During the academic year, Naomi Winterfalcon works as an adjunct professor at Champlain College — a post she's held for the last eight years.
During the summer, she said, she relies on food stamps to get by.
"When I graduated with a master's, I really thought it would be life-changing and that I would have a decent income and a marketable skill," said Winterfalcon, who got her advanced degree in her early fifties. Now 59, she went on, "I certainly have a marketable skill, but I don’t have a decent income and I certainly don't have benefits." She gets paid roughly $3,500 for each of three humanities courses she teaches per semester. She used to get health care through her spouse, but her spouse recently lost her job; now both are on Medicaid.
Tapping into that type of frustration, the Service Employees International Union is attempting to organizing adjuncts at Champlain, Burlington and St. Michael's colleges. This Friday, it filed a petition with the U.S. Labor Relations Board to request union elections at Champlain and Burlington colleges, where officials got the required 30 percent of employee signatures. SEIU plans to do the same at St. Michael's.
Many colleges have become increasingly dependent on part-time professors in recent decades — and it's become increasingly common for part-time professors, who often lack a stable salary and benefits, to seek better work arrangements by joining a union. Seven Days associate editor Margot Harrison wrote about the plight of adjunct instructors in 2010.
SEIU has successfully organized adjuncts at a number of colleges across the the country through a campaign called "Adjunct Action." According to the campaign website, the union has more than 21,000 adjuncts within its ranks. In May, part-time faculty at Northeastern University voted to form a union under SEIU. In recent years, adjuncts at Tufts University and several D.C.-based schools including American University and Georgetown University have done the same.
In Vermont, according to Adjunct Action, more than 40 percent of professors at private, non-profit colleges are part-time, and 72 percent of all faculty aren't on the tenure track.
In 2003, University of Vermont faculty — and adjuncts — joined the United Academics union, which is not affiliated with SEIU.
Both of the Queen City's private colleges rely heavily on adjuncts, and the organizing efforts at both appear to have gained momentum quickly. Three weeks ago, Winterfalcon said she wasn't even aware of a union drive. Reached by phone Friday, spokespeople at Burlington and Champlain colleges said they didn't know that SEIU had already requested union elections.
At Champlain College, where roughly 250 adjuncts teach about half of the courses offered each semester, the newly installed president Don Laackman said the model has worked well for the school. "We have history of having a professional focus at Champlain College, and we have benefited from adjunct faculty who have deep industry experience teaching our students."
SEIU "has communicated nothing regarding their efforts" to the administration, according to Laackman, who said he first found out that organizers were approaching professors on campus and at their homes three or four weeks ago. Asked whether he supported or opposed the effort, Laackman responded, "I have experience with union faculty in my previous job, and my observation is that those unions benefit union leadership most of all. If the adjuncts here are going to hold an election, I hope that it is an open and transparent election where all facts are considered."
Winterfalcon is hoping that joining a union will help her secure a more permanent contract. She currently signs a new one each semester, and if the college only has two courses for her to teach, her salary plummets from $18,000 to $12,000. Winterfalcon would also welcome benefits and a different evaluation system that doesn't rely so heavily on student feedback.
Three months into the job, Laackman said he hadn't heard complaints about pay from adjunct professors, but he's willing to listen. "My provost and I are very interested in engaging all faculty in discussions about what's going to help them and help our students most, and I would say everything would be on the table in those discussions."