Lecturers consider union representation, administration pushes back

Olivia Szymanski | News Editor

Lecturers at Washington University are set to vote on union representation by the Service Employees International Union Local 1.

About 120 non-tenure track, full-time faculty members will vote on union representation to achieve better working conditions and increased benefits that typically are granted to tenured and tenure-track faculty members.

“We feel that through the power and the strength of collective bargaining, with appropriate legal representation and with a professional negotiator, that that would be a more effective way to achieve the results that we are seeking to achieve,” lecturer Valeria Souza said.

The main push for unionization comes from the desire for certain benefits that are not extended to non-tenure-track faculty. For example, lecturers are not eligible for sabbatical leave, nor are they eligible to be nominated for teaching awards by students.

“Many of us have scholarly investments and are publishing regularly, and we would like a trajectory that acknowledges the fact that we are teachers, but we are also scholars. We’re not exclusively pedagogues,” lecturer Eileen G’Sell said. “It feels like there’s a plateau that hits for lecturers pretty quickly.”

Provost Holden Thorp asserted that the administration’s stance is against the union, and feels that direct negotiations would be more effective.

“If the union is going to represent our full-time fixed-term faculty, we’ll go to the table and negotiate with them the best we can. But we feel like we could do better if we can work with them directly rather than through the union,” Provost Holden Thorp said.

This comes after adjunct faculty voted in favor of representation by the same union January 2015, with the contracts ratified by April 2016. In a 173 to 109 vote, Bon Appetit workers were the latest University-affiliated group to unionize Sunday, April 23.

If lecturers vote in favor of union representation, negotiations between the University and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) could take up to a year or more. First, the SEIU would file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to be approved. Pending approval, contract negotiations between the University and SEIU would ensue. Lastly, the non-tenured, full-time faculty members would have to ratify the final decision.

Through a series of emails sent out over the past few weeks, University administration encourages lecturers to consider their options before voting. However, some lecturers feel that the emails have been more intimidating than informative.

“In terms of tone, I think that they’re intended to intimidate,” Souza said. “I think that they’ve had the effect of frightening some people, and I personally am pretty disappointed in the administration’s choice of how they go about this.”

Erik Strobl, a lecturer who was on the bargaining unit of the adjunct unionization, feels that unionization has been misrepresented through the emails.

“There’s an ignorance of historical precedent, acting as if there are no other contracts you can look at to see that this could be really beneficial, and in my own experience, my pay will go up 26 percent over the course of this contract. And you get the feeling from these emails that union deals are somehow a bad deal for people,” Strobl said.

The University has hired lawyer Michael Bertoncini of Jackson Lewis, a national firm representing employers in workplace law, to represent them during the unionization process. Stacie Manuel, organizing coordinator of SEIU, describes Jackson Lewis as “the largest anti-union or union-busting firm in the country.” Bertoncini also represented the University during the adjunct union negotiations.

An April 25 forum, led by Provost Thorp, allowed lecturers to express their opinions on the possibility of unionization and offered clarity on job promotion and pay raises. While a number of lecturers expressed their desire for a union, it was not a unanimous opinion; a portion of faculty would prefer to negotiate with the University directly.

Despite divided faculty opinion and discouragement from the administration, those in favor of unionization hope to remain focused on increasing the dialogue surrounding its potential benefits.

“I’m just trying to stay positive and reassure other faculty that I believe in this, and even if it fails, I think it has catalyzed a lot of insight into the discrepancies between faculty on campus, which I think is a good thing,” G’Sell said. “I’m doing this because I love my job and I want to stay at Wash. U.; I want to make it a more equitable workplace.”