Seattle University administration tells faculty not to unionize

A Seattle University official has notified faculty that the school’s administration opposes ongoing efforts to unionize non-tenured instructors and encouraged faculty to oppose joining a union. UPDATE: We have additional information from an instructor working to form “a union to work with the administration to retain excellent part-time and full-time non-tenure track instructors.” You’ll find the update below.

In a letter obtained by CHS, Provost Isiaah Crawford recently told SU faculty at the 12th Ave campus that bringing in a union to represent contingent full-time and part-time faculty would negatively impact the university culture by “disrupting the direct relationship between the university and its faculty and the faculty’s governing body.”

Instructor Yancy Hughes Dominick, a full-time adjunct in the Department of Philosophy, told CHS he’s undecided on the union but wants the discussion to continue.

“I was dissapointed that (the provost) would end the conversation before it really started, but I was not surprised,” he said.

Dominick said he and many other faculty members are generally happy with the administration, pay, and benefits at SU. The interest in unionizing stems from the broader issue of year-to-year contracts the school uses for adjunct professors. “It’s hard to be committed to the large project of teaching classes at a university if you don’t know if your going to be teaching or not,” Dominick said.

Here’s a statement from the coordinating committee of the SU College of Arts & Sciences Faculty and Staff Assembly about their desire to pursue the option for adjuncts to unionize.

Crawford said he sent the letter when he heard faculty members were being approached by staff from Local 925 of the Service Employees International Union. SEIU is currently working on a national campaign to unionize thousands of adjunct instructors. A union representative contacted by CHS did not respond in time for this post, but we’ll update if and when they do.

In his letter, Crawford also warned that unionizing may impede the school’s religious freedoms as faculty relations would be subject to federal rules.

“SU is an institution that exists to serve its unique Jesuit-Catholic academic mission.  Because of the University’s religious character, we must consider carefully whether the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prevents the federal National Labor Relations Board from exercising jurisdiction over its relations with its faculty,” he writes.

SU wouldn’t be the first school to oppose unions based on religious grounds. The administration at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma is opposing ongoing organizing efforts by SEIU Local 925, partially based on religious grounds.

UPDATE: Representatives from SEIU and SU’s administration have yet to respond to requests for comment on this story.

UPDATEx2: SEIU responded to our inquiries with answers from Larry Cushnie, political science instructor at Seattle University. Below our are questions and Cushnie’s responses.

Can you confirm that SEIU is undergoing organizing efforts with adjunct faculty at Seattle University?
Yes. Our adjunct faculty are forming a union to work with the administration to retain excellent part-time and full-time non-tenure track instructors to provide the best education possible to our university community.

Why adjunct faculty and why Seattle University? Are there specific issues the adjunct faculty want to challenge with the SU administration?
We are concerned with having access to stable, living wage jobs. As a social justice oriented university, Seattle Univeristy should strive to provide transparent decision-making about employment as well as predictability for employees from year to year. We are excited to work with the administration to continue offering a rigorous academic environment for our students, and as contingent employees we make up over half of the faculty but are paid a much lower wage. We save the university money, but at the expense of stable, living wage jobs; the expense of fairly negotiated contracts; and the expense of our students.

Why is unionizing the adjunct faculty a positive move for the university?
We need to be able to recruit and retain talented instructors to continue to provide quality education for our students. Right now part-time professors have no consistency or predictability. Each year we do not know if we’ll have a job, and there is little transparency on how the administration decides who gets to teach and who does not. This weakens our ability to retain excellent teachers so that we can continue to provide quality education to our community.

Do you know how many adjuncts there are? How much support is there for the union?
There were 727 total faculty teaching at SU in fall 2011. Contingents made up approximately 56% of total faculty. There is a lot of support among faculty for forming a union. This is about social justice and we want the administration to live up to the university’s social justice mission and remain neutral on whether we form a union. This effort is ultimately towards retaining and improving the high standards of our academic community.

UPDATE 12/21/13 12:15 PM: Here is a letter from the Academic Assembly “regarding recent progress on shared governance and the SEIU campaign to organize non-tenure-track faculty.” An email distributing the letter says the assembly “will discuss these recent developments as a group” in early January.

