Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Part-time professors at George Washington University are voting on whether to organize a union after becoming frustrated in their complaints about low pay and a lack of benefits and job security.

The union election ballots, which the National Labor Relations Board mailed to part-time professors Oct. 4, are scheduled to be counted Oct. 22.

“People found nothing was being done,” said Anne McLeer, who teaches a graduate class in women’s studies at GW in the evening. “They were sort of powerless to change things.”

She is spearheading the effort to organize the part-time teachers, or adjunct professors, into Local 500 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

She said the adjunct professors are paid about one-third as much as full-time professors for similar amounts of work.

GW has 807 full-time professors and 1,115 adjunct professors.

Part-time teachers are paid $2,500 to $4,200 per class per semester.

Full-time professors averaged $103,314 during the 2001-2002 school year, the most recent year for which the university provided records. Assistant professors averaged $58,386.

Part-time faculty on annual contracts receive pro-rated health benefits. Part-timers on semester contracts get no health benefits.

The university is concerned a union would change its teaching style, which relies heavily on government and private-sector professionals to teach a class or two per semester.

GW prides itself on drawing part-time faculty from among Washington’s leaders. They have included George McGovern, former presidential candidate who taught political science; Marvin Kalb, former “Meet the Press” host who taught journalism; and James Sasser, former U.S. senator and ambassador to China, who taught international affairs.

“We feel that the unions are trying to create a one-size-fits-all when we have a very diverse part-time faculty,” GW spokeswoman Tracy Schario said.

A union contract’s rules could be too restrictive on the university’s personnel decisions and on the part-time faculty’s choice of whether to join a union, Miss Schario said.

Some union contracts require membership as a prerequisite to being hired.

“We also feel that a union could have a negative impact on students,” Miss Schario said. “If the union was to call for some kind of action that is disruptive of the education process, such as withholding grades, that could have an adverse effect on our students.”

She said the university has adequate grievance procedures to handle the complaints.

“We would like to think that our faculty can work through the university rather than working through third-party intervention, such as a union,” Miss Schario said.

Similar labor unrest can be found at other universities, where the administrations are using lower cost part-time faculty to cut their expenses. Part-time teachers at New York University and the New School University, also in New York, already have joined unions.

SEIU officials say the disputes focus on who controls the power at a university.

“The university is no different from any other major employer facing unionization,” said David Rodich, executive director of Gaithersburg-based SEIU Local 500. “Without a union, their power is absolute. Their power is being challenged and they don’t like it.”

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