Adjunct professors announce push to unionize
At a rally on Thursday, Macalester adjunct professors announced they had filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to officially begin the process of forming a union and called on the administration to remain neutral to their efforts.
The rally, which was designed to be the peak event of We Love our Contingent Faculty Week, had over 100 in attendance. Originally planned to be held on Old Main Lawn, the rally had to move to the overhang of the Chapel due to rain.
Students and faculty members began by speaking about the importance of contingent faculty, leading up to a speech by Representative Keith Ellison. Ellison, a former contingent faculty member at Macalester, called on the administration to remain neutral toward the organizing efforts.
“This [crowd] is the kind of people Macalester attracts,” Ellison said. “It would be unfitting for the school to interfere with this union drive. It would lower this awesome institution if it took any other stance besides neutrality.”
At the rally, a group representing the contingent faculty announced they had successfully received signatures from over 30 percent of contingent faculty, to major applause from the crowd. The clearing of that threshold allowed them to file through the local SEIU chapter and eventually hold an election for unionizing. If a majority of contingent faculty vote yes, a union will be formed.
Contingent faculty from Hamline University were also present at the rally on Thursday. Hamline contingents also filed Friday to begin the unionization process. Macalester and Hamline are the first two higher education institutions in the state where contingent faculty have begun the unionizing process.
Administrators, including President Brian Rosenberg and Provost Kathy Murray, were present at the rally, but chose not to comment or take an official stance on the efforts to organize, given their need to learn more about the situation.
However, speakers at the rally were optimistic going forward.
“The path to change begins with contingent faculty joining together to seek it,” said Brendan Miller, a visiting assistant professor of physics who spoke at the rally. “I respect and expect that [the administration] will remain neutral as we approach the vote.”
“The show of support from students, faculty, and other community members was exciting to witness,” said SooJin Pate, an American Studies professor who had been spearheading the organizing efforts among faculty. “The speeches from students and contingent faculty members were very moving.”
Campus events highlight role of contingent faculty at Macalester
While the term “contingent faculty” might appear unfamiliar, many argue that their presence at Macalester is invaluable and cannot be ignored. This week, a group of students and faculty members celebrated We Love our Contingent Faculty Week, and aimed to draw attention to the working conditions and benefits that contingent faculty members receive.
The week’s events began Tuesday with a panel in the Harmon Room, where different contingent faculty members spoke about their experiences at Macalester. On Thursday afternoon, organizers were expected to hold a press conference on Old Main Lawn and announce they had achieved enough signatures to begin the process of forming a union. Representative Keith Ellison (DFL) was expected to attend and speak in favor of the faculty. A meet-and-greet was planned for Thursday night, where contingent faculty and students could socialize and express their appreciation for one another.
Panel discusses contingent status
Contingent faculty are defined as professors and instructors who are not tenured or on a tenure track. Their positions are not permanent, and many of them are paid on a class-by-class basis due to their part-time status.
Tuesday’s panel addressed these issues, as three different contingent professors—SooJin Pate of American Studies, Eric Otremeba of History, and Brendan Miller of Physics—spoke about their experiences at Macalester.
They discussed many problems associated with their positions, such as the lack of job security and the lack of adequate compensation. Because contingent faculty are hired on a nonpermanent or renewable basis, they are often left without knowing whether they will continue to be employed after the current academic year.
“Every year you’re teaching, you don’t know if you’re going to have a job the following year or not,” Otremba said. “Essentially, we spend a lot of our time looking for work at other places while it’s unclear whether we’ll be here the following year or not.”
If a faculty member teaches fewer than four courses per year, as many contingents do, they are considered part-time, and receive $5,000 per course instead of an annual salary, in addition to lacking any additional benefits. This often causes them to rely on smaller teaching positions at many institutions, which comes with a full-time workload but an inadequate salary.
