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Adjunct faculty at Macalester, Hamline to hold unionization votes

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Eric Otremba
Eric Otremba, an adjunct professor of history at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., spoke at an adjunct faculty organizing rally, April 24, 2014.
Alex Friedrich / MPR News

Adjunct faculty at Macalester College and Hamline University will soon be voting on whether to organize.

At a rally Thursday on the Macalester campus, representatives from both colleges said they were filing their federal requests to hold formal votes — Macalester on Thursday and Hamline on Friday.

They said adjunct professors — generally part-time instructors without tenure — are a major part of the campus teaching force, and want a voice at work. Several described working long hours at multiple campuses with no job security, low pay and often no benefits.

"We literally can't make ends meet anymore," said Eric Otremba, an adjunct professor of history at Macalester. "So this is an opportunity to say, 'Hey, you can't continue to treat us like this. We're going to need more from you if you're going to continue to expect as much as you do with us.'"

A union official said the votes could take place in several months.

Adjunct instructors at the rally said many of their colleagues work 50 to 60 hours a week and earn $25,000 to $30,000 a year — often with no job security and few if any benefits. 

Many of them must combine part-time work from multiple campuses in the area to be able to support themselves, they said.

That cuts down on the time they can spend with students, they said — assuming they have a place to meet with them. Adjunct professors generally don't have offices of their own.

Junior Eli Liebman, an applied mathematics and statistics major from Massachusetts, was one of several Macalester students who said they value adjunct professors as much as tenured faculty.

"The difference is impossible to know in the classroom," he said.

Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison told the crowd of several dozen onlookers that he once taught a civil rights class as an adjunct faculty member at Macalester about 20 years ago.  

He said he supported the faculty's bid for unionization.

"What I'd say to the people who lead this great institution is: Don't take this thing personally. Don't. It's not meant that way," Ellison said. "It's just regular people saying, 'Man, I've got to afford some groceries. I've got to have a voice on my job. I've got to have something to say about what happens to me when I'm working. And is that too much to ask? I don't think it is."

Macalester Provost Kathleen Murray says she's neutral on the vote.

"I'd like to understand better what it is they actually want," she said. "This came as a complete surprise to us. We're a pretty small and close-knit place where we do anticipate that people might walk across the campus and have a conversation about something like this."

Macalester has about 121 adjunct faculty members who teach about a third of Macalester's courses, Murray said. One of the adjunct faculty members who spoke at the rally has had paid maternity leave from the college, and Murray said full-time adjunct faculty are eligible for paid sabbaticals.

"So they have quite extraordinary benefits in my mind."

Both groups said they have collected signatures from at least 30 percent of their members, the minimum required to request a formal vote. The request goes to the National Labor Relations Board.

Todd Ricker, an organizer with Service Employees International Union Local 284, said the union represents adjunct faculty at about half a dozen private colleges in the U.S. and there are about 20 private campuses that are organizing.

Service Employees International Union and Macalester officials say they know of no other private college in Minnesota with organized adjunct faculty.