part-time, the SEIU said.

At Tufts, part-time faculty members with a two-semester, half time appointment – teaching three or more courses per year – are eligible for health and other benefits equal to those available to half-time and full-time administrators and full-time faculty, university officials said. About 46 percent of Tufts lecturers fall into that category, officials said.

The minimum pay per course at Tufts is $5,115 and in all but three of the university's 41 disciplines, the minimum rate is $6,000 per course, according to university officials who said they recently instituted a pay system to reward length of service and "exceptional teaching." The school also can adjust its pay rates based on changes in market value

Andy Klatt, a part-time faculty member at Tufts said he hopes their vote to unionize will help other adjuncts elsewhere to do the same.

"Now that we've won our union at Tufts, we'll be preparing for the collective bargaining process that is the only hope for achieving a measure of democracy, balance, and fairness in the academic workplace," he said in a statement. “This is an important victory for part-time faculty at Tufts and an encouraging step in the movement to organize contingent faculty across the country."

Jack Dempsey, an adjunct professor at Bentley and a member of the organizing committee there, expressed support for Tufts and confidence that Bentley adjuncts will soon move on to negotiating their own contracts.

"We want to congratulate the part-time faculty at Tufts University on their campaign to unionize and stand up for the value that they contribute to their school and students," he said in a statement. "When we win our vote to unionize on October 4th, we'll be thinking of you and thinking ahead to a regional and national effort with our sisters and brothers at Tufts and other schools. The day of our second-rate status is ending, and a new one is on the horizon."

Matt Rocheleau can be reached at mjrochele@gmail.com. Looking for more coverage of area colleges and universities? Go to our Your Campus pages.

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