Goucher College Adjuncts Expect Union Victory As Organizing Spreads in Maryland

Bruce Vail January 21, 2015

SEIU Local 500 now represents about 3,000 adjuncts in the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore area.

Part-time fac­ul­ty mem­bers at Maryland’s Gouch­er Col­lege say they are on the thresh­old of win­ning for­mal union rep­re­sen­ta­tion, mark­ing anoth­er step for­ward in an orga­niz­ing cam­paign spread across mul­ti­ple cam­pus­es in the Bal­ti­more-Wash­ing­ton, D.C., area.

If Gouch­er adjuncts win, their vic­to­ry will be among sev­er­al won last year by Gaithers­burg, Mary­land-based Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) Local 500, which activists say is suc­cess­ful­ly har­ness­ing the pent-up demand for labor reforms in the aca­d­e­m­ic sector.

The cam­paign at Gouch­er, a small lib­er­al arts school in Tow­son, Mary­land, is not quite fin­ished, how­ev­er, as lawyers for the col­lege and Local 500 argue over chal­lenged bal­lots in an unusu­al­ly close elec­tion com­plet­ed in ear­ly Decem­ber. The ten­ta­tive count in the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB)-supervised elec­tion pro­duced a tie, with 33 adjuncts vot­ing in favor of the new Gouch­er Fac­ul­ty Union and 33 against, accord­ing to Mau­reen Win­ter, one of the instruc­tors who helped orga­nize the group.

But that 33 – 33 count is mis­lead­ing because the legal chal­lenges against most pro-union votes are spu­ri­ous, Win­ter con­tends, and there is every indi­ca­tion that the union will pre­vail when the NLRB makes a rul­ing on the chal­lenged bal­lots in the com­ing weeks. Nine bal­lots — all of them pro-union votes — were chal­lenged by the lawyers for Gouch­er, she explains, even though all nine of the vot­ers were specif­i­cal­ly named as eli­gi­ble in a pre-elec­tion agree­ment between Gouch­er and the union. 

Most were very active in the orga­niz­ing cam­paign, so the union believes there is a very high prob­a­bil­i­ty that these votes will ulti­mate­ly be count­ed, and pro­vide the mar­gin of vic­to­ry, Win­ter says. What’s more, the union has chal­lenged three bal­lots by fac­ul­ty mem­bers who were either not work­ing or tenured and there­fore inel­i­gi­ble” to vote in the election.

We’ve actu­al­ly already had our [vic­to­ry] cel­e­bra­tion. … We’re pret­ty sure we’ve got it,” Win­ter says.

Agree­ing with Win­ter about the ulti­mate vic­to­ry once the legal issues are cleared away is David Rodich, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of SEIU Local 500. We rec­og­nize it [the bal­lot chal­lenges] for what it is — a delay­ing tac­tic.” Rodich says he is con­fi­dent” of the elec­tion vic­to­ry and that we’ll have a pos­i­tive rela­tion­ship with Gouch­er” in nego­ti­at­ing a first col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment in 2015.

Rodich’s con­fi­dence may be boost­ed by a year of extra­or­di­nary suc­cess in orga­niz­ing part-time fac­ul­ty in the Baltimore‑D.C. area. In April 2014, the adjuncts at Baltimore’s Mary­land Insti­tute Col­lege of Art (MICA) vot­ed over­whelm­ing­ly to be rep­re­sent­ed by Local 500. Short­ly there­after, a Local 500 vic­to­ry was con­firmed at D.C.’s Howard Uni­ver­si­ty, the country’s most promi­nent his­tor­i­cal­ly black uni­ver­si­ty. At near­ly the same time that the Gouch­er elec­tion was get­ting under way, part-time fac­ul­ty at Uni­ver­si­ty of Dis­trict of Colum­bia also vot­ed for union rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

All told, Local 500 now rep­re­sents about 3,000 adjuncts in the area, includ­ing large con­tin­gents at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, George­town Uni­ver­si­ty, Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty and Mont­gomery Col­lege, Rodich says.

Rodich says the explo­sive ener­gy in the union’s col­lege cam­pus cam­paigns is com­ing from the part-time fac­ul­ty mem­bers them­selves, who are gal­va­nized by an aca­d­e­m­ic work­place far less friend­ly than they had antic­i­pat­ed when they were earn­ing their advanced degrees. Low wages, chron­ic job inse­cu­ri­ty, and lack of health insur­ance cov­er­age are com­mon com­plaints, he says, but the over­rid­ing demand from the part-time pro­fes­sors is that they be includ­ed as full mem­bers of the aca­d­e­m­ic community.

