University Tries to Nip Professors’ Union in the Bud

A cautionary letter--and the rumored retention of a notorious union-buster--show Northeastern is nervous about adjunct faculty organizing.

Rebecca Burns

Northeastern University warned its part-time faculty that unionizing might impact the culture of 'direct communication' that 'will most effectively allow Northeastern University, our faculty and our students to meet the challenges that lie ahead.' (Kaplan International Colleges/Flickr/Creative Commons)

What does a research uni­ver­si­ty in Boston have in com­mon with the cor­po­ra­tions Pfiz­er, Cable­vi­sion and IBM?

Adjuncts, who typically work on a contract basis, are vulnerable to retaliation by university administrations. But Machson-Carter is hopeful that heavy-handed tactics by the university will galvanize, rather than chill, organizing efforts.

They hire the same union-buster. Accord­ing to Adjunct Action, a project of the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU), North­east­ern Uni­ver­si­ty has retained Jack­son Lewis, a law firm used by major cor­po­ra­tions to thwart employ­ee orga­niz­ing efforts. The AFL-CIO calls the New York-based firm the num­ber one union-buster in Amer­i­ca.” The move could sig­nal inten­si­fied efforts by uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tions to defeat orga­niz­ing dri­ves among con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty, which have been gain­ing momen­tum in sev­er­al cities.

Adjunct Action has had mod­est suc­cess so far in its efforts to union­ize non-tenure-track fac­ul­ty at pri­vate col­leges across Boston, which it began this spring. Part-time fac­ul­ty at Bent­ley Uni­ver­si­ty and Tufts Col­leges have already filed for union elec­tions, which will be held this fall. Adjuncts at North­east­ern have formed an orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee and oth­er schools are well on their way, say union organizers.

Last week, part-time employ­ees at North­east­ern received a mem­o­ran­dum from Provost and Senior Vice Pres­i­dent for Aca­d­e­m­ic Affairs Stephen W. Direc­tor. The memo, obtained by In These Times, says that some part-time fac­ul­ty mem­bers have expressed con­cern about what they have described as intru­sive behav­ior” by union orga­niz­ers and assures fac­ul­ty that North­east­ern Uni­ver­si­ty has not divulged your con­tact infor­ma­tion to union orga­niz­ers.” It continues:

Obvi­ous­ly, you have no oblig­a­tion to speak with a union orga­niz­er or to respond to their con­tact efforts if you do not wish to do so.

We under­stand these recent efforts to con­tact our fac­ul­ty are part of a larg­er effort, labeled Adjunct Action,” to orga­nize fac­ul­ty mem­bers in Boston and the sur­round­ing area. 

… Ulti­mate­ly, the deci­sion about whether to sup­port SEIU or not is yours. We do want to empha­size that the issue of union rep­re­sen­ta­tion is of crit­i­cal impor­tance to every fac­ul­ty mem­ber, includ­ing you, as well as to the Uni­ver­si­ty as a whole. There­fore, we urge you not to remain unin­volved. How­ev­er you may feel about this issue, please make your voice count.

Anti-union let­ters and e‑mails are a main­stay of employ­er efforts to counter employ­ee orga­niz­ing. Accord­ing to a 2009 study by Kate Bron­fen­bren­ner, direc­tor of labor edu­ca­tion research at the Cor­nell School of Indus­tri­al and Labor Rela­tions, employ­ers used this tac­tic dur­ing 7 out of every 10 NLRB-super­vised union rep­re­sen­ta­tion elec­tions between 1999 and 2003. Such com­mu­ni­ca­tions are legal under the free speech pro­vi­sions of the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act, and have been a key com­po­nent of employ­er cam­paigns since the 1970s. But Brof­fen­bren­ner’s study notes that as the union avoid­ance” indus­try has grown more sophis­ti­cat­ed dur­ing the past two decades, such actions have been fol­lowed with increas­ing fre­quen­cy by more puni­tive tac­tics such as retal­ia­to­ry fir­ings, which are ille­gal. Adjunct Action says that Northeastern’s deci­sion to hire Jack­son Lewis could presage a more aggres­sive anti-union campaign.

(North­east­ern Uni­ver­si­ty con­firmed that the memo had been sent to fac­ul­ty, but did not respond to a request for com­ment on whether it had retained Jack­son Lewis. The law firm also declined to comment).

