Adjunct Faculty Voice Concerns in President's Forums

Forty adjunct faculty members have attended four forums with St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan to discuss the pros and cons of having a union represent them.

Sullivan invited adjunct faculty who teach undergraduate courses to the forums on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday to discuss issues related to the election and to share her perspective, which she said is centered on “quality of education” issues. Two more forums will be held on June 30 and July 1.

“My personal opinion is that the university and adjuncts can accomplish much more if we work together directly and collaboratively” and not involve Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 284, she told adjuncts at the Tuesday forum. “I am asking you for that chance.”

Sullivan emphasized that St. Thomas’ adjunct population is quite heterogeneous and said a collective bargaining process with SEIU could lead to the union’s insistence on a “one size fits all” contract. That would restrict St. Thomas’ ability to continue to hire adjunct faculty who now come from a wide variety of backgrounds, have the best qualifications in their fields and are ideally suited to help carry out the university’s mission.

She said some adjuncts, particularly those who bring unique professional expertise to the classroom, have indicated to her that they would not continue to teach at St. Thomas if they were required to be a member of, or pay agency fees to, a union.

“For me, it’s all about our students and the quality of education we can provide them,” she told adjuncts at the Sunday forum. “It’s important that we have the ability to attract and retain the adjuncts who are the most passionate about teaching at St. Thomas.”

Sullivan made it clear that she highly values the role of adjunct faculty and will work earnestly to address their concerns. She pointed out that she already has made efforts, during her first year as president, to reach out to adjuncts and involve them in strategic planning while providing new benefits such as free access to the Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex.

“I’m just asking for more time to address the issues,” she said. If her efforts to work only with adjunct faculty prove to be unsuccessful, she added, “then the union option always is there” for them to pursue.

Adjunct faculty at the forums raised concerns ranging from compensation and health care benefits to job security and stability. They said they want to be more involved in the day-to-day life of St. Thomas and be viewed as serious contributors to the university’s mission. One adjunct said he favors a union because the right “mechanism” isn’t in place to address issues.

“If we don’t have a union, how will we have a voice?” another adjunct asked at a Friday forum.

“That’s a good question,” Sullivan replied, “and the right question.”

She acknowledged the university can do a better job of addressing adjunct faculty concerns and suggested the possibility of establishing an Adjuncts Council. She said she recently received a recommendation from the ongoing strategic planning process that the Faculty Senate form a plan to include representation from adjunct and clinical faculty in the existing governance structure.

These are the kinds of relationship issues that are best addressed through open and transparent dialogue, Sullivan said, and not through a collective bargaining process.

“Let us try to address this as a community, including tenure and tenure-track faculty,” she said Sunday. “I have been here less than a year. Give me a chance to work with you to address it.”

Several adjunct faculty questioned the summer timing of the union election and noted how SEIU withdrew its election petition at Macalester College earlier this month to provide more time for discussion with colleagues and administrators. Under federal labor law, the only way for the parties to voluntarily delay the vote is for the union to withdraw the petition. St. Thomas also asked SEIU to delay the election until the fall semester, Sullivan said, but the union turned down the request.

“I feel this is being rammed down people’s throats,” one adjunct said at the Tuesday forum. Others said they have had difficulty reaching SEIU representatives to answer questions so they can make an informed decision.

The union is attempting to organize adjunct faculty around the country. The first Minnesota election occurred earlier this month at Hamline University, where adjunct faculty voted 45-17 in favor of SEIU representation for 83 members.

Sullivan encouraged all St. Thomas adjunct faculty to fully inform themselves about the issues and to vote. A St. Thomas website is updated regularly to provide information about – and resources related to – the issues and the voting process.

Sullivan will hold two more noon-hour forums with adjuncts – on Monday, June 30, in 366-367 Anderson Student Center on the St. Paul campus and on Tuesday, July 1, in 252 Terrence Murphy Hall on the Minneapolis campus.

Voting procedures

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will mail ballots July 3 to the homes of 300 adjunct faculty who teach undergraduate classes, and must receive ballots in its Minneapolis office by 4:30 p.m. July 18 in order for them to be valid. They will be counted July 21, and the majority of votes cast will determine the result. There is no quorum requirement for the vote.

St. Thomas encourages eligible adjunct faculty to ensure they receive a ballot on a timely basis by confirming the accuracy of their contact information, including home address and email address if they prefer a non-UST email, through the Murphy online system. The NLRB has extended to July 3 the deadline for adjuncts to update their email addresses. If adjuncts have not received a mail ballot within a few days after July 3, they should contact the NLRB regional office at (612) 348-1757 by 4:30 p.m. July 10 to receive a duplicate ballot.

St. Thomas adjunct faculty are eligible to vote if they taught during the fall 2013 semester, January 2014 Term or spring 2014 semester or were contracted by June 6 to teach in the June or July 2014 summer sessions. The group includes part-time, nontenured and nontenure-track faculty who teach undergraduate credit courses or labs on the St. Paul and Minneapolis campuses and are identified by titles including (but not limited to) adjunct faculty, senior adjuncts, participating adjuncts, supporting adjuncts and adjuncts.