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Working In These Times

Monday, Oct 5, 2015, 6:19 pm

Adjuncts Win Union Contract at Maryland Institute College of Art

BY Bruce Vail

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(bmoreart.com)  

The national movement to unionize part-time faculty at U.S. colleges and universities has secured an initial beachhead in the Baltimore area with ratification of a first contract between Service Employees International Union Local 500 and the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). Voting on the ratification concluded in mid-September and a formal signing ceremony for the pact is set for October 8, labor representatives report.

It’s the first union contract for any bargaining unit of part-time faculty, or adjuncts, in the city’s greater metropolitan area, where thousands of such workers are employed at about a dozen similar private and public educational institutions. The overwhelming ratification vote of 91-7 came following a protracted contract negotiation initiated when a union organizing drive won collective bargaining rights for about 300 MICA adjuncts in April of last year.

But the strong vote in favor of ratification probably came from union members “more excited about finally having a contract than the specific terms of the contract itself,” comments Joshua Smith, a MICA adjunct who served on the union negotiating committee. The three-year contract falls short of member expectations in several key areas, he concedes. Yet many members also recognize that settling on a first contract is a “vital step forward” to realizing the union’s long-term goals.

A desire for an across-the-board wage increase was frustrated, for example, by MICA administrators who would only agree to an indirect approach to a modest raise in pay, Smith says. The new contract adapts an existing pay scale—ranging from a low of $3,329 for a three-credit course to a high of $5,040—to allow adjuncts to more easily advance up the scale, while also providing an annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), Smith says.

“The pathway to advancement is easier, plus the COLA, so there is something for almost all the members. But the base is still too low and [the union has] to attack the pay inequity between veteran, part-time and full-time faculty” in the future, says Smith. (The full text of the agreement is available online at the SEIU Local 500 web site.)

A statement sent out under the name of MICA President Sammy Hoi glossed over the pay issue and stressed the non-economic features of the contract:

The agreement covers a wide range of subjects including changes to compensation, creating a professional development fund, establishing standards governing the appointment and re-appointment of part-time faculty, and creating an evaluation process that will foster continued excellence in teaching. ...

As an important step in promoting sustainability in higher education, this contract reflects MICA’s commitment to leadership and to the part-time faculty in the MICA community. MICA and Local 500 look forward to continuing to work together in the implementation of this agreement and building a strong, professional relationship that will advance the interests of our students and the MICA community as a whole.

Debra Rubino, MICA’s Vice President of Startegic Communications adds: “President Hoi, along with all of the senior administration, are very satisfied with this agreement.”

Hoi’s emphasis on the inclusion of adjuncts in the broader academic community is a reflection of union demands that part-timers be treated as professionals, Smith adds, and has been a consistent theme of adjunct organizing throughout the country. Locally, the demand is a feature of an ongoing organizing campaign at nearby Goucher College, where part-time faculty are awaiting a National Labor Relations Board decision on the outcome of a closely contested union election there in late 2014.

Assumedly addressing the Goucher union fight, the MICA organizing committee said in a statement, “This MICA contract should cause other institutions of higher education in Baltimore to think twice about their opposition to collective bargaining process. The time for formal negotiations on the status of adjuncts at MICA was long overdue, and, now that they have taken place, the college is better for it. … A strong, active Part Time Faculty Union is a platform for involvement in the future of MICA and the education of its students. Any administration should welcome that.”

The statement can also be read as a message to other colleges and universities in the region. Stirrings of union support for an adjuncts union are evident at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland, and also at the University of Baltimore, Smith says. Furthermore, a coalition of unions including the Maryland State Education Association, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and SEIU Local 500 is agitating for legislation to ease unionization of the state’s community college system.

Finalizing a first contract at MICA is important to these efforts as well as to the MICA instructors themselves, Smith concludes, by demonstrating that adjuncts can establish new collective bargaining units despite official opposition. Baltimore’s culture of treating adjuncts as second-class academic citizens needs to come to an end, he says, and the MICA contract is a hopeful sign that the end is coming in to sight. 

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA's Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper's New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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