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The University of La Verne adjunct faculty filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board Oct. 28, the first step toward possibly unionizing through the Service Employees International Union. Step two will be a vote to see if 51 percent of adjuncts favor unionization.
The petition, which includes all part-time faculty members that teach at least one credit-earning class, focuses solely on representing those on La Verne’s main campus.
The adjuncts hope the move would address such issues as inadequate pay, and access to University benefits among other concerns they have been discussing since last year.
“If the majority of us didn’t support this, we would have never filed,” said Fatima Suarez, adjunct professor of sociology. “It’s time for us to form a collective union, so that we can represent ourselves and so that we can ask for better working conditions.”
Currently 60 percent of classes on the main campus are taught by adjuncts, whose average pay here is below the national average.
Though the number of adjuncts who can participate in the secret ballot election has yet to be determined by the NLRB, the SEIU is focusing on expanding its 2.1 million members to include La Verne.
University administrators recognize the nationwide movement, and are educating themselves and considering how to respond to the petition the SEIU has filed, University spokeswoman Judy Asbury said.
“It’s been an ongoing issue, not just here but across the United States,” said John Bartelt, professor of education-technology. “In the early days, full-time faculty did most of the work. The shift that we’re seeing is toward a cadre of part-time adjuncts to teach most of the courses.”
Almost 80 percent of all professors across the nation are now part-time adjuncts, Bartelt said.
“We rely heavily on adjuncts,” Professor of Sociology Hector Delgado said. “In my own department, of all the classes we offer in the sociology and anthropology department, about 65 percent of those classes are taught by part-time faculty. I think in psychology, adjuncts teach closer to 75 percent of the classes, from what I’ve heard.”
The reason for the high percentage is that adjuncts give the University room for flexibility and reduced costs, he said.
One thing adjuncts are looking toward is higher pay.
New adjunct professor of writing Rob d’Annibale, who was approached by the SEIU, said unionizing could be a positive.
“As it became a place where I felt more comfortable and wanted to stay, I started to really look at what the terms of working here were, and that’s when I began to see that there were some things that were making it very difficult,” d’Annibale said. “Primarily, it’s the low pay, which forces me to get another job. Right now, I teach five sections, I teach 90 kids, and I teach in two schools 30 miles apart because I have to.”
D’Annibale’s other two sections are at UC Riverside, where he was previously making about $47,500 for a lecturer position he held. After the end of the quarter, and a while on unemployment, d’Annibale came to La Verne.
“For each course here, I am paid just under $3,000,” d’Annibale said. “For the three courses I teach, I’m making just about $8,700. It’s $370.14 a week.”
Suarez teaches two sections of sociology and said that some of her friends working at Starbuck’s earn more than she does working for La Verne.
“So per class, I make about $2,900. If I were to divide that by the amount of hours I’ve spent developing exams, grading papers, developing lectures and lecturing, it comes out to less than minimum wage,” Suarez said.
According to the Part Time Faculty and AP Employee Pay Guidelines and Salary Grid released in 2012, the lowest pay rate for an adjunct instructor is just $2,850 for a four-unit class?
“My guess is that the median pay rate around the country would be around $4,500-$5,000,” Delgado said. “Then you have to keep in mind that California has one of the highest costs of living, so you would think that the rate for adjuncts’ income, especially in L.A., should probably be higher than it is in other parts of the country.”
Still, adjuncts typically earn less for teaching a course than one student pays in tuition for that same course, Bartelt said.
D’Annibale said he would also hope to see more office space over time, as he currently shares an office with seven other adjuncts in Miller Hall.
The part-time adjuncts are not alone in feeling things need to change.
“So many people want to be here even if it means being paid less, but that’s not a reason to pay them less,” Bartelt said. “My feeling is that administrators don’t want adjuncts to unionize. They’ve been clear from the beginning, but it’s about giving the adjuncts the time and space to figure out what they want to do, and if they choose to have representation to empower themselves, then that’s fine.”
Delgado agreed, adding that unionizing would be consistent with the University’s core values, as it’s a group of people trying to do the best they can as a community of workers.
“If they want to be unionized, they have a right and we should respect their right,” he said. “They should have the right without intimidation or any coercion. I’m very pro-union generally, but in this case what is most important is not what I and others think, but what the adjuncts want and if they want a union, the administration should deal with them in good faith.”
Still, University administrators would have to consider where the money for a pay raise, benefits, office space for adjuncts would come from.
The University budget is about $170 million, with a series of evaluations that go through a process, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Jonathan Reed said. Included in these evaluations are faculty deliberations, chairs of departments weighing in and considering what is going to best serve students.
“There would be an effect to everyone in some way,” chief human resources officer Jody Bomba said. “It would change the way that we are presently able to work with our employees, to work face-to-face or go through a third party. There are union dues that our employees would need to pay in order to have their representation present. We don’t know what that would mean for our students.”
“If the University is concerned about students, my response to that would be that our reliance on adjuncts isn’t great for students,” Delgado said. “More and more, we’re seeing universities run as businesses, and that’s bad. We’re not just another business. An academic institution is different.”
For now, administrators say they are respecting discussion over the topic.
“We do firmly believe that part-timers need to have a voice and should feel free to discuss amongst themselves their opinions, so we firmly believe in their right to open dialogue and encourage that,” Reed said.
The adjuncts are scheduled to meet with administrators Tuesday in an open forum.
“We have been talking about these issues since last year, and it came to the point where enough is enough,” Suarez said. “We need to have a voice. We’re not just fighting for a voice for ourselves, but we’re also fighting to improve the quality of the education at the University.”
Robert Penalber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mariela Patron can be reached at email@example.com.
Alejandra Aguilar contributed to this story.