The memo goes on to express con­cern about the effect that a union would have on the col­lab­o­ra­tive” cul­ture of the university:

All of our fac­ul­ty — tenured, tenure-track and non-tenure track — play crit­i­cal roles in North­east­ern University’s suc­cess. Over the years, the fac­ul­ty and the admin­is­tra­tion have fos­tered an extreme­ly col­lab­o­ra­tive rela­tion­ship built upon mutu­al respect and trust. We believe this dynam­ic, which rests upon direct com­mu­ni­ca­tion, will most effec­tive­ly allow North­east­ern Uni­ver­si­ty, our fac­ul­ty and our stu­dents to meet the chal­lenges that lie ahead. We encour­age all of our fac­ul­ty mem­bers to work direct­ly with the Uni­ver­si­ty on any issues or con­cerns they may have. We are con­cerned about the impact that ced­ing your rights to do so to an out­side orga­ni­za­tion, which is unfa­mil­iar with our cul­ture, will have on our community.

The let­ter doesn’t res­onate with my expe­ri­ence work­ing at North­east­ern,” says Abi­gail Mach­son-Carter, an adjunct pro­fes­sor who teach­es writ­ing to inter­na­tion­al stu­dents in the university’s Glob­al Path­ways depart­ment and is a sup­port­er of the union effort. There isn’t much direct com­mu­ni­ca­tion between admin­is­tra­tors and part-time work­ers. They offer us a con­tract, and we can either sign it or not.”

Mach­son-Carter has anoth­er part-time job at UMass Boston, where adjuncts are union­ized, that sup­ple­ments her income and pro­vides health insur­ance. But she says that for many of her co-work­ers, the issue of a union is a qual­i­ty of life issue.” Adjuncts are typ­i­cal­ly paid by the course, and the aver­age rate is $2,900, accord­ing to crowd-sourced fig­ures from the web­site the Adjunct Project. This amounts to an aver­age hourly wage of $8.90 an hour, with 4 in 5 adjuncts earn­ing less than $20,000 annu­al­ly. Most lack access to health insur­ance. At North­east­ern, rates per course range from $2,200 for soci­ol­o­gy cours­es to $11,250 for com­put­er sci­ences cours­es, accord­ing to the crowd-sourced data.

Such salaries have become the rule rather than the excep­tion, with America’s non-tenure-track fac­ul­ty now mak­ing up near­ly two-thirds of the teach­ing work­force in high­er edu­ca­tion. SEIU, which cur­rent­ly rep­re­sents 15,000 adjuncts nation­wide, is inten­si­fy­ing its efforts to union­ize them, as are a hand­ful of oth­er non-aca­d­e­m­ic unions.

As I’ve report­ed pre­vi­ous­ly, labor’s emerg­ing focus on con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty sug­gests promis­ing new direc­tions for orga­niz­ing pre­car­i­ous work­ers. Inspired by suc­cess­es in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., where SEIU Local 500 now rep­re­sents a major­i­ty of part-time fac­ul­ty across the metro region, the union has launched cam­paigns in Boston and Los Ange­les with the even­tu­al goal of cre­at­ing city­wide bar­gain­ing com­mit­tees that can rep­re­sent part-time fac­ul­ty who jug­gle mul­ti­ple jobs on mul­ti­ple cam­pus­es. These efforts, as well as a sim­i­lar cam­paign by the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers in Pitts­burgh, are mod­eled in part off of the metro strat­e­gy” out­lined by labor edu­ca­tor and con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty activist Joe Berry in his book Reclaim­ing the Ivory Tow­er. Berry argues that con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty must orga­nize indus­try-wide to change their own work­ing con­di­tions and com­bat the cor­po­ra­ti­za­tion of the university.

While many adjuncts are cur­rent­ly rep­re­sent­ed by one of three nation­al aca­d­e­m­ic unions, non-aca­d­e­m­ic unions like SEIU and USW are focus­ing their efforts on pri­vate col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, where part-time fac­ul­ty are for the most part unor­ga­nized at present. Giv­en that there are also sub­stan­tial legal bar­ri­ers to col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing by full-time fac­ul­ty and grad­u­ate stu­dent work­ers at pri­vate schools, suc­cess­ful cam­paigns to union­ize adjuncts would break new ground.

But the union avoid­ance” indus­try, on which Jack­son Lewis lit­er­al­ly wrote the book, has excelled at frus­trat­ing labor’s efforts to make inroads into unor­ga­nized indus­tries. For exam­ple, the firm has helped block efforts by the Unit­ed Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers to increase union­iza­tion in New York City char­ter schools, accord­ing to the union.

One of the ways that Jack­son Lewis recruits new clients, notes Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor John Logan, is through sem­i­nars stress­ing that mil­i­tant orga­niz­ing unions’ such as SEIU are tar­get­ing firms in hith­er to union-free sec­tors of the econ­o­my.” In These Times sent an under­cov­er reporter to one such sem­i­nar held by Jack­son Lewis in 2007.

