Above photo: At a Nov. 29 rally on the Tampa campus, adjuncts rebuked USF System President Judy Genshaft and the university for fighting their efforts to hold a union election to form a collective bargaining unit. Nancy McCann | The Crow’s Nest
By Nancy McCann
After years of struggling to be heard, adjunct faculty in the USF system have won the state’s approval for a union election.
But the university administration quickly vowed to continue opposing what it called a “one-size-fits-all contract” for adjunct professors.
Until the union election is held later this year, “we will communicate with you on a regular basis to make our case for why we do not believe an adjunct union would be in your best interests and the best interests of the university,” the St. Petersburg campus’ new academic chief, Olufunke Fontenot, said in an email to adjuncts on Friday.
Her message came three days after the state Public Employees Relations Commission denied the university administration’s objections in a Jan. 9 order.
PERC directed that “a secret ballot election” be held “as soon as practicable” for a bargaining unit that includes adjuncts working at USF’s Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee campuses.
The scheduling of an election could take 30 to 45 days, according to PERC staff.
It was a significant victory for leaders of the adjuncts, who have grumbled for years about the low pay, scant benefits and uncertainty that come with their jobs.
The adjuncts launched a union campaign under the name Faculty Forward in January 2017 and petitioned for a union election in April.
Their campaign comes amid a stirring of adjunct unrest around the country. In Florida, adjunct faculty at Hillsborough Community College and Broward College already have won the right to unionize.
USF system President Judy Genshaft declined an interview with The Crow’s Nest on the adjuncts’ union efforts, and USFSP’s interim regional chancellor, Martin Tadlock, referred questions about the upcoming election to Lara Wade, the USF system’s director of media relations and public affairs.
“The salaries of USF system adjunct faculty are intended to provide supplemental, not primary, income until a permanent position can be obtained,” Wade said in a written statement. “In many cases USF adjunct faculty members have full-time employment elsewhere, including in clinical and professional settings. These talented individuals with real-life experience bring a unique perspective to the classroom that our students may not be able to benefit from if a union is formed.”
Adjunct Jarad Fennell – who teaches full time – took issue with the administration’s statement and its characterization of adjuncts as “temporary” employees with “no continued expectation of employment” who are “appointed to their positions for the specific purpose of filling unexpected ‘holes’ in the teaching schedule.” That was the description submitted to PERC by university attorneys.
“Her (Wade’s) understanding of adjunct faculty does not connect in any meaningful way with the reality of being an adjunct,” Fennell said in an email to The Crow’s Nest. “It is the sentiment of a person set on running the university like a for-profit business, and not as an institution of higher learning.”
PERC rejected the university’s assertions that adjuncts do not expect continued employment and that they are used to fill “unexpected ‘holes’ in the teaching schedule.”
A “regular pattern of continuing employment” can indicate an “expectation of future employment” and the “record evidence demonstrates that the adjuncts are not one-time or sporadic hires,” the commission wrote.
Fennell is teaching six classes this semester – four composition classes at the USF Tampa campus and two advanced writing and research class at the University of Tampa. He is also a teaching assistant for a USF online class in modern American drama.
“You may get your health insurance from another source. You may earn a living wage from another job. Your adjunct position may be truly temporary, and the funds you draw from it may be supplemental,” wrote Fennell, when asked what he would say to fellow adjuncts.
“Those of us voting for the union have not only decided to pursue this form of instruction as our permanent vocation, we have also decided to fight for it as a viable profession at considerable personal cost. If you cannot stand with us, at the very least, please do not stand against us.”
In its order last Tuesday, PERC concluded that the university “cannot negate a group of public employees’ constitutional right to collectively bargain.”
PERC also denied the university’s claim that adjuncts should not be allowed to unionize because that would decrease its flexibility as a public employer.
“An employer’s flexibility and ability to make unilateral decisions … is always reduced once its employees choose to be represented by a bargaining agent,” wrote the commission. “That is the essence of collective bargaining.”
Adjuncts in the USF system are paid from $2,750 to $10,000 per course per semester, depending on the individual and subject area.
About half the faculty members at USFSP in 2016 were adjuncts. They taught 39 percent of all undergraduate student credit hours and 68 percent of all undergraduate course sections in 2015, according to numbers submitted to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Adjuncts taught 25 percent of the courses and credit hours in USFSP’s graduate programs in 2015.
The university has 15 days from Jan. 9 to deliver a list to the union with the names and addresses of all eligible voters in the bargaining unit — those “employed during the spring, summer, or fall semesters of 2017 up to September 15, 2017,” according to PERC.
In her email, Fontenot told adjuncts that “presumably the union will use this list to contact you at your homes” and “we regret having to provide” it, “but we are legally obligated to do so.”
Former USFSP adjunct Rebecca Skelton, who taught art, also has a message for adjuncts who are eligible to vote.
“Even if you don’t think having a union will benefit you, please understand it will benefit most adjuncts,” she wrote in an email to The Crow’s Nest. “Whether it is for higher pay, more stable situations, or basic health insurance, having the opportunity to speak and be heard will be a positive step.”
Nancy McCann, a graduate student in journalism and digital communication, has taught as a graduate assistant and adjunct at USF Tampa and USFSP.