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Northeastern adjuncts win election


The Huntington News, The Independent Student Newspaper of the Northeastern Community

Saturday, May 17, 2014

By Miharu Sugie, News Staff

The Northeastern adjunct faculty won the right to collectively bargain for a contract on Thursday, joining 2,000 other local adjuncts in their campaign to improve working conditions, low-wages and job security.

In the Boston office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Northeastern administrators, faculty senate members, adjuncts and some Progressive Student Alliance members watched the NLRB members count the ballots that determined whether the adjuncts could unionize. Out of a total of 609 ballots, 62 percent of eligible voters, 323 ballots were in favor of the part-time faculty unionization.

The week approaching the election, Anne Fleche, a part-time instructor teaching film at Northeastern, said she couldn’t help feeling excited, as she reflected on the adjuncts’ efforts over the past year and a half.

“With an election, everything comes down to the last couple of weeks … People can change their minds at the last minute,” Fleche said. “We had to be prepared for that. We knew we had to keep our nose to the grindstone and keep things positive.”

Although Fleche had to leave the election early to teach a Summer I course in Snell Library’s basement classroom, Bill Shimer, an adjunct in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business, stood shoulder to shoulder with other adjuncts and administrators to check that the ballots were cast by eligible voters.

A few minutes before the NLRB officially announced the result, the adjunct faculty knew they had won, Shimer said.

For a university that is the city’s ninth biggest employer, with 52 percent of its faculty being part-time and 70 percent of its faculty on a non-tenure track, this election is a turning point, according to a statement from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Now, Northeastern adjuncts make up the largest part-time faculty union in Boston, which helped organize the adjunct vote, SEIU said.

Immediately after the NLRB announced the election result, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Stephen W. Director sent an email to all faculty and staffers with the subject line “Part-Time Faculty Vote To Be Represented By SEIU.”

Photo courtesy Paul Swansen, creative commons

Photo courtesy Paul Swansen, creative commons

In fact, when Fleche climbed up the stairs to Snell Library’s lobby, a librarian congratulated her as she received a text from another part-time lecturer.

Many of the PSA students present at the election also immediately relayed the results to other students.

“[This victory] is something that we really wanted to see happen,” Chandana Cherukupalli, a fourth-year economics major and coordinating committee member of PSA, said. “The kind of community I want to be a part of is where the professors feel respected, their voices are heard and their working conditions are fair.”

In his email, Director said that the administration will “bargain in good faith with SEIU” about negotiating a contract with adjunct faculty members, who were eligible to vote. He continued that the election result will not affectemployees who were not eligible to vote.

“Whatever your views are on the question of union representation of part-time faculty, we all respect the decision that was made by those who were eligible to vote,” Director wrote in his email. “I look forward to continuing to work with you to advance our mission and sustain our unmatched momentum.”

Shimer would like to advance this momentum not only at Northeastern, but also at other colleges. Part-time instructors often juggle teaching courses at multiple colleges across the city. So, a city-wide campaign is necessary to affect adjuncts’ working conditions as a whole, according to Shimer. And so far, this movement is quickly picking up pace in Boston, as this is the third victory for adjuncts within seven months.

Recently, Northeastern adjuncts like Sue McNamara, have been communicating with adjuncts in Washington, D.C. and other cities to strengthen what she calls this “grassroots movement” in her op-ed for The Boston Globe.

Paul Mark, a Second Berkshire district representative, vice chair of the Joint Committee on Higher Education and Northeastern alumnus who has supported the adjuncts, said that Northeastern’s leadership will ultimately impact higher education in the state.

“I think this will have a positive effect on the Northeastern community and will enhance Northeastern’s standing as a leader in higher education and opportunity for all,” Mark said.

As the part-time instructors received the green light to their first contract, Shimer and the adjuncts’ coordinating committee have created a Northeastern University Adjunct Bargaining Survey. The survey asks part-time faculty to describe in detail their working conditions, economic and non-economic issues that are significant to them and other issues that they think the union should discuss with the administration. Typically, this bargaining process may take up to six months or even a year, Shimer said.

Not all adjuncts think that having a third-party is necessary to improve the relationship between the university and the adjuncts.

“Based on what I have read about typical higher education union contracts, I have not seen any real incremental improvements in compensation, assignment selection, benefits or job security in return for the costs of dues and lost autonomy in dealing directly with the university,” wrote Kevin Helmich, a Northeastern alumnus and adjunct in the College of Professional Studies to The News last week.

However, Shimer hopes that all adjuncts will participate in this survey and collective bargaining process.

“If you think about it, this is what’s going to affect our working conditions for years to come so we really have to think now what is important and make sure we are true to our ideals for everybody, for students, for Northeastern, for parents,” Shimer said.

The PSA also hopes to continue to support the adjuncts, as their “main focus moving forward is making sure that Northeastern maintains its pledge to bargain in good faith with our adjunct professors for their contract,” Christine Chao, a sophomore physical therapy major and PSA member, said.

Reflecting on the congratulatory messages she received from students, faculty and other community members, Fleche said that the negotiating process may be another arduous task, but “as they say in ‘Casablanca,’ it’s a beginning of a long and beautiful friendship.”