It’s not just about mon­ey. These peo­ple want to be seen as con­tribut­ing to the acad­e­my. They demand to be rec­og­nized as part­ners in cre­at­ing insti­tu­tion­al excel­lence,” and not mere­ly tem­po­rary labor­ers in a cor­po­rate envi­ron­ment, he says.

Rodich’s theme was echoed by Tree Tur­tle, who teach­es writ­ing at Gouch­er. In a real sense, we are the col­lege just as much as the stu­dents, the tenure-track fac­ul­ty, or the admin­is­tra­tors,” Tur­tle says.

Accord­ing to Tur­tle, a 1993 grad­u­ate of Gouch­er, the orga­niz­ing dri­ve had sig­nif­i­cant sup­port from the stu­dents and the per­ma­nent fac­ul­ty. This was to be expect­ed at Gouch­er, which val­ues its pro­gres­sive lib­er­al arts tra­di­tions, Tur­tle says. The stu­dent Rad­i­cal Left­ist Club orga­nized an on-cam­pus peti­tion dri­ve in favor of the union (the peti­tion gar­nered sig­na­tures from about one-third of Goucher’s 1,500 stu­dents), and a num­ber of the per­ma­nent fac­ul­ty want­ed to join.

To me, the union­iz­ing process is an affir­ma­tive, hope­ful cam­paign that is look­ing out for the pro­fes­sion­al wel­fare of a large sec­tor of hard­work­ing peo­ple at Gouch­er,” Tur­tle says.

But Gouch­er admin­is­tra­tors adopt­ed a neu­tral” posi­tion on union­iza­tion that was tinged with some anti-union rhetoric. We heard the usu­al stuff about how the col­lege com­mu­ni­ty did not need a third par­ty — the union — to come in. The pres­i­dent of the col­lege would say stuff like If you feel changes are need­ed, I’d love to lis­ten. We can do this with­out a union.’ He tried to walk a fine line,” Win­ter says.

But Gouch­er Pres­i­dent Jose Anto­nio Bowen angered some adjuncts when he brought in the noto­ri­ous anti-union law firm Jack­son Lewis to rep­re­sent the col­lege against the union. (Jack­son Lewis aid­ed the defeat of a union dri­ve at Baltimore’s WYPR pub­lic radio sta­tion last year.)

Bowen’s office declined a request for an inter­view, but spokesper­son Kris­ten Pin­heiro said that Jack­son Lewis was Goucher’s long-time labor lawyer and had not been brought in specif­i­cal­ly to defeat the SEIU Local 500 effort. Among oth­er areas, Jack­son Lewis rep­re­sents Gouch­er in legal mat­ters involv­ing the Labor­ers Inter­na­tion­al Union of North Amer­i­ca, which rep­re­sents main­te­nance and cus­to­di­al staff on cam­pus, Pin­heiro said.

More gen­er­al­ly, Pin­heiro offered this com­ment on Owen’s behalf:

Gouch­er strives to be a place where peo­ple want to work. And while we do hire non-tenure-track fac­ul­ty mem­bers — many of whom have taught at the col­lege for numer­ous years — Gouch­er bucks the nation­al trend of hir­ing increas­ing num­bers of adjunct fac­ul­ty. A Gouch­er edu­ca­tion is large­ly pro­vid­ed by full-time, tenure-track fac­ul­ty members.We know all of our instruc­tors are deeply com­mit­ted to our stu­dents’ aca­d­e­m­ic and per­son­al success.

What­ev­er hap­pens with the NLRB’s deci­sion, we will con­tin­ue to deal fair­ly and humane­ly with every­one employed at the college.

Bowen is not the ene­my. … For us, he is not the bad guy,” asserts Win­ter, who adds she expects con­tract nego­ti­a­tions to be ami­ca­ble and pro­duc­tive once they begin. Local 500’s Rodich also agrees with that pre­dic­tion, say­ing that pro­duc­tive labor nego­ti­a­tions have been the norm as the union has estab­lished bar­gain­ing units on new cam­pus­es in recent years.

There is a real prob­lem in the aca­d­e­m­ic world where what used to be a good mid­dle-class job has devolved into piece­work. This is a con­cern to a lot of admin­is­tra­tors, too, and no mat­ter what the offi­cial line on unions might be, most of them rec­og­nize that a change is need­ed,” to improve the qual­i­ty of life for adjuncts, Rodich says.

This isn’t a local or a region­al issue. There is a nation­al move­ment. What the SEIU rep­re­sents is a light at the end of the tun­nel, an oppor­tu­ni­ty to effect change,” he concludes. 

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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