Pate mentioned how she used to teach as a contingent professor at St. Olaf College over J-term in addition to teaching at Macalester, but due to differing schedules there was a period of overlap where she was required to be teaching in both places at the same time. She had to ask her students to change their class meeting time, and the extensive commute between both places drastically limited her availability for office hours.
Despite their limited contractual connection to the college, contingent faculty are often going above and beyond to be there for their students, Pate said. Although in many cases they have no formal obligations to be advisors or serve on honors committees, for example, many of them do, and make their presence well-known at the college.
“It harms our ability to be there for our students in the way we’d like to be,” Pate said. “I don’t think they would have known I was a contingent faculty given what we do for our students. We try not to let those problems seep into our ability to form relationships. But it’s difficult.”
Midway through the panel, a larger group of contingent faculty surprised the panel and entered the Harmon Room. The contingent faculty coincidentally were reading a book entitled “Equality for Contingent Faculty,” and their reading group was scheduled to meet at the exact same time as the panel.
The faculty members entered the room to applause, and introduced themselves. After speaking about their individual experiences, they told stories of their experiences as contingent faculty and began answering questions from the audience.
Britt Abel, an adjunct professor of German Studies, framed the issues around faculty contingency as some of the most important issues affecting higher education today.
“The problem is contingents don’t have that layer of protection to challenge students, whether it’s about the quality of their work or just pushing students to think differently, think broader, and do those things college students are supposed to do,” Abel said. “It’s going to affect the quality of your education. It is as important as the skyrocketing cost of college tuition in this country. It is so important.”
Rally announces unionizing plans
Throughout the week, other events have been taking place designed to raise the school’s awareness of contingent faculty. Eli Liebman ’15 and other students have been delivering cookies to contingent faculty in their classes, expressing thanks to them for all their work and informing their students that their professors do not have the job security and benefits they are often perceived to have.
“It’s an opportunity to make students realize their teacher isn’t a tenure-track professor,” Liebmann said. “In many cases, they rarely thought that.” Organizers of the week have been tabling in the Campus Center all week, assembling a photo petition asking students to say why they love contingent faculty. According to Pate, one of the main goals of the week was simply to educate students, and “get the entire Mac community to understand what it’s like to be a contingent faculty member, and how our lives are affected by their presence.”
The panel was effective at educating attendees on contingent faculty, said Alizarin Menninga ’15.
“I was really impressed by the event, and the love and excitement students generated around this issue,” Menninga said, adding that students’ high levels of engagement with this issue will be a major factor in their favor as they proceed. The main event of this week is expected to be a rally, scheduled for Thursday afternoon, where contingent faculty are expected to announce they are beginning the process of unionizing.
To begin the process, 30 percent of contingent faculty had to sign cards declaring their desire to hold an election. When that threshold is reached, an election will be held on whether to form a union, which requires a majority vote.
According to Pate, the goal of the union is to achieve a united voice of support for contingent faculty and give them stronger grounds to negotiate contracts going forward.
“If we have a union, we become equal partners,” Pate said. “We get to come to the table and we get to bargain and negotiate that contract. They just can’t willy-nilly create a contract.”
The rally on Thursday is expected to also call for a major stipulation — that the administration remain neutral toward the organizing efforts of the contingents. The movement is not designed to be negative toward the administration, organizers said.
“We’re not trying to be adversarial,” said Jeremy Levine-Drizin ’15. “We’re trying to get them to recognize that contingent faculty are trying to commit and have their voice heard, and achieve workplace security. It’s not that ridiculous of a request.”
“The underlying logic of the week is that we believe we’re moving forward and giving the administration the benefit of the doubt. We love our jobs. We’re not adversaries at all. As faculty members dedicated and committed to making the place exceptional, we need the kinds of relationships we should be able to form with students,” Pate said.
According to Luke Mielke ’16, efforts to unionize contingent faculty are underway at many other institutions, such as Hamline, St. Thomas and the University of Minnesota. The ultimate goal is for these potential unions to link up and form a metro-wide union of contingent faculty.