by Tyler Mangrum
- The Capitol Hill Times -
With budgets still tight in the wake of the Great Recession, small colleges have seen an upsurge in the number of untenured, adjunct faculty working as instructors, in an effort to keep costs down. With these cost-saving measures comes a level of uncertainty for the approximate 400 adjunct faculty working at Seattle University, as their lack of tenure doesn’t assure the same level of job security that is available to the rest of the college’s instructors. In an effort to ensure collective bargaining with the college, those adjunct faculty members are now hoping to unionize; but, so far, Seattle University’s administrations is opposed to the movement.
Larry Cushnie, a political science instructor in his third year at Seattle University, has been one of the many adjunct faculty members calling for unionization. He says that the current movement reflects a broader debate that reaches beyond Seattle.
“This is part of a national conversation right now,” Cushnie said. “Universities across the country are hiring non-tenured track instructors to save money, at a rate that makes up most of their instructors. We just want to be ensured the same protections as tenured faculty.”
Cushnie argues that the biggest issues for the adjunct staff are stability, predictability and transparency. Like everyone, they want a living wage, and to know at the end of the year if their contracts will be renewed. As well, they would like to have an idea of how hiring and firing decisions are made.
Although the drive towards unionization has been percolating for some time, the efforts to do so have just begun to coalesce within the last few months. At this time, the adjunct faculty members calling for a union have begun to work with the Service Employees International Union Local 925 to begin to establish a union at the university, and although Cushnie isn’t sure how long it will take for the union to be finalized, he hopes that the drive to do so will continue throughout the rest of the academic year.
“We’ve been working towards just letting folks know what’s going on,” Cushnie said. “We’re talking to as many colleagues as we can across the university, and we’re reaching the point of getting broader recognition. Organizations on campus, like the local AUP chapter, have come out in support of us as well, so there’s a remarkable groundswell of support. Of course, you’re never going to have a unanimous effort, but the feedback we’ve been getting over the past few weeks has been fantastic.”
But the efforts to unionize hit a road block with the administration, following a letter sent out to faculty members from Provost Isiaah Crawford, which opposed the efforts of the adjunct faculty and the SEIU Local 925/
“A union would change [Seattle University’s] culture by disrupting the direct relationship between the university and its faculty and the faculty’s governing body, the Academic Assembly (AcA),” Crawford wrote in the letter. “In short, the SEIU would not improve the quality of the teaching and learning that takes place at the University, nor would it benefit our faculty and the students we serve… Dividing the faculty in this way will weaken key elements of the shared governance system we have worked hard to develop and support at Seattle University.”
Although Crawford’s letter also states that Seattle University is not anti-union, it also maintains that the college’s current method of negotiation with adjunct faculty is “a far better approach to address faculty issues at the university than an employer/union bargaining model.” Crawford nor the Seattle University’s administration could be reached for comment by The Capitol Hill Times.
Despite the administration’s current opposition, Cushnie hopes that the relationship between the potential union members and the school administration will not be antagonistic, and that the school won’t take any further actions in opposing the formation of the union.
“We look forward to working with our administration,” Cushnie said. “Our campaign had never become contentious and cold until that letter came out. I think that it’s clear that this is about social justice. It’s about all of the things that fit within the Jesuit mission. Other Jesuit schools have successfully organized adjunct faculty with the universities remaining neutral throughout, and there’ve been great results on those campuses. And, as a social justice university, all we’re asking is for the university to remain neutral and let people decide what they want to do.”