Higher Education Law Report
Adjuncts, Governance and Union Organizing
November 27, 2013
By: John Gaal
In the private sector, most full-time (tenured/tenure track) faculty are currently considered “managerial” under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), making them ineligible for the protections of the NLRA, including the right to organize and bargain collectively. (Managers and supervisors are not considered “employees” under the NLRA.) Managerial status does not preclude an institution from voluntarily recognizing a faculty union, but it does prevent faculty from compelling a unionization vote under the NLRA. At the risk of oversimplifying, what makes most private sector full-time faculty managerial is their shared governance role. Adjuncts, or contingency faculty, on the other hand are often not included in the shared governance model. The Chronicle recently reported on a study presented at this year’s Association for the Study of Higher Education (“ASHE”) annual conference on adjuncts and shared governance. According to The Chronicle’s report, the Study examined more than 100 research universities in an attempt to quantify adjuncts’ involvement in governance. The Study found that at about two-thirds of the institutions studied, faculty senates were off-limits to adjunct instructors who had less than half the workload of a full-time faculty member. The remaining one-third of institutions were about evenly split between those whose faculty senates were more open to adjuncts and those whose senates were more restrictive in terms of access for adjuncts. Interestingly, these results are inconsistent with AAUP’s view, reflected in a report issued in late 2012 which recommended that eligibility for voting or holding office in shared-governance bodies should be the same for all faculty, regardless of their full-time or part time status. Because adjuncts, who along with others who constitute the “contingent” faculty that now comprise perhaps as much as 75% of higher education teaching ranks, do not participate in shared governance, they generally are not considered managerial under the NLRA. As a result, they are entitled to compel unionization through the National Labor Relations Board’s election procedures. And over the past several years, adjuncts at a number of institutions have actively pursued this path, often with a fair degree of success. For example, when adjuncts at Georgetown University voted to unionize this past May with SEIU Local 500, it purportedly raised the number of adjuncts in the District of Columbia organized by Local 500 to more than 75% (including adjuncts at previously organized American University, George Washington University, and public Montgomery College) . The potential long term impact of achieving this level of “density” success across all of D.C. is apparent. More recently, a similar "regional" approach was started by SEIU in Boston. Operating under the name Adjuncts Action, adjuncts at Tufts University voted to unionize this past September, and unionization efforts are underway at Northeastern University and Lesley University. This effort suffered a setback in late October when adjunct faculty at Bentley University in Boston voted 100-98 against unionization. (Objections to the election outcome have been filed and are pending.) Despite this setback, the trend appears clear and institutions should expect efforts to organize adjunct faculty will continue, and likely expand, across the country. While there are a number of factors that undoubtedly contribute to adjuncts’ interest in organizing, and economic factors are often prominently noted, in reality experience suggests that it may often be non-economic factors that ultimately drive the outcome. As with any other employee group, non-economic factors are often as important as economic factors when it comes to unionization. In this context, the more critical question may be how are adjuncts treated on their campuses? Are they welcomed and received by the rest of the campus community as important contributors to the overall mission, or not? Ironically, it can often be their relationship with their full-time colleagues that creates a tension and feeling of disrespect (or at least insufficient respect) which is a contributing factor in unionization decisions. In other words, an interest in securing an institutional voice like their full-time colleagues may drive the outcome as much as anything else. As noted, at most institutions examined in the ASHE Study, adjunct involvement in shared governance is limited and that voice does not exist. Yet, at least one faculty study has concluded that involvement in meaningful shared governance may be a more important indicator of faculty satisfaction than economic factors. There is little reason to think this conclusion is not as relevant for contingent faculty as it is for full-time faculty. The moral? Institutions should consider promoting the involvement of their adjuncts in governance matters. Not only may it result in more satisfied adjuncts, but it might also impact their status as possibly "managerial" members of the institution.