AcA Officers Statement Re Shared Governance + SEIU

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15 thoughts on “Seattle University administration tells faculty not to unionize

  1. I think it’s ridiculous that they’re opposing unionization on “religious freedomz.” The majority of the students (and i would guess that the majority of the professors outside of the philosophy department) are not even Catholic. The administration is very intelligent. At least come up with a better argument than that.

  2. One more example of a university not upholding its stated values. With Pacific Lutheran, it is a member of the ELCA (a group of Lutheran churches) which has a statement (on the ELCA website) saying the ELCA believes in workers rights to self-organize. PLU, however, has been fighting adjunct faculties efforts to organize by trying to claim that because it is religiously affiliated, it should not be subject to the “regular rules and laws” that govern most employers. The administration is also claiming that somehow, the efforts to unionize adjunct faculty members will interfere with the ability of the faculty to self-govern. This, of course, is ridiculous, and if PLU truly believed in its stated value of “justice”, it would understand that the administration can choose to work collaboratively with a union. The adjunct faculty moved to unionize only after years of trying to “work within the system” and getting nowhere. Last year, a committee was set up to deal with issues relevant to adjunct faculty which did not include any adjunct faculty. When some members of the committee began to insist that the committee must include at least one adjunct faculty member, provost Steve Starkovich threatened to disband the committee. That is how committee PLU is to working with adjunct faculty members. It is true that faculty in general (but not in the business department) at PLU receive miserable pay, and this includes adjunct faculty. Meanwhile, administrators are getting double or more what full professors with many years service receive. Starkovich is getting over $150K in pay alone; this doesn’t include retirement benefits and other compensation. There are numerous administrators who receive more than him. There truly is disproportionately high compensation for some at PLU, while others barely get paid enough to get by. PLU faculty are at the bottom end for faculty at comparable universities in the Pacific Northwest, according to data from the American Association of University Professors.

    • Which itself is somewhat hypocritical on the administration’s part, given that KPLU-FM, the University’s NPR affiliate, is unionize. So, it’s not like there isn’t already some precedence for organizing segments of their workforce.

      • The PLU case was troubling because several Lutheran clergy signed public statements of support in favour of the faculty union effort and questioned the university’s attempt to use religion against our own PLU mission statement. PLU administration has never responded to those questions either in public or in internal faculty only discussions.

  3. Here’s a report from “Studies in Catholic Higher Education” that goes into the reasons and history for opposing unionization on religious grounds: (PDF)

    tl;dr – If unionized, adjuncts would have protections under federal labor law. Religious schools want to retain the ability to hire/fire based on religious and ethical reasons.

  4. In the mid 90’s at the University of Washington, we had at the administration level an “acting school” because there were so many people that were held by people who were “acting provost” or “acting ____”. There was search for all sorts of people for permanent positions. At the same time, there was a lecture by one of those about to leave at the Faculty Club open to anyone with the free afternoon time to listen. He had been a former astronaut and obviously not taken with the culture of universities’ upper administrations. He laid out that culture as a short timer with no fear of being fired. I remember that he said top position holders in the major universities around the country engaged in a practice that benefited them collectively. They held their positions for no more than five years, and circulated themselves among those positions such that each time someone was brought into one of those empty positions they would hold off until the salary was raised above what the previous person was making. Thus, as was the plan then, we now have incredible salaries, similar to those of CEO’s of major corporations, among university top administrative positions. And, thus, the great antipathy to unions which would get in the way of their organizing goals. Cartel?

    • Yet another of many unintended consequences of student financial aid through grants and federally guaranteed loans That started in the 1950’s.

  5. Yes, unionization would negatively impact the university culture by “disrupting the direct relationship between the university and its faculty and the faculty’s governing body” … oh, it would also disrupt the administration’s ability to bully and take advantage of teaching staff.

  6. Perhaps the administrators at SeattleU should be reminded that the Roman Catholic Church whole heartedly supports unions and the freedom to unionize!

    It is the Catholic nature of SeattleU that should SUPPORT unions. In the world of faculty and Universities adjunct faculty are the “poor.”

    2 key document from the Roman Catholic church that support unions:
    Quadragesimo Anno : by Pius XI
    Sertum Laetitiae: Pius XII

  7. Many years ago, the SU faculty voted AGAINST forming a Faculty Senate. If they want to form a union now, it should be done internally – not by joining an outside union that only cares about its own numbers and not what’s best