Frustrated by the refusal of Washington University to budge on a pay increase, adjunct instructors say they may walk out of class on Thursday – and some students will join them in solidarity.
Negotiations have been going on for months between the university and part-time teachers, who voted more than a year ago to unionize. So far, 19 sessions have been held with more than a dozen tentative agreements reached, primarily on non-economic issues, such as office space where instructors can meet with students and on more stability in hiring and scheduling. The university also has offered to pay a cancellation fee when an instructor’s course is canceled on short notice.
More talks are scheduled this week in advance of the possible strike and rally on campus. Michael O’Bryan, a member of the negotiating team, says Washington U. has dug in its heels on the basic issue of pay.
“The university has essentially made an offer that codifies the status quo,” said O’Bryan, who teaches English. “Frankly, we find that that’s not acceptable. It’s not a livable wage. They can do better. They have the financial resources to do better. And we think that any just argument made on principles shows that they can do better.”
Currently, O’Bryan said, adjuncts average about $4,500 per class per semester. So someone who teaches between three and four classes at a time, which he said the university considers a full-time load, makes between $27,000 and $36,000 a year.
For teachers who often have a doctorate degree and experience in their field, he said, that salary isn’t enough, particularly when compared with what full-time teachers in comparable fields are paid.
“What we’re arguing is that if you’re going to be teaching 50 to 75 percent of the time,” O’Bryan said, “you should make 50 to 75 percent of what a full-time wage should be, according to our qualifications and contributions to the university.
“Their counter argument is that they pay relatively well according to the region, and essentially they don’t have to pay any higher than that. We’ve offered a number of different arguments on the basis of various market comparisons that find that Washington U. isn’t paying commensurately to schools of its rank and its reputation.”
University spokeswoman Jill Friedman said that the comparisons that adjuncts make between the salaries of full-time professors and part-timers are not really valid, because of research and administrative responsibilities that full-timers have.
“The premise is entirely wrong,” she said. “With a part-time instructor, we pay on a per-course basis, and at the negotiating table, that is really what we have focused on.
“On the one hand, you have a part-time faculty member with certain expectations of what it is that he or she would do, day to day. To compare that to a member of the full-time faculty, with broader responsibilities and a full-time assignment, is just not appropriate.”
Comparing the salary of adjuncts to others on the university payroll, O’Bryan added:
“Adjuncts are paid so little at the minimum we’re being offered right now that a person who is teaching nearly full time at the university as an adjunct makes very little more than a low-wage worker on the campus custodial staff or food service. And we don’t have benefits.
“So there’s a lot of crossover between the groups, and if this movement continues in St. Louis and nationally, there will be more and more solidarity between these groups.”
The solidarity with others on the university payroll has led to support for the adjuncts on an upcoming day of solidarity, this coming Thursday, O’Bryan said. A rally is also scheduled for the campus library that day , as are other events in support of the Fight for $15 movement on behalf of fast-food workers.
Part of the push by the Service Employee International Union is that universities are copying the business model of fast-food franchises – to the extent that they are calling part-time teachers “McAdjuncts.”
O’Bryan said other financially related issues besides salary are also on the union’s agenda, everything from subsidized Metro passes that aren’t available to adjuncts to coverage by the Family and Medical Leave Act, which would protect adjuncts who may have to take time off for the birth of a child or to care for an ailing relative.
“As it stands right now,” he said, “if an adjunct disappears for one semester while we’re doing one of those things, they essentially lose all of their status at the university and may not be able to come back. So that’s an important thing to work out.”
Friedman said the university is committed to completing negotiations as quickly as possible. Asked whether anyone who takes part in any demonstration or walkout in support of the adjuncts would face any discipline, she said:
“As a university, we absolutely respect the right of any individual to express themselves in any way that they choose. In this case, we’re getting toward the end of a semester. We have students who are anxious about wrapping up their coursework and preparing for exams.
“We would hope that first and foremost, a priority is placed on making sure that we fulfill our responsibility to our students. But we certainly are not going to object or stand in the way of anyone who would like to express themselves in that way.”
O’Bryan said he hopes that negotiating sessions scheduled for this week in the days before the planned walkout yield enough movement that the demonstration can be called off.
“I am forever an optimist in many ways,” he added.
Did he expect that as a part-time English instructor, he would become so active in advocating for workers’ rights?
“I wrote my dissertation about labor activism,” O’Bryan said. “It’s something I believe, but I don’t know that when I started in graduate school, I believed I would wind up this heavily involved with a unionization fight for adjuncts at Washington University. It’s sort of funny where life takes you, I suppose. I sort of feel that I’m winding up in the place that I’ve been trying to be at for the past many years.”