Adjunct professors want respect – and unions

By: - July 9, 2018 8:00 am

Miami Dade College adjuncts pose in solidarity. Image courtesy of Faculty Forward, a project of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)

While organized labor in America may be on the ropes following a decision against unions in the U.S. Supreme Court last week, don’t tell that to adjunct professors up and down the Sunshine State, who have been pushing for and acquiring union representation in the past couple of years.

Adjuncts are generally described as part-time instructors.

At Miami-Dade College (MDC) last week, they announced that they have filed for a union election, joining the movement that originated out of the “Fight for $15” national minimum-wage boost campaign led by the Service Employees International Union. 

The professors say that while they love their jobs, it’s also hard to maintain much of a lifestyle while being in a profession that they say includes low wages, little to no health benefits and very little job security.

They also say they’re just looking for a little respect.

“The immediate goal is to see the adjuncts finally come to a place where their voices can be heard and they have a position at the table,” says Shelley Dockery, 35, who has taught graphic design at MDC since 2012.

“It’s more than just pay. It’s largely about respect because we know that when a department has a good adjunct, they know they have someone who is dependable, reliable and a cheap source of labor,” adds Christian Schlaerth, 37, who teaches sociology and student life skills at MDC, the University of Miami and Barry University.

Adjuncts are also fighting for the right to some form of compensation when their classes are canceled.

Neither professor denies that higher pay is also a hugely motivating factor in their quest for representation.

A 2015 survey by Pacific Standard magazine reported that 62 percent of adjuncts say they make less than $20,000 a year from teaching.

Schlaerth earned $36,000 last year while teaching a total of 18 different classes at the three Miami-based schools last year.

Statistics back up the idea that getting organized is the quickest way that adjuncts can see a pay increase.

An analysis conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education of union-led collective-bargaining agreements ratified between 2010 and 2016 at 35 colleges and universities nationwide found that adjunct faculty won salary increases at each institution.

“We are certainly aware they are currently seeking support and votes for this endeavor,” said Juan Mendieta, director of communications with Miami-Dade College.“They can certainly do so.”

While the adjunct professors push for a vote to become organized, MDC officials undoubtedly will push back hard, as they have done at nearly every other Florida university or college that has faced employee union organizing.

When adjuncts at the University of South Florida began preparing for a union vote earlier this year, administration officials made it clear where they stood on the issue.

Image courtesy SEIU.

“We do not believe that a union will effectively support adjunct faculty or enhance student success because a one-size-fits-all contract for these employees could lead to less qualified adjuncts teaching classes,” said USF spokesman Adam Freeman. “Such a contract could also reduce the ability for the university to hire adjunct faculty and could cause a reduction in course offerings to students.”

A month later, the adjuncts rejected that bit of advice and overwhelmingly voted to become the latest institution of higher education to unionize.

Adjuncts at Hillsborough Community College (HCC) became the first group to unionize in Florida back in December of 2016, but have yet to come to any agreement through negotiations. HCC spokesperson Ashley Carl says there is currently an “impasse” between professors and the administration.

The strategy to get adjuncts unionized stemmed from the original SEIU campaign to raise the minimum wage for fast-food workers to $15 an hour back in 2012, a movement that continues. Fighting for improved wages for home health aides, child care teachers and adjunct professors was later added to the mix in 2015.

What’s relatively new about the movement is the SEIU’s decision in 2017 to merge its call for adjuncts to be organized with the push for free college tuition, now part of their Faculty Forward initiative.

Tuition has gone up dramatically at four-year schools across the country since 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Florida has not been as hard hit as many other states though, with an average tuition and fees for in-state students at the state’s public universities listed as the second lowest in the country.

At the Democratic gubernatorial debate last month in Miramar, Nancy Fernandes, an adjunct professor at Broward College, called on the candidates to commit to fully funding free universal college for all Floridians.

The question was right in the wheelhouse of Democratic candidate Chris King –  the Winter Park businessman early on embraced Tennessee’s proposal to make community college free for all adults.

Two other Democratic gubernatorial candidates – Andrew Gillum and Phillip Levine – support versions of a free college plan. Gillum’s proposal calls for the state to help pay off a student’s debt if they commit to teaching in the state for at least four years, while Levine says if students commit to working in Florida after college, they can go to college debt-free.

In addition to USF and HCC in Tampa, Broward College, Seminole State College and Valencia College have all unionized over the past two years.

Adjunct professors at MDC say they see the push for unions and free college tuition as being extremely connected.

“We are both prevented from participating fully as economic beings here,” says Schlaerth, who predicts that the link will only grow stronger.

“I see students are graduating with enormous amounts of debt which prevents them from living full adult lives and participating in the economy by (not) taking vacations and buying houses and things like that,” he adds.

Movement on the national and state level on making higher education debt free isn’t having the same level of success as the adjuncts are – not yet at least.

Broward Democrat Shevrin Jones introduced a proposal in the 2018 legislative session that would cover 100 percent of a Florida college student’s tuition if they agreed to work in the state when they graduate. It ultimately died in committee.

Bernie Sanders’ College for All Act introduced in the U.S. Senate last year calls for eliminating tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities for students from families that make up to $125,000 per year. It would also make community college tuition-free for all income levels.

It too, has gone nowhere in the GOP-led Congress, but like the call for “Medicare for All,” appears likely to be an idea to be adopted by Democrats running nationwide in 2020.

The measure’s sponsors in the U.S. Senate include several politicians who are possible  presidential hopefuls: California’s Kamela Harris, Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand and Oregon’s Jeff Merkley.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.