When Tufts University’s part-time faculty unionized in Sept. 2013, they were at the forefront of a growing movement for better working conditions for adjuncts across the Greater Boston area. By now, adjuncts at Boston University, Northeastern University, Lesley University and Bentley University have also formed their own unions and have begun contract negotiations. According to a press release by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 509, the Massachusetts union representing these faculty, almost 3,000 Boston-area adjuncts have joined the project.
According to Dan Hunter, a lecturer in playwriting at Boston University (BU), Tufts paved the way for schools like Boston University to begin discussions about unionization.
“Universities look at each other and believe that it is a competitive market,” Hunter said. “When Tufts raised the adjunct pay, it immediately was an incentive for Boston University to raise the pay, and for [part-time faculty] to continue our drive to organizing because we could see that it was going to bring results.”
Low wages, work load, contract length and other issues such as access to university resources have impeded adjuncts’ ability to adequately teach their students, much less make a living, according to William Shimer, who is a part-time lecturer at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business.
Shimer said he teaches six courses per term, which is double the amount a full-time instructor would teach, yet he maintains a part-time status.
“If you put anybody in any job in this situation, you just cannot get the most out of them,” he said. “The pay is so low that you have to do what I do, which is stack up too many courses to be a really good teacher in any one course, or, you really are here just as a side job and you have another part time job as well.”
Shimer said that a union will allow adjuncts, the people who interact with students daily and understand the workings of the classroom, to make their voice heard on the administrative level. According to Shimer, the university has increasingly focused its attention on administration, overhead and expenses, despite adjuncts making up 52 percent of the faculty at Northeastern.
“Unionization is going to be good for everybody: for the university, because they’ll hear a voice that really cares about teaching and students … we can now have a seat at the table in a small way,” Shimer said.
Professors across universities emphasized that working conditions coincide with learning conditions, and that the poor treatment of professors has a negative effect on students. Matthew White, who is an assistant professor of web design at Lesley University, said he felt students were significantly affected by the working conditions of part-time faculty.
“With part-time faculty making up the majority of the faculty, our working conditions are directly related to student success and that’s why I’m excited about forming our union,” he said. “Our union will help Lesley University provide students a richer experience and better education.”
While part-time lecturers across Boston school focused on similar issues such as low wages, lack of resources and job insecurity, the process of unionization was very different at each of the five universities whose adjuncts recently joined SEIU.
Andrew Klatt, a lecturer in Spanish and translation at Tufts, said he was aware that conditions at Tufts were significantly better than they were at other universities, even before Tufts adjuncts unionized.
“Even here in the Boston area, people at other universities that are now part of this wave of negotiating and organizing are in much more dire situations,” He said.
According to Klatt, the public isn’t as aware about the disparity between full-time professors and adjuncts as they are about inequality in other industries.
“The general image of people who teach at the university level and other low wage workers is very dissimilar … the unequal distribution of wealth and the great disparity of salaries is just as evident in the case of contingent faculty as it is for people who work for low wages,” he said.
Within universities, unionization has allowed adjuncts to come together and support each other, Senior Lecturer in Tufts’ Department of Religion Elizabeth Lemons said.
“Before unionization we were invisible to each other,” Lemons said. “Having a union has enhanced opportunities for us to discuss issues amongst ourselves and to think together about how to address them.”
At Northeastern, unionization has not only connected adjuncts with each other, but also with their colleagues at other universities and with their students, according to Shimer.
Part-time faculty have been able to collaborate with adjuncts at other Boston area universities, and organizers from different schools have come together to coordinate negotiations, Shimer said. In fact, the lawyer that bargained for Tufts adjuncts is also bargaining for those at Northeastern.
Throughout their push for unionization, adjuncts at Northeastern felt support from students, who allied with their professors by organizing a march on the president’s office, among other campaigns.
“It’s easier for students to speak out because students can’t be fired,” Shimer said. “Students are paying tuition and administrators have to listen to students … it creates a climate where other adjuncts feel safer talking about [unionization] and being publicly in favor of what we are doing.”
At Tufts, Tufts Labor Coalition (TLC) worked to campaign for SEIC’s Adjunct Action campaign and rally support for part-time faculty among the student body.
David Kociemba, who is a lecturer at Boston University, said he felt that support and momentum for adjunct unionization is emerging outside of Boston as well.
“I see [unionization] happening here and in Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and elsewhere,” Kociemba said. “I think the administrators realize that the tide is shifting and there’s a better way to run this, which is to have all of your workers have a say, so you make decisions informed rather than uniformed.”
Klatt has also seen adjunct mobilization across the country, and has heard positive feedback about Tufts’ early success with unionization.
“People are looking to Tufts as a success story, not just locally, but nationally,” Klatt said. “I personally have received requests for copies of the contract that we negotiated. People in other cities, other parts of the country, other universities, are using our contract … as something they can work off of as they establish their own bargaining strategies and goals.”
The unionization movement has grown rapidly in the past year, uniting thousands of professors across the country to improve conditions for part-time faculty.
“This is a huge fight,” Shimer said. “We need to win this battle because then it will be a trend. It will be Tufts and Northeastern, both excellent schools, and if they can treat their teachers well then everybody else should treat their teachers well.”