Adjuncts voices to be heard through vote

Adjunct faculty will vote by mail ballot starting this week on whether to unionize or not. ORACLE PHOTO/CHAVELI GUZMAN

To unionize or not to unionize? That is the question USF’s adjunct professors will face this week as they will have the opportunity to vote on whether to let one of the largest labor unions in the U.S. represent them. 

After a significant push from adjuncts advocating for the right to unionize, the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission issued an Order and Direction of Election on Jan. 9.

This election will last from Feb. 16 to March 13 and will be conducted using mail ballots. 

According to the Tampa Bay Times, this vote is open to about 900 adjuncts from the Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee campuses. 

Marian Conklin, an adjunct faculty member in the College of Arts and Sciences, said the push to unionize is the result of unaddressed grievances. 

“Our hours are capped, our wages are low and we have no benefits,” Conklin said. “Teaching, planning and grading takes a lot of time, so it is difficult to work a second or third job elsewhere and still provide a quality education for our students. You would think that USF would want to address these grievances, given how many of USF’s courses are taught by adjuncts and the fact that USF works with other unions.”

According to Conklin, other faculty groups are represented through unions yet USF continues to push back on adjuncts work to unionize.  

“Full-time faculty are represented through the United Faculty of Florida. Graduate Teaching Assistants are represented through the USF Graduate Assistants United and, in 2014, USF agreed to subsidize their healthcare 100 percent,” Conklin said. “However, USF has formally opposed our unionization efforts, and we are unrepresented.”

The organization that would represent adjuncts if they do vote to unionize is the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). According to their website, SEIU is “an organization of 2 million members united by the belief in the dignity and worth of workers and the services they provide and dedicated to improving the lives of workers and their families and creating a more just and humane society.”

SEIU could not be reached for comment by 9 p.m. Sunday.

Dwayne Smith, Senior Vice Provost and Dean of the Office of Graduate Studies, said unionization of adjuncts could result in financial consequences for USF. 

“Potentially, it has some fairly serious negative consequences, most especially in terms of the finances of the university,” Smith said. “We know the union that would be organizing this is called the SEIU. They have managed to get some contracts largely in Northeastern, private universities. Those universities have simply coped by increasing student tuition.”

Smith said USF, however, does not have the option to pass down the increased costs to students. 

“There has not been an increase of tuition at the University of South Florida in five years,” Smith said. “So, we don’t have the option to simply pass along the increased costs of to our students, and we wouldn’t want to do it even if we could.

“We don’t foresee raising tuition, at least for the near term. So, there is a potential financial consequence that then has to be made up somewhere and probably every coping mechanism that I can think of has some negative consequence to it.”

According to Smith, the wish to unionize is only held by a minority of adjuncts. 

“Adjuncts present themselves as this monolithic organization and that’s far from the truth,” Smith said. “They’re a very diverse group and for the segment of the adjunct population pushing for unionization are individuals who are trying to make careers out of being adjuncts. From a career perspective, we think that’s a very questionable decision. 

“Do we have plans to try to offer them health care? No, because we don’t have a mechanism for doing that at this point in time. And again, this is only a segment of the adjunct group that’s pushing for this.”

However, Smith said he empathizes with adjuncts as changing career goals and plans must be very difficult. Conklin said she doesn’t think this is an adequate solution for adjuncts. 

“Dr. Smith is not taking into consideration that many of us who adjunct have life circumstances that prevent us from competing in the extremely limited national job market for tenure-track professors, though this was our goal in graduate school,” Conklin said. “We are here because we love academia, love teaching, love our students and love USF, and USF apparently needs us as well. Why not work with us?”

The effects of this possible unionization will only be known after the vote and negotiations are held with the university. 

USF adjuncts are the third group to hold union elections in the past two years. The other groups, Hillsborough Community College and Broward College, both voted in favor of unionization. 

“I think the majority will vote for the union because we would like to be heard,” Conklin said.