At Wash. U. and Webster, a Fight to Unionize Adjunct Professors -- With Different Results

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Elizabeth Sausele - PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
  • Photo by Kelly Glueck
  • Elizabeth Sausele

"I have to work at Trader Joe's to afford to teach at Webster," says Elizabeth Sausele. Sausele, 50, has a master's in divinity and a doctorate in education with an emphasis in intercultural studies. She worked on her dissertation in Rwanda, studying adolescent trauma in the wake of war and genocide. For the last six years, she's taught at Webster University's Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies, part of the College of Arts and Sciences at the private, non-profit university in Webster Groves. Currently, she teaches two classes a semester. It doesn't pay the bills. "Trader Joe's pays me more to stock bananas than Webster pays me to teach," she muses.

She quit Webster's academic subcomittee for the Human Rights Program for just that reason. "I can't afford to go to meetings for free anymore," she states flatly. In fact, thanks to her four-day-a-week job at Trader Joe's, she couldn't attend many meetings of her fellow adjunct professors as they contemplated unionizing.

She even missed the Webster adjunct faculty vote at the National Labor Relations Board on May 11, though she would have liked to have been there. She was too busy stocking bananas.

In recent years, American universities, both public and private, have become the Walmart of education. Anti-union CEOs from the likes of Peabody Energy and Emerson Electric sit on their board of trustees; their presidents and chancellors in turn sit on the CEO's corporate boards. Yet universities pay the people doing most of the work — in this case, the actual teachers — non-livable wages.

Even as administrators' salaries have grown exponentially, so too has the percentage of college-level instructors who are part-time adjuncts. In 1975, 43 percent of U.S. college instructors were adjuncts or contingent workers, according to the American Association of University Professors. By 2011, that figure had climbed to 70 percent.

If you have attended college this century, chances are many of your professors were living in poverty. Adjuncts are the lowest wage earners in universities, making less than janitors and food service workers. The median pay per course for an adjunct in the U.S. is $2,700, according to the AAUP.

So it's not surprising that the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, a project that analyzes census data, found that 31 percent of part-time faculty live near or below the poverty line. A recent report from UC Berkeley suggests that 25 percent of all U.S. adjunct professors receive public assistance such as Medicaid or food stamps, costing taxpayers $468 million.

In contrast, university presidents, chancellors and provosts have never done better. The median compensation for a public university president, according to Forbes, is $478,896. The median compensation for a private university chancellor is $627,750 — and numbers soar much higher at some schools. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Rensselaer Polytechnic institute paid its president $7.1 million in 2012.

University adjunct faculty are now attempting to unionize across the country, some more successfully than others. It's part of a national push by the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, which has become a powerhouse by organizing workers far outside labor's traditional manufacturing bases — healthcare staffers, janitors, civil servants.

For the last three years, SEIU's Adjunct Action campaign has crusaded for part-time university instructors in cities from Boston to Los Angeles, an effort that continues to gather steam. Adjuncts at universities including Tufts, Northeastern, Georgetown, American University, Boston University and Lesley universities have successfully unionized through the Adjunct Action campaign. SEIU's most recently negotiated contract, at Tufts, guarantees that an adjunct must make at least $7,300 per course by September 2016. The contract also provides for two- and three-year contracts instead of the usual semester-to-semester assignments.

Some of the union's most ferocious battles have taken place right here in St. Louis — including at Washington University, where adjuncts voted in January to join SEIU by a vote of 138 to 111.

One of those "yes" votes came from Chris Boehm. Since 2011, Boehm has taught as an adjunct in Wash. U.'s English department, where he received his doctoral degree.

(And, in the interest of full disclosure, another came from me. I currently teach creative writing at Washington University and have also taught writing and literature at St. Louis Community College, the University of Missouri-St. Louis and St. Louis College of Pharmacy, sometimes at all four places in one semester in order to pay the bills.)

"Collective action is the only way to counteract systemic exploitation," says Boehm, "and I don't know how to phrase what is happening to adjuncts better than systemic exploitation."

The Wash. U. vote came after almost a year of organizing, planning, knocking on doors, emails, rallies and meetings. Boehm plays blistering guitar in a swamp rock band and boasts a backwoods chin beard to match, but he speaks like a tactician as well as an impassioned organizer.

"When only 25 to 30 percent of the teaching labor on college campuses is full-time/tenure track, then not being able to nail down a full-time job has less to do with merit, and more to do with conditions manufactured by administrations so that they can exploit a cheap pool of labor," he says.

