By Nancy McCann
Soon after adjunct faculty members in the USF system got serious about forming a union, university administrators came out swinging.
A union seeking to represent adjuncts from USF Tampa, USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee submitted a petition to the state Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC) on April 20 for approval to hold a union election sometime in the months ahead.
On May 10, the Board of Trustees for the USF system filed a statement with PERC opposing the adjuncts’ petition, and six days later adjuncts associated with the St. Petersburg campus got a letter from Martin Tadlock, the regional vice chancellor of academic affairs at USFSP.
“The University is opposed to the unionization effort and will do everything legally permitted to make the case that a union is not in your best interest nor in the interest of any of the separately accredited institutions in the USF System,” wrote Tadlock.
“Our preference has always been, and continues to be, that we remain able to communicate directly with you rather than through an outside third party.”
Adjuncts in Sarasota-Manatee and Tampa got similar letters from administrators on their campuses.
Adjuncts, who make up about half the faculty at USFSP, are often characterized as part-time faculty who are not on the tenure track.
Their jobs are not guaranteed, they are paid much less than tenure-track professors, and they receive few or no benefits. Outside the classroom, they do not have all the responsibilities of fully employed professors. An adjunct’s primary responsibility is to teach.
“I love teaching because it gives me what my city job doesn’t,” said Richard Ferner, an adjunct who teaches criminology at USFSP and USF Tampa. “Thinking at a higher level, opening young minds, having open discussions – the way I see myself, I am the missing link between the classroom and where students will be after they graduate.”
Ferner, who works full time for St. Petersburg’s police department in information and technology services, is teaching one class this semester at USFSP on American law enforcement. He taught a graduate course on criminology theory at USF Tampa during the summer semester.
Ferner said his support for unionization is “not just about fair compensation,” but for “recognition of the role adjuncts play” at the university.
“A union is the only way for adjuncts to have a viable career” in teaching, he said. “I have seen so many leave because they can’t make ends meet, even though their primary love is teaching.”
In a June 1 statement submitted to PERC, the university disputed the adjuncts’ petition for a union election on several grounds.
It denied that it “employs any non-tenure track faculty ‘part-time,’” calling adjuncts “intermittent, temporary, or seasonal workers” who must be excluded from bargaining units because “they do not have a reasonable expectation of continued employment.”
It also contended that the adjuncts did not submit enough signatures to reach the 30 percent required to show there is enough interest to hold a union election.
In mid-June, Tadlock and his counterparts in Tampa and Sarasota-Manatee sent emails to adjuncts urging them not to sign union authorization cards.
Adjuncts like Jarad Fennell, who teaches classes at USF Tampa and the University of Tampa, disputed the university’s assertion that adjuncts are “intermittent” workers without the expectation of continuing employment.
“Although the message is not to get too comfortable here,” Fennell said, “adjuncts are heavily relied upon on a continuing basis.”
Teaching is Fennell’s full-time occupation. He currently teaches five classes at USF Tampa, including one online course, and two at the University of Tampa.
“I love my job, and I love my schools,” said Fennell. “I would like to be more involved in the life of the university.”
Fennell and Ferner testified about their duties and working conditions as adjuncts at a June 13 PERC hearing.
In asserting that the union did not submit enough signatures to hold an election, the university disputed the union’s figures.
The adjuncts reported a total of 600 employees as potential members of a bargaining unit on the date their petition was filed. But the university said the correct number should be 848, which would result in failure to reach the required percentage.
In a response to the university’s challenges, the adjuncts’ representative – SEIU Florida Public Services Union – said that the university’s list of employees contained “duplicated names, names of deceased persons,” employees from the professional schools never intended to be part of the bargaining unit, and adjuncts working before or after the proper time period for assessing a total number.
On July 28, PERC’s hearing officer agreed with the adjuncts, issuing an order saying adjuncts did obtain enough signatures to reach 30 percent.
In an interview with The Crow’s Nest last week, Tadlock said he could not comment on the university’s stance against an adjuncts’ union beyond what he wrote in his May and June messages to adjuncts.
“I believe adjuncts should be compensated fairly and appropriately with their level of engagement with the university,” he said. “I think everyone in the administration wants that.”
David Everingham, USFSP’s regional associate vice chancellor for business and finance, wrote in an Aug. 24 email to The Crow’s Nest that he is not aware of any studies or analyses exploring the potential budget impact of increasing pay and adding benefits for USFSP adjuncts.
“An increase in adjunct faculty pay was implemented in fall 2015 in both the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Education to align wages with the market,” he wrote. He did not elaborate.
The PERC hearing officer must issue a recommended order by Oct. 11 on the adjuncts’ petition to hold a union election. PERC members – a chair and two part-time commissioners – will make the final decision.
Nancy McCann, a graduate student in journalism and media studies, has taught as a graduate assistant and adjunct at USF Tampa and USFSP.