This isn’t the first time that a uni­ver­si­ty has retained a union-bust­ing law firm. Reached by e‑mail, New York Uni­ver­si­ty (NYU) pro­fes­sor of social and cul­tur­al analy­sis Andrew Ross notes that the NYU admin­is­tra­tion retained both Jack­son Lewis and Proskauer Rose dur­ing a pro­tract­ed fight with its Grad­u­ate Stu­dent Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee (GSOC), which lost recog­ni­tion after its con­tract expired in 2005.

Under the direct guid­ance of these legal con­sul­tants, the NYU admin­is­tra­tion fol­lowed each page from the union-bust­ing play­book,” writes Ross, who is also a co-edi­tor of the anthol­o­gy The Uni­ver­si­ty Against Itself: the NYU Strike and the Future of Aca­d­e­m­ic Labor.

In 2000, GSOC nego­ti­at­ed the first-ever con­tract between grad­u­ate employ­ees and a pri­vate uni­ver­si­ty. But a 2004 rul­ing by the Bush-era Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board reversed an ear­li­er deci­sion and denied grad­u­ate stu­dents union recog­ni­tion under the log­ic that they are stu­dents, rather than employ­ees. As Josh Eidel­son report­ed, noth­ing in the NLRB rul­ing pre­vent­ed NYU from con­tin­u­ing to nego­ti­ate with the union, but the school decid­ed to with­draw recog­ni­tion. The uni­ver­si­ty report­ed­ly retained Jack­son Lewis when grad­u­ate stu­dents con­tin­ued to agi­tate for renewed nego­ti­a­tions after the con­tract expired in 2005. A bit­ter strike in 2006, dur­ing which 20 strik­ers were fired, end­ed with­out a contract.

Who knows how many mil­lions of dol­lars have been lav­ished on these firms, sim­ply to pre­vent grad­u­ate employ­ee unions from obtain­ing a foothold in the pri­vate sec­tor?” asks Ross.

Recent orga­niz­ing by con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty has been met with sim­i­lar tac­tics. A fight for union recog­ni­tion by adjuncts at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty, which they won in Feb­ru­ary 2012, drew the sup­port of stu­dents who accused the uni­ver­si­ty of union-bust­ing, and inspired a new spin on a pop­u­lar pick­et-line chant: What’s dis­gust­ing? Union-bust­ing! What’s out­ra­geous? Adjunct wages!”

When an insti­tu­tion decides to spend tuition mon­ey on anti-union activ­i­ty they often con­tra­dict their own stat­ed val­ues on free asso­ci­a­tion and work­ers rights — some­thing which stu­dents, who are pay­ing enor­mous tuition bills, don’t take kind­ly to,” writes Anne McLeer, direc­tor of high­er edu­ca­tion and research for SEIU Local 500 in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to In These Times via e‑mail. Plus, they could use that mon­ey to bet­ter com­pen­sate adjuncts.” She says that where D.C.-area adjuncts have won unions, insti­tu­tions have adopt­ed a more col­lab­o­ra­tive posture.

Mean­while, Duquesne Uni­ver­si­ty in Pitts­burgh is seek­ing to void a vote by its adjuncts to form a union under the ratio­nale that the university’s affil­i­a­tion with a Roman Catholic order should exempt it from the juris­dic­tion of the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board. As Mark Oppen­heimer, report­ing for the New York Times, put it: Catholic moral the­olo­gians say Catholics have a spe­cial duty to rec­og­nize unions — and Catholic admin­is­tra­tors say their uni­ver­si­ty has a spe­cial right not to.”

Adjuncts, who typ­i­cal­ly work on a con­tract basis, are vul­ner­a­ble to retal­i­a­tion by uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tions. But Mach­son-Carter is hope­ful that heavy-hand­ed tac­tics by the uni­ver­si­ty will gal­va­nize, rather than chill, orga­niz­ing efforts. For a lot of peo­ple, this was the thing that real­ly fired them up,” she says of the provost’s let­ter and the university’s report­ed con­sul­ta­tions with Jack­son Lewis. The fact that instead of putting mon­ey into qual­i­ty teach­ing or pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment, they’re spend­ing it on a law firm … makes us more deter­mined to have a voice in what’s hap­pen­ing at the school in the future.”

Rebec­ca Burns is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive reporter whose work has appeared in The Baf­fler, the Chica­go Read­er, The Inter­cept and oth­er out­lets. She is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rejburns.
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