After the Washington University campaign, Boehm took a part-time job with SEIU organizing on other campuses: "They needed part-time help, and, being an adjunct, I needed more part-time work to make ends meet."

Boehm's new job put him on the frontlines of a campaign that ended up being even harder fought — the fight to unionize adjuncts at neighboring Webster University.

Next: Inside the Webster campaign

Webster University - PHOTO BY PATRICK GIBLIN
  • Photo by Patrick Giblin
  • Webster University

Both Wash. U. and Webster are private, not-for-profit and located in leafy suburbs west of St. Louis. But that's where the similarities end.

Tax returns show Washington University generated a $181 million profit in the 2012 fiscal year and $221 million in 2011. Webster, however, has struggled with its budget.

Last fall, Webster University's own The Journal reported that the school was facing a shortfall in its operating budget of $12.2 million. It planned to close three of its campuses.

In an effort to make itself a "truly global university," Webster has sought to put campuses in every country of the world. Unfortunately, this model of franchising has left some schools with more staff and administration than actual students. Webster is a mile wide and an inch deep.

Franchising has had other bad repercussions for the university. Many of its schools have poor academic results at best, and there have been problems with financial aid on the London campus where the U.S. Department of Education required Webster to repay $95,464 in what was determined to be ineligible student aid.

The Thailand campus has probably been most disastrous. According to insidehighered.com, Webster students studying in Thailand have made wide-ranging allegations: "concerns about issues of academic rigor, student health and safety, student services, the condition of physical facilities, faculty and staff turnover, and reported fears of retribution against those who dare to challenge the administration."

Through its spokeswoman, Jennifer Starkey, Webster declined all comment for this story.

The university has become increasingly reliant on adjuncts. According to collegefactual.com, Webster's use of full-time instructors ranks among the nation's lowest: Only 13 percent of its instructors teach full-time. That's significantly lower than the nationwide average of 51 percent.

Those adjuncts are paid $3,500 per class. There is no health insurance, no 401k, no sick leave. Adjunct professors don't even have a guarantee — or often any idea — of what classes, if any, they may teach the following semester.

SEIU argued that it could help change that. Some Webster adjuncts reported that the union suggested teachers could make as much as $15,000 per class — although Boehm says that wasn't a promise so much as an aspirational goal.

What the SEIU could promise, if instructors voted to unionize, was the power of collective bargaining and the opportunity to negotiate a contract.

Ann Haubrich teaches cultural policy for the Arts Management in Leadership master's program at Webster. She was on the fence for several months about unionizing because of past family experiences with unions, but after some soul-searching, she decided to support SEIU's effort.

Haubrich wonders about the ethics of Webster's business practice. "Ultimately, you think about the Loreto nuns who started Webster and their social-justice advocacy — what would they think about 80 percent adjuncts making unfair wages?"

These days, Webster administrators live much differently than the women in religious orders who founded the college — and much differently than its more than 500 adjuncts. President Elizabeth Stroble earned $500,174 last fiscal year, including a $75,000 bonus. In 2011, Webster also purchased Stroble a $935,000 home.

Like most universities, Webster is bloated with administration. Like bureaucratic Russian dolls, even the president's administrative assistant has an administrative assistant. Webster Provost Julian Schuster made $357,111, including a $45,000 bonus. Like Stroble, Schuster received a new car.

Many Webster faculty, staff and students have wondered if top Webster administrators should be receiving bonuses when the university is facing such large budget issues — or when 80 percent of its faculty receives nowhere near a living wage.

"If Webster had to pay their employees proportional to what full-time professors make, they would probably have to fold," says Webster adjunct philosophy professor Steve Findley. "Or at least make some big changes."

I first met Findley at Foundation Grounds in Maplewood, where he lives. We sat down and talked over coffee — adjunct to adjunct.

The son of a United Methodist minster, Findley was originally a pre-med and a chemistry major at Rice University, but the "big questions" got him hooked on philosophy.

"I applied to both medical school and a philosophy program and got into both," Findley says, "and I picked philosophy. Not the most genius move I ever made." With a doctoral degree earned from Boston College in 1996, Findley has taught philosophy around the country. Since 2002, he's been an adjunct philosophy professor at Webster.

The $3,500 he makes per course at Webster is above the national average, as he knows well. At the University of Southern Indiana he made a little over $2,000 per class of 60. That's a lot of philosophy papers to grade. Including class prep, office hours, and invariable out-of-class-and-office student meetings, the math worked out to about a nickel a paper.

