After a semester of gathering signatures and garnering support, full-time, non-tenured Tufts faculty members will vote on Jan. 28 and 29 to determine whether they will unionize.
The vote, which will be held on campus, is a result of the preliminary efforts made by a group of non-tenured faculty who officially filed to hold elections to form a union through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), according to Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Spokesman Jason Stephany.
Stephany said that after a significant number of signatures are collected, they can be submitted to the NLRB to demonstrate that a considerable portion of the workforce is interested in pursuing unionization. He further explained that standard procedure places the onus on the NLRB to engineer the elections for individuals within the bargaining unit—in this case, the approximately 90 full-time, non-tenured lecturers—to express whether or not they support unionization.
If a majority of the professors within the bargaining unit elect to unionize, which Stephany said has been the end result of every other on-campus organizing effort in the past 12 to 18 months, a union will be formed and will promptly draw a contract with the administration. Stephany noted that the process is archetypically democratic, with numerous elections held to attain the ultimate desired end of an official, organized group to represent the full-time, non-tenured faculty, allowing them to coalesce, discuss issues and magnify their voices.
When Tufts’ part-time lecturers began their drive to unionize in 2013 and became the first Boston-area faculty to form a union through the SEIU, the motion inevitably acted as an impetus for full-time lecturers to seek a union of their own, according to Penn Loh, lecturer and director of the Master in Public Policy program and community practice.
Instances of faculty groups succeeding in unionizing have inspired faculty across the country to also create organizing bodies for their own representation, Stephany said.
Over 22,000 unionized faculty have joined the SEIU in the past year alone, 2,000 of which hail from Boston-area schools, according to Stephany. Various faculty members at Tufts, Northeastern University and Lesley University have already achieved representation, while faculty groups will hold elections in coming weeks on the Boston University and Bentley University campuses, Stephany said.
Loh said he has observed several existing issues that transcend departments to ubiquitously impact full-time, non-tenured lecturers.
“Certainly there are a number of issues that are of concern … [such as] trying to ensure that we have equitable and fair workloads that are backed up with compensation that is on-par,” he said. “[We seek] compensation, benefits and professional support [as well as] job security and making sure we are not dismissed without cause and are able to count on contracts.”
According to Loh, unionization will give lecturers more power to address these issues.
“We are interested in unionizing for many of the same reasons as our part-time colleagues,” Loh said. “We want a collective voice at the table in terms of decisions regarding our employment, in the same way that both part-time and tenured faculty have through their unions.”
Senior Lecturer in the Department of Drama and Dance Sheriden Thomas echoed Loh, expressing similar motivations for her vehement support of the unionization effort. Colored by her personal experiences as a part-time employee at Tufts, Thomas said she has become a firm advocate of forming a union to protect the rights that she believes should be endowed to full-time faculty, and to combat the grievances she has faced at the hands of administration.
“A few years ago, without talking to me at all, I was suddenly told that I had to teach two more classes and there was no pay raise,” Thomas said. “That alerted me to the fact that [administration] was not paying enough attention and giving [us] enough respect. We do 50 percent of the teaching and are not paid equally … length of contracts can vary with no explanation; you can be fired with no explanation. You are reapplying for your job every time your contract is renewed. I have been here for more than a decade … to systematically put you through reapplying for your job doesn’t make sense.”
Both Loh and Thomas agreed that their tenured and part-time colleagues have responded positively to unionization efforts and have offered support in the unionization process. Thomas explained how a group of tenured faculty submitted a letter to the administration, imploring them to refrain from engaging in any negative campaigning or battling the attempts to unionize, terms which the administration reportedly refused to agree to, according to Thomas.
However, Thomas said she remains positive about the administration’s response, citing their non-adversarial dealings with part-time faculty as they tried to unionize and lauding Tufts’ generally good ethics in ensuring that employees are treated well.
“We really hope that the administration stays as neutral as it can as we approach the vote,” Loh said. “As our formal employer, they can wield some level of power over us, and we wouldn’t want them to use that in ways that misinform people about what unionization might be. We have strong hope that the administration will continue to deal with us and our hopefully to-be-formed union in the same way that they established very productive, good relationships with the part-timers.”
Numerous students have also adopted the cause of the full-time faculty as their own. Tufts Labor Coalition showed robust support for non-tenured, part-time faculty as they attempted to unionize, according to TLC President Lior Appel-Kraut. She expects the organization to become more vocal in their support in the coming weeks.
“As efforts pick up and it feels helpful for the student body to become active and visibly supportive, TLC will definitely hope to start talking to non-tenure[d] faculty about how we can be supportive,” Appel-Kraut, a sophomore, said. “When our teachers have the best working conditions possible, we have the best learning conditions possible … [and] students have the power to show the administration that we care about the treatment of our professors.”
Ultimately, unionizing seems like a natural recourse for full-time, non-tenured faculty like Loh and Thomas, who believe that a fundamental part of investing back in the institution and the students, and ultimately improving the university, begins with supporting the faculty that are instrumental in Tufts’ role as an academic pillar.
“Administration has grown two-and-one-half times faster than enrollment and three times faster than faculty,” Thomas said. “A union will ensure that a balance is restored and a sense of good faith and fair play [is established] when it comes to salaries and [contract] renewal.”