A more perfect union

There’s an election underway, but it’s not the one you’ve heard about. My fellow adjunct professors at American University are voting on whether or not to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). For the last several weeks, I’ve been receiving emails from the union and from the university, each urging me to vote one way or the other. The union says I could see a pay increase, better office space and help out my fellow adjuncts who rely on this income to make ends meet. The university says other adjunct faculty, such as those at George Washington University and Montgomery College, saw an average 32% compensation increase, increased job security — “no more fear of 1 bad student evaluation” — and a “platform from which to address issues that matter.”

Meanwhile, the university says that no adjunct professor has ever been let go because of a single bad student evaluation. Moreover, pay for adjuncts has risen over the years and is competitive with other area institutions.

I was torn. On the one hand, I support unions. Members of my family belong to unions and have been actively involved with unions. They have improved the lives of millions of workers, brought us health care, the 40-hour week, safety standards and more.

On the other hand, I also know unions can slow things down and make life for workers and administration harder than necessary. Furthermore, American University has never been anything but generous and flexible with me. I have absolutely no complaints.

What to do?

I asked friends, family members and fellow adjuncts. I posed the question to Twitter. The responses I got ran the spectrum:

“Adjuncts have the potential to be abused and deserve a right to be represented, but don’t see how I benefit,” said one friend and fellow teacher.

Vote for it. Adjuncts are one step up from slaves,” said another friend.

Trying to help me frame the question was a friend who asked me, “What does it have to do with improving the classes and experience and instructional quality, and therefore the learning, of the students?”

But, another pointed out that “together, we can speak loudly to the University and make sure that we are all doing our job.”

Then there were those who seemed fundamentally opposed to unions. “I haven’t personally seen unions help anyone in my career experience except someone who should have been fired for incompetence, and I’ve actively seen them hurt their members by driving away a good source of income.”

There were also complaints about the “hard sell” of the union. “God knows I feel American University adjuncts are abused:  We work our butts off for a pittance without any benefits,” one fellow adjunct wrote. “But, I am concerned about the organizing tactics of SEIU.”

That concern was echoed by several other adjuncts, who said they supported unionization in theory, but maybe not with this union.

Meanwhile, I kept hearing from the university and SEIU. Both organizations supplied letters written by adjuncts in support of their respective views. My head was spinning.

Then I met with a friend and professor at AU. She was looking for help reorganizing a program that had grown outdated and needed to be refreshed. As we worked through the program, she pointed out the challenges she has in changing the program. Some changes had to be approved by academic committees, while others did not.

What if a union was added to this mix, I thought. How much harder would that make this already difficult process? And if this union was being so aggressive in organizing, how would they react to changing classes around?

Perhaps it would be fine. Perhaps we’d be better off. But, perhaps not.

We weren’t being asked to vote for what we believe in. We were being asked to make a change to the relationship we had with our university and our students. And we were being asked to do so without, in my opinion, a clear understanding of the consequences of such a change.

Would forming a union get us better pay? I suspect it might have garnered us small pay increases. But at what expense?

I voted no.

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