Findley's wife is an associate professor of French at Saint Louis University, which does a lot to pay the bills. Chris Boehm's wife is an accountant at Turk & Associates. Adjuncts without spouses need to work many other places in order to survive — and many receive federal assistance.

Sausele, for example, would have been eligible for benefits at Trader Joe's, but after the Affordable Health Care Act passed, the grocery chain began requiring workers to put in 30 hours a week instead of 20 to qualify for health care.

Sausele now gets her insurance through Obamacare. When we spoke, she had just returned from an urgent-care visit — treating a dog bite that required stitches and later become infected. Because her insurance is a limited plan, she'll still have to pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket.

Next: The Webster vote

Steve Findley - PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
  • Photo by Kelly Glueck
  • Steve Findley

Steve Findley signed his union registration card and went to the first organizing committee meeting in January 2014. He was one of its first members and says he never feared repercussion.

"Getting fired from an exploitative job is not the worst thing that could happen!" he laughs. "And the full-time faculty at Webster were pretty supportive of the unionizing effort, I think, as were many department chairs."

Already in a precarious financial situation, Webster had much to lose if its adjuncts unionized, which is likely a big reason the university chose a much different path than Washington University. Wash. U. agreed to stay neutral during the union drive. Webster did not.

Both schools hired J. P. Hasman, a lawyer who works for Armstrong Teasdale and specializes in "union avoidance" campaigns. And though not all of Washington University's informative letters to faculty from the provost seemed completely neutral, Boehm says that Webster was far more aggressively anti-union: "They fought hard, and they fought dirty."

In informational meetings, Boehm claims, Webster "perpetuated misinformation about dues, the negotiation process and how the union would change relationships between professors, administration and students." These meetings were moderated by Jason Greer, a former National Labor Relations Board agent who now specializes in union avoidance and stopping union drives.

At the meetings, Boehm says, adjunct faculty were told that if they unionized they would no longer be able to talk with administrators, and that the administration would only be able to communicate through the SEIU. The union, it intimated, would make all their decisions and become a wedge between the parties.

Another key difference between the two organizing efforts? Their business schools.

To determine who can vote to unionize, the NLRB looks for a "community of interest," a legal definition for who will be included in a potential bargaining unit. At Wash. U., the business school was not included in that community. But at Webster, the business school was.

According to a spokeswoman for the NRLB, the vote at Webster was part of a "stipulated election," with an agreement between union organizers and university administration determining when the vote would be held and who would get to participate, among other things. In its stipulations, SEIU agreed to include all Webster adjuncts, including those who teach at its business school.

In hindsight, that may not have been the best strategy.

According to Findley, Webster's Walker School of Business and Technology has the most adjuncts, "and they were actively opposed." Webster calls its business school adjuncts "professional practitioners" — teachers who already have well-paying jobs and want to "give back." Observes Findley, "Their charity keeps the adjuncts in arts and sciences living in poverty."

Jeff Stockton, who has taught business classes in Washington University's University College, voted against unionizing that campus. He is also on the roster as an adjunct at Webster, though he "hasn't accepted offers for a year or two." Outspoken in his "no" vote at Washington University, he was also vocal in the "no" campaign at Webster.

He places blame for the failed Webster campaign entirely on SEIU, for whom he spares no vitriol.

"I'm not against unionizing. I'm not against collective bargaining at all," Stockton insists. "I'm against SEIU. SEIU practices the lowest forms of union behavior, most of which are anachronistic for the 21st century, and certainly out of synch with higher education at a top-tier university."

As one example, Stockton claims, "The local leadership had not taken the time to even learn that Wash. U. was not a Catholic school."

(Boehm denies that, calling it "ridiculous." "One of the things that makes Washington University particularly appealing for SEIU," Boehm says, "is the school doesn't have some of the issues that surround religious institutions when it comes to unionization.")

Stockton is also disdainful of SEIU's communications.

"They're incompetent in maintaining a website that you, as an educator and as a faculty member at Wash. U., could be proud of," he says via email. "Communications that come from or are represented by the SEIU are typically coarse, poorly worded, embarrassingly peppered with typos, misspellings and wrong word choices."

Instead of getting to know the workers they now represent at Wash. U., Stockton complains, the organizers used the same tactics they've employed to organize hotel workers.

