SEIU drops one MN college faculty union drive but starts two more

SEIU: After a months-long union drive, about 70 part-time professors were eligible to determine whether the Service Employees International Union’s national Adjunct Action organizing drive would get off the ground in Minnesota.

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The ballots were set to go in the mail June 3, under the watch of the National Labor Relations Board. Macalester College would be the first Twin Cities private college to vote on unionizing part-time faculty members, followed by Hamline University and the University of St. Thomas.

“Adjuncts in Minnesota — like adjuncts everywhere — know that work doesn’t stop at the classroom door, but pay and benefits often do,” stated the Adjunct Action website. “We believe that by forming a union with SEIU, we can build a strong voice to raise professional standards and improve the quality of education.”

But the Service Employees International Union’s first private college campus faculty election in Minnesota never happened. What went wrong?

“It represents a cancellation and not a postponement of the election,” said Barbara Laskin, media relations manager at Macalester, in a statement. “In order to carry out a new election, SEIU would have to begin the process of petitioning anew.”

Adjunct professors routinely earn $4,000 to $6,000 per course on campuses where tuition costs in the tens of thousands. Higher education relies heavily on adjunct faculty to fill in for tenured professors on sabbaticals.

“I was never interested in unions, I’ve never been involved in a union,” SooJin Pate, an adjunct professor, said to Workday Minnesota about helping to organize the Macalester election. “But when I realized, Oh my goodness, as a Ph. D. and as a professor I have the status that suggests that I am making a decent living, that I’m actually making poverty level wages. And given the terms of my contract now, there’s nothing I can do about that.”

On a campus that embraces activist causes, Macalester’s administration angered more than a few by agitating against organized labor’s attempt to represent non-tenured faculty, who comprise more than 40 percent of the staff.

“We believe that this is not the right direction for any of our faculty members, will not strengthen our institution or our governance structure, will not help the faculty who are directly involved, and will not assist our students in any way,” Macalester president Brian Rosenberg and provost Kathy Murray said in a May memo to tenured and tenure-track faculty.

About 70 part-time professors were eligible to determine whether the Service Employees International Union’s national Adjunct Action organizing drive would get off the ground in Minnesota. As word spread, however, so evidently did opposition among enough part-time staff.

“We began to realize there were a lot of people working on it from the unions, from some students, some adjunct faculty who were the coordinating committee,” said Liz Jansen, a long-time adjunct biology professor who opposes the union. “I felt myself it was a really bad idea. I think Macalester is a small enough community that we’ve got opportunities to talk with our chairs of our departments, our provost and our president.”

The outcome was set to be announced this week. Hours before ballots were to go out, however, SEIU abruptly pulled the plug.

“We are reluctant to make this decision, and we know that many contingents on campus will be disappointed by it. However, it has become clear to us that this action is consistent with the general sentiment of Macalester’s contingent faculty at present,” according to a union organizing committee statement after the cancellation.

School’s not out yet, however, on an election being tallied this week for some 90 part-time and non-tenured faculty at nearby Hamline University. Once again, the private school’s administration strongly opposes the union, pointedly urging faculty to vote.

“We encourage you to participate actively in determining whether you will continue working directly with the university or will have a third party, the service workers’ union, talking with the university with regard to your pay, benefits, and working conditions,” says a statement from the office of the provost that’s posted online.

The university’s website also displays sample SEIU contracts with other universities, a link to the SEIU Local 284 website and a list of frequently asked questions with blunt answers.

“…This is an important and complicated issue. Hearing only from the union is not the way to make a good and fully informed decision. We are sharing information on this website to help our adjunct faculty learn more about unions, collective bargaining, and about what having a union represent them may mean. We want to ensure that all voters make a fully-informed decision.”

Minnesota’s summer session course in union organizing wraps up in July with the biggest non-tenured faculty election of all — 300 educators at the University of St. Thomas.

Contact Tom Steward at tsteward@watchdog.org.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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