A “Nice Experience” or a Job: EMU Lecturers Say Part-Timers Need a Union, Too

Contract lecturers at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti are fighting a hostile administration over the right to add part-time adjunct lecturers to EMUFT, the collective bargaining unit representing EMU’s full-time contract lecturers. Full-timers won recognition as a local of the American Federation of Teachers in 2001. The university, whose specialty is educating future teachers, and whose slogan is “Education First,” has hired a team of high-priced lawyers to break the back of the drive in part by creating divisions between full-time and part-time lecturers.

Lecturers, through their Adjunct Lecturers’ Organizing Committee (ALOC), have fought back by gathering signatures from “a super majority” of part-timers who are teaching this semester, according to Greg Pratt, AFT organizer, and have filed a petition with Michigan Employment Relations Committee (MERC) for an election to be held before the winter semester ends on May 4. According to ALOC data, EMU employs every semester approximately 450 part-time adjunct lecturers, who teach over one-third of all classes. More significantly, three out of four part-time lecturers who have been approached personally by ALOC organizers have signed.

The demands of EMU part-timers are being echoed at the national level: a coalition of academic associations, including the AFT, released a report February 10 calling on universities to treat their teachers as “one faculty”—which means extending health and retirement benefits and making pay equitable to those on the tenure track. The joint paper notes that nationally one-third of teachers not on the tenure track have been in their jobs at least five years, but schools insist “on outdated personnel and compensation policies that assume non-tenure-track faculty members are short-term employees who will make up only a small proportion of the faculty.”

If MERC approves the election, only adjunct lecturers teaching this semester will be eligible to vote; adjuncts who have signed cards but are not teaching this semester are ineligible, regardless of how many years they have been teaching at EMU.

However, the administration has refused to recognize part-timers as worthwhile members of the EMU community. They have hired the high-priced law firm of Butzel Long to discredit the part-timers’ legitimacy.

At a recent conference call between representatives of MERC, EMUFT, and the administration, Butzel Long attorney Craig Schwartz, representing the administration, said, “The part-time employment of adjuncts provides them with a little money and a nice experience.” But, he continued, the part-timers “have no community of interest” with the full-timers. Not surprisingly, this is the same argument the lawyers made to create divisiveness between professors and lecturers before full-time lecturers won representation in 2001.

In successive contract negotiations since their victory in 2001, full-time contract lecturers have seen their base salary finally pass $30,000 a year, a figure equal to about a half to a third what tenure-track faculty members earn, regardless of actual qualifications. They have a contractual right to an office, tech support, library privileges, medical, dental, retirement, and secretarial support, as well as a formal grievance procedure. Further, unlike part-time adjunct lecturers, they are no longer at-will employees who can be terminated at the end of every semester. Rather, they are at-will employees who have the security of a year-long appointment before they can be terminated. (After three years, they get two-year contracts.)

At the February 16 meeting of the EMU Board of Regents, adjunct lecturers Mark Wenzel, who divides his time between the history/philosophy and economics departments, and Peter Thomason, from the construction management program, presented the lecturers’ position that all lecturers, not just full-timers, have a fundamental right to representation, and that there is wide support for this position among faculty, students, and the greater EMU community. No one spoke against it. More than thirty faculty members and students attended the meeting to show support for the lecturers.

As Wenzel stated, “Ninety-six percent of current full-time lecturers were adjuncts at EMU before they became full-time lecturers, thus embodying the highest evidential support for the existence of a community of interest between them.”

In a follow-up interview, conducted by email, Wenzel was asked why the argument that part-timers and full-timers have different interests resonated with some people. “Because some people—Craig Schwartz among them—are clueless about what we actually do,” he responded. Noting again how many current full-time lecturers come from the ranks of the part-timers, he continued, “It’s time to further the cause of justice and education here at EMU by agreeing on the principle that there is only one community of interest among teachers and between teachers and students and that is the interest to challenge ourselves and our students to define our core human values, to increase and share our knowledge of the world and ourselves with our students, and to pass on skills that help our students become ever-more creative and effective persons and citizens.”

Lisa Laverty, a full-time lecturer from the political science department, can’t understand why it resonates at all. Calling out the university for promoting a “divide-and-conquer, anti-union strategy,” she says: “The fact is that we all do the same work: we teach our students…. Students choose classes, whenever possible, based on what they hear about who the really good instructors are, not their status…. Full-time lecturers, most of whom started out as adjuncts, understand what it is like to teach at EMU for low pay, with no benefits, and to face the possibility of unemployment every three months when the semester ends.”

Nor should this argument work from the perspective of most EMU administrators, she adds: “If ‘Education First’ has any true meaning, then the administration should be supporting all of its instructional staff. In fact, many university offices that are on the front lines of our actual mission, educating students, do treat all instructional staff the same. For example, the Faculty Development Center runs support workshops for all faculty, regardless of full-time/part-time or tenure status. The General Education program actively seeks to include lecturers alongside our tenure-track colleagues. Many department heads include lecturers in the life of their departments, but are hampered by voices higher up in the EMU administration that prevent them from developing a more inclusive atmosphere. The fact that some, at the highest levels of the university administration, insist upon creating this artificial division between ‘full-time’ and ‘part-time’ lecturers only serves to distract the rest of our university community from our common interests and goals.”

What’s next? According to Wenzel, “We plan to mobilize community support for our campaign through informational pickets, street theatre, attending more Regents’ meetings, and other actions. As others will tell you, the students are almost 95% behind this campaign—according to the sheer number of petition signatures we got in one two-and-a-half hour session after the Regents’ meeting. I am so heartened by this. I’m falling in love with our students all over again.”

The current drive to bring part-time lecturers into EMUFT, which began in Summer 2009, is a continuation of the struggle that was left unfinished in 2001. The goal of that drive, which was led primarily by part-time lecturers, always was to include all lecturers. Only as a result of a painful compromise to gain MERC support did lecturers agree that a union of full-time lecturers only was better than no union at all. The resulting vote by the full-time lecturers was a landslide victory, with 91 voting in favor and only 2 voting against. To memorialize the victory, contract lecturers named their unit Local 9102 of the American Federation of Teachers. The historic victory made EMUFT the first collective bargaining unit in Michigan to be comprised solely of lecturers. Ironically, accepting this compromise meant that those who had led the drive to create it found themselves not allowed to join it, along with nearly four-fifths of all lecturers.

But history has proven the decision to be correct, as the compromise victory, done for the good of the greater cause, paved the way for adjunct victories and new AFT affiliates at other Michigan campuses, including University of Michigan, Wayne State, Michigan State, Western Michigan, Kirtland Community College, Wayne County Community College, and Henry Ford Community College.

Now, lecturers at EMU want to finish what they started at home.

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2 Responses

  1. Divide and Conquer tactics only work if we, the Eastern Michigan University community. listen. Yet, we are speaking up as a united force to say we believe in a united lectureship. Ken your voice is an important and inspiring one for all of us to keep up the fight to “finish what [we] started at home.”
    Sonya Alvarado
    Adjunct Lecturer 1997-1999
    Full Time Lecturer 2000 – Present
    Acting President EMUFT local 9102

    • What the EMU community is doing in support of the lecturers is inspiring. What the administration is doing is immoral, as they waste scarce money on anti-education lawyers. Divide and conquer only works through ignorance. So it is no accident that the administration is afraid of educators coming together. But we aren’t going anywhere.

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