"They do not understand the relative independence of thought and self-direction that most adjuncts at Wash. U. (and Webster) bring to their jobs at a university. They certainly do not understand, or care to understand or appreciate, the mostly collaborative and collegial environment that we want and work to create and maintain," he continues. "It is in the nature and function of the SEIU to create discord between adjuncts and unrepresented faculty and staff, and even between adjuncts who wish to join the SEIU as members and those who do not."

Stockton concludes, "I encourage you, if you're genuinely interested in the truth, to stop drinking the SEIU Kool-Aid, and start doing your own exploration and due diligence."

I also contacted Jason Greer to talk about his work for Webster. When we spoke on the phone, he told me he had worked as an NLRB agent for three years and had helped with the Dean's Forums at Webster. Then Greer told me there was a phone clarity issue, and he would call back in an hour when he had better reception.

He never called back and didn't respond to any subsequent requests to reconnect.

On May 11, while Elizabeth Sausele tended to the Trader Joe's produce section, federal workers counted ballots cast by Webster University's adjuncts.

At 4 p.m., Steve Findley sat in the hearing room of the National Labor Relations Board. For two hours he had intently watched the final vote count, keeping score himself on a yellow legal pad.

Located in the Robert A. Young Federal Building on Spruce Street and Tucker Boulevard, the hearing room looks like a cross between traffic court and a makeshift church, with a wooden gate and railing to partition witnesses and onlookers from the attorneys and federal employees. Witnesses from SEIU, Webster and Washington universites sat in wooden pews as federal employees opened signed envelopes, confirmed or contested their eligibility, and counted votes. Instead of a stained-glass window or altar, the National Labor Relations Board seal, with its eagle and shield emblem, hung at the front of the room flanked by the American and Missouri state flags.

As Findley sat on his wooden pew, he could soon tell which way the vote was tilting.

The final vote: 212 for unionizing and 268 against.

"I was surprised," he says later. "Frankly, I thought if we were going to lose, it would have been closer."

Not everyone was surprised. Sausele, for one, didn't feel SEIU's goals were realistic.

"SEIU's campaign of $15,000 per class is a pipe dream," she says. "Where's that money going to come from? It's an unrealistic jump to go there from where we are now."

But she's also disappointed that she'll be supporting her passion as if it were a hobby. "As retail jobs, you can't get any better than Trader Joe's," she says, without bitterness. "But it's still retail."

Washington University - PHOTO BY JONATHAN HEISLER
  • Photo by Jonathan Heisler
  • Washington University

At Washington University, the administration and the newly formed adjunct-bargaining committee are currently negotiating a contract. The first bargaining session was April 23, with the union bringing twelve representatives and the university bringing nine.

I attended the first bargaining meeting as an adjunct, and both parties agreed not discuss specific information from that and future meetings with the press. I can say that the first meeting went cordially. Both sides agreed to the bargaining ground rules within two and half hours.

Currently, the two sides are bargaining over non-financial articles in the contract — academic freedom, recognition of which schools are actually included in the bargaining unit and others. It will be a long process.

Chris Boehm seems hopeful about taking the fight to the next college or university — Saint Louis University, St. Louis Community College? SEIU hasn't decided yet. At least, it hasn't made its decision public. The union could also return to Webster next year.

Ironically, Washington University and Webster University already offer the best adjunct pay rates in the St. Louis area, at $4,200 and $3,500 per class respectively. Jefferson College is the worst at $1,900. Fontbonne isn't much better at $2,500. Yet the job market is so bad that many people with graduate degrees are willing to work for substandard wages.

Findley seems discouraged. The system, he says, just isn't sustainable. "The only hope I see is if state legislators get together and decide to make higher education affordable. It's more and more expensive and out of reach for most people in Missouri."

As for Elizabeth Sausele, she's taking joy in her work, even if she has to keep plugging away at Trader Joe's to pay for it.

"I teach because I love teaching," she says. "Even if one student becomes aware of the broader world, I'm thrilled. I don't fit into a university box or career track because I love teaching, not research or publishing. I'm not looking for a tenure-track spot. I'm looking for job security, a contract and, over time, a raise that honors what I do."

Webster adjuncts will need to wait another year before they can vote on union representation again. The results of other union votes in town may determine whether it will be a long year or a short one.

Richard Newman's most recent poetry collection is All the Wasted Beauty of the World (Able Muse Press, 2014). He has served as editor of River Styx for twenty years and currently teaches creative writing as an adjunct at Washington University.

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