For more than a decade, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 500 has helped adjunct faculty and staff members at colleges and universities in the D.C. metropolitan area unionize and successfully negotiate pay raises, health benefits and employment protections.
In the latest chapter of this movement, SEIU Local 500 continues preparations to assist thousands of community college employees in Maryland as they embark on a similar mission.
Last year, SEIU Local 500, in conjunction with the Maryland State Education Association and AFSCME Council 67, compelled the passage of Maryland Senate Bill 746, which establishes collective bargaining rights for community college employees.
The bill, which went into effect on September 1, survived a veto by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R) last year.
Pia Morrison, president of SEIU Local 500, said Senate Bill 746’s passage, in addition to events at American University (AU) and Howard University (HU) over the last year, highlights a changing of the tide as it relates to the relationship between higher education institutions and their adjunct faculty and staff members.
“In the last 15 to 20 years, many universities have moved to using part-time adjunct faculty as their primary source of academic labor [because] they realized they can pay that group of workers significantly less, even though adjuncts have the same educational requirements,” said Morrison, now in her fourth year as SEIU Local 500 president.
“Their working conditions are abysmal and the amount of money they get paid per class is low,” Morrison said. “They still write recommendation letters and support struggling students. We support workers in talking to other workers about what it’s important for them to organize.”
Adjunct and non-tenure track faculty, along with graduate instructors, account for 75 percent of the U.S. academic workforce, according to Best Colleges, an online resource for prospective college students. These employees’ annual salaries average between $20,000 and $25,000 and most of them work at more than one academic institution to make ends meet.
The Work Continues
Today, SEIU Local 500 represents adjunct faculty members at Montgomery College, George Washington University, Georgetown University, Maryland Institute College of Art and Trinity Washington University among other local academic institutions.
This summer, HU President Wayne A.I. Frederick signed a collective bargaining agreement that SEIU Local 500 negotiated on behalf of HU faculty members. Across Rock Creek Park, at AU, adjunct faculty and staff members continue toward achieving a similar feat in the aftermath of a staff strike at the beginning of the academic year.
AU adjunct faculty members said the victory at HU further emboldened them to demand employee protections. For some of the adjunct faculty at HU, however, such celebrations have been cut short.
Last week, adjunct faculty members at HU organized, once again, after some of them reported not receiving their paychecks or the pay increases and back pay guaranteed in their collective bargaining agreement.
On September 7, some of the newly-unionized adjuncts converged on HU’s University Yard to express their gripes and encourage fellow union members to utilize the benefits of their membership.
“It’s about using what little powers we have through our union efforts to help,” said a non-tenure track HU lecturer who requested anonymity.
“It’s an illegal practice to not pay people. We’re asking our members to file grievances to let the union know that we’ve been paid late or not at all. The union could go to the district attorney. These are illegal, historic and systemic practices.”
In a statement, HU said neither the HU Office of Human Resources nor the Office of the Provost have received an influx of inquiries from faculty members about nonpayments.
AU Employees Offer Reflections
Meanwhile, adjunct faculty and staff at AU continue to celebrate the settlement of their contract.
The contract includes job security, an increase in the salary floor and an expansion of healthcare benefits. The staff strike during the latter part of August garnered the support of incoming freshmen who walked out of AU President Sylvia Matthews Burrell’s convocation address in support of picketing staff members.
For Sam Sadow, that turn of events further confirmed the potency of a movement he’s been part of since early 2019. Sadow, a visual resources coordinator in the AU art library, said more has to be done to protect employees and augment the student experience.
“I like my colleagues and working for the faculty but I recognized that American University was failing its staff on wages and affordable healthcare in ways that meant staff couldn’t stay,” said Sadow, a staff member of nearly six years.
“I wish this was a place where people could afford to stay with dignity,” he said. “This union and collective bargaining agreement is the vehicle in achieving that. I look forward to staying involved to build a vibrant staff community.”