Adjunct faculty members are taking collective action in record numbers. Over the past year, higher education has seen unionization campaigns at universities in major metropolitan areas, including at Tufts University, Bentley University, Lesley University, Northeastern University, Georgetown University, Whittier College, and Loyola Marymount University, to name a few.  What does this mean for higher education?

Traditionally, non-union adjunct faculty have been a source of greater flexibility and significant cost savings for universities facing tight budgets. Whereas a tenured professor may earn upwards of six figures, the median pay for an adjunct professor teaching one three-credit course is usually less than $5,000. And, so long as adjunct professors are limited to less than 30 work hours per week, they are not entitled to health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This only compounds the cost savings and further incentivizes universities forced to operate under shrinking budgets to retain more and more faculty on a contingent, part-time basis.

A successful unionization campaign could significantly chip away at this flexibility and cost-savings. The U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that, as of September 2013, the average combined wage and salary of unionized service workers in the U.S. (including educational services) was approximately 23% higher than it was for non-unionized service workers. Total compensation for unionized service workers was approximately 47% higher. These differentials do not even account for the other operating costs that would be necessitated by a union presence including training for managers, HR support, attorney fees, the costs of arbitrations and grievance procedures, and overall lost productivity.

So what is a university to do? First and foremost, be aware. A university is a more likely union target where adjunct faculty feel underpaid, that their issues are not being addressed and their grievances are falling on deaf ears, or where changes to working conditions (e.g., decreasing adjunct hours to avoid ACA health insurance obligations) are being implemented without any explanation. There are certain tell-tale signs of early union campaigning for which any university should be on the lookout:

  • Is union literature posted on campus (e.g., on bulletin boards, on tables at the student union or faculty lounge, on car windshields in the parking lot)?
  • Are certain adjunct faculty members suddenly much more vocal on behalf of their colleagues?
  • Are adjunct faculty members socializing more or congregating together more on campus?
  • Has the university seen an increase in adjunct faculty complaints about pay, benefits, teaching hours, or other terms and conditions of employment?
  • Have any adjunct faculty members recently sought adjunct employee lists or contact information?

Second, be prepared. If there is reason to believe that a union organizing campaign might be brewing, do not wait for the union to file an election petition. Get to know your rights and obligations and devise a labor action response plan immediately by contacting legal counsel.