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Sullivan’s forums precede upcoming union vote

By , Chief Story Editor  |  Thursday, July 3, 2014 11:12 AM

With a vote on unionization for adjunct faculty quickly approaching, St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan held the fifth of six forums to discuss the issue Monday afternoon.

Citing low compensation, a lack of benefits and job security as concerns, at least 30 percent of the 301 adjunct faculty eligible to vote for union representation expressed interest in an election, prompting the National Labor Relations Board and the Service Employees International Union to schedule a vote. Beginning July 3, all eligible adjunct faculty will receive a ballot in the mail with a simple yes or no question: “Do you wish to be represented for purposes of collective bargaining by SEIU Local 284?” Completed ballots are due by July 18, and votes will be counted July 21.

A decision on the vote will be based on the total number of votes cast. For example, if only 100 adjuncts vote on the issue, 51 yes votes will result in the SEIU representing all adjunct faculty at St. Thomas.

St. Thomas is the third private school in the Twin Cities to discuss union representation for adjuncts in recent weeks. Adjuncts at Macalester were faced with a union vote early in June before canceling the vote a few days before it was supposed to be held in order to have more time to discuss possible solutions. Adjunct faculty at Hamline voted in favor of union representation in mid-June, making it the sixth private college in the nation to unionize nontenured faculty in the last two months. The University of Minnesota has also seen some interest in unionization.

More than a dozen faculty members attended Monday’s forum to share their perspectives with other adjuncts and discuss issues facing adjunct faculty with Sullivan.

Sullivan began the forum by stressing her commitment to “compassion, fairness, transparency and equity” and asking adjuncts for the chance to find a solution before voting in favor of unionization.

“I’m asking for that opportunity. And if I don’t deliver, you can unionize,” Sullivan said.

With the impending union vote, Sullivan and the university administration have set out to inform faculty and the St. Thomas community about the voting process, beginning with an open letter from Sullivan to all faculty on May 30 in which she addressed the implications of a union at St. Thomas.

In her letter, Sullivan wrote, “The best way to meet the differing interests of our adjunct faculty while serving the best interests of our students – which is our highest obligation – is to work directly and cooperatively with adjunct faculty in each of our schools and colleges, rather than negotiating through collective bargaining with SEIU.”

Doug Hennes, vice president for university and government relations, said the university is against adjunct unionization because it does not think a union contract would meet the diverse needs of the entire pool of adjunct professors.

“Union contracts are often inflexible and would prevent us from seeking a more nuanced solution to a complex issue,” Hennes said. “We want to be able to seek a solution that benefits everybody without the potential restrictions of a union contract.”

A vote in favor of union representation would mean that adjunct faculty would have to begin working on a contract with the SEIU. After adopting the contract, adjuncts could begin negotiating with St. Thomas administration.

During the forum, adjunct professors Jason Skirry and Lucy Saliger, who worked to organize the union process at St. Thomas, expressed their support for unionization.

“We’re all here because we want to do what’s right, and (Saliger and I) believe the union is the right thing to do,” Skirry said. “I have fidelity to the school because I’ve been here for six years as an adjunct. I love the school, and I love working with students, and I do want to make St. Thomas the best place it can be.”

Skirry and Saliger also said one of their main concerns was under-representation of adjuncts in university administration.

“I trust (Sullivan) and believe she’s sincere, but it’s not about trust. It’s about structure,” Skirry said. “It’s about the balance between the administration and the adjuncts.”

Saliger said she felt that the current balance doesn’t allow adjuncts to work closely with administration to solve problems.

“It’s the difference between a top-down model and a bottom-up model where we can work collectively,” Saliger said.

Though Skirry and Saliger were adjuncts in favor of union representation, other professors at Monday’s forum expressed concern about unionization, particularly at this time.

“I’m not anti-union. I’m anti- getting rushed into a union. And I think that’s the feeling that a lot of people are having right now,” adjunct professor Kim Ragan Sovell said. “The most important thing to me is that I am tasked every day as a professor here to teach my students to think critically and act wisely. I feel the need to lead by example, and I don’t know how it’s possible to think critically and act wisely when I’m told there’s a vote happening in two weeks.”

Sovell also expressed concerns about the university losing faculty if adjuncts vote in favor of union representation.

“I know we’ll lose faculty,” Sovell said. “I’ve already had two colleagues in the business department tell me that they will not work here if a union comes in.”

While St. Thomas administration, Sovell and other adjuncts are hoping to delay the vote in order to buy time to look into different solutions, Skirry said he is skeptical of the motivation behind delaying the vote.

“Why are they trying to play the delay card? Because they know a delay in the vote is as good as a ‘no’ vote. Have you ever heard of a delay in a vote leading to a union vote?” Skirry said. “It’s like a house of cards that took forever to build. All the university has to do is remove one card and the whole thing will collapse, and then who’s going to build it again?”

Saliger added that St. Thomas’ current structure of paying adjuncts $4,000-$5,000 per class isn’t fair compensation for most instructors.

“If you can’t make a living wage, and I don’t mean a fortune, but a livable wage … then I think that’s something worth fighting for,” Saliger said.

However, Sovell said traditionally, adjuncts were brought in to provide “a different viewpoint” to students.

“(Some faculty) are treating adjunct employment as a full-time job, and it wasn’t set up for that,” Sovell said. “But I do agree that there are adjuncts who teach six to eight classes a year, and they don’t have access to Anderson (Athletic) Recreation Center and don’t have health insurance, and I think those things need to be looked into.”

St. Thomas agreed earlier this year to provide an AARC membership to adjunct faculty, which went into effect June 30.

Skirry said that with a growing number of adjuncts teaching classes at schools around the country, they should be represented appropriately – in the form of a union.

“Adjuncts are here to stay, and it’s time now to set a floor so adjuncts have a substantive voice and something to back up that voice, and I think that comes in the form of a union,” Skirry said. “We’re fighting for our school and trying to make it the best place it can be.”

Sovell said she believes Sullivan’s administration could accomplish a lot if given time.

“Give Julie Sullivan a chance to work with us,” Sovell said. “If she doesn’t, I’ll be the first to jump sides and vote for a union.”

Jacob Sevening can be reached at seve8586@stthomas.edu.

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