Adjunct union, Tufts Labor Coalition remain active despite postponed negotiations

The part-time faculty at Tufts made headlines last semester after voting to unionize under the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)’s Adjunct Action campaign. Thus far, there has been one bargaining session with the administration to discuss the goals of part-time faculty, as the past two attempted sessions were canceled due to scheduling difficulties. 

Tufts Labor Coalition (TLC) has continually supported the adjunct faculty throughout their bargaining efforts, trying to raise awareness among students of part-time lecturers’ working conditions. This semester, TLC has campaigned to increase the visibility of the issue on campus, and has collected signatures from students, alumni and full-time faculty to include in an open letter of support.

Though only a recent endeavor at Tufts, the need for a union originated from a larger downward spiral of working conditions for part-time faculty across the nation, according to Andrew Klatt, a part-time lecturer in the Department of Romance Languages. In general, hiring workers temporarily has become a growing trend, he said.

The initial catalyst for unionization was a salary freeze, dating back to 2008, which meant that wages would not increase with inflation. Klatt discussed the huge impact that this has had on wages for part-time faculty at Tufts.

“There was an intention to reduce our compensation over the longer term … so that even if annual increases are reestablished, and whether they are tied to inflation or to the cost of tuition … we will never get back presumably the 11 – going on 12 or 13 – percent pay cut that we’ve [experienced] when measured in … real buying power,” Klatt said. “Tufts used to pay [part-time faculty] quite a bit better than other [schools] in the area. That advantage … is quickly being eroded by this pay freeze.”

While one of the union’s major goals is reversing this pay freeze, the union also hopes to gain more respect for part-time faculty, increase the clarity of their responsibilities and achieve more job security. TLC is primarily focused on offering support toward these goals, in part by ensuring the student body and administration is engaged with the issue.

“Basically, we are just trying to support the adjunct professors and follow their lead, because they’re the ones that are unionizing [and] they are the ones who are deciding what issues are most important to them,” freshman Lior Appel-Kraut, who is the leader of TLC’s Adjunct Committee, said. “But it’s really important to us that the administration can see that the students care what happens to the adjunct professors, and that we’re paying attention.”

The members of TLC believe that their organization and the student body as a whole has a responsibility to support those working on Tufts’ campuses. The group has seen an increase in membership this past year, but sees room for improvement in building understanding among students of the issues facing part-time faculty.

“A lot of people don’t know which of their professors are adjunct and which aren’t, and I think in some ways that speaks to the amazing work that adjunct professors are doing,” senior Rose Mendelsohn said. “Everyone’s like, ‘These are my professors, these are my great professors, some of which are tenured track and some of which aren’t.’ So just learning about and sharing information about how that process works, making that more transparent for students, I think is really useful.”

According to Klatt, that students do not immediately see the distinction between part-time and full-time professors supports the union’s goal of creating a more unified vision of the faculty at Tufts.

“We began to, in conversation among ourselves, think of an alternate way to conceive the faculty. You could say it has to do with the idea of ‘one faculty,’ … in the sense that people who teach at Tufts University are faculty members and needed to be treated respectfully, whatever their job category is,” Klatt said. “So that, in addition to the pay freeze, has to do with compensation for canceled courses. It has to do with putting into place some kind of job security, whatever it may look like, but something that goes beyond one-year employment with no legal expectation … that you can continue to teach at the university.”

Klatt also identified the impact that second jobs many part-time faculty have to take on as a way to supplement income can have on students.

“There are people who would like to work exclusively at Tufts, and are forced by economic need to work at other universities,” Klatt said. “We see that this is a negative for students because a person who’s running between universities, who doesn’t have time to spend in the office, who doesn’t have time to meet with students, who has less time to prepare, is not going to do as well as someone whose home base and place of employment simply is Tufts.”

Members of TLC spoke to the ways in which job security and pay structure reform could solve this issue and improve the Tufts environment for both students and faculty.

“There’s less time [that adjunct faculty are] able to spend in office hours creating relationships with students, and that’s really a shame because throughout the adjunct campaign, hearing [about a lot of students’] experiences, adjunct professors are some of [students’] best professors here,” Appel-Kraut said. “So it’s really unfortunate that their working conditions, their pay and the amount of time they can spend here as they’re trying to make a living wage are preventing them from giving students everything they [are capable of].”

Despite the cancelation of the last two bargaining sessions, Klatt recognized great potential for the union to achieve its goals at Tufts. Klatt said some of the union’s long term goals are to decrease pay discrepancies among professors across departments, as well as between part-time and full-time faculty.

“[There’s an opportunity] for Tufts to take a leadership role in what I see as the crisis in academic labor. I think it’s a great opportunity for Tufts to stand out if it chooses to,” Klatt said. “I’d like to see the problem solved across the country to some extent, and I think we have an opportunity, and the university has an opportunity, to collaborate and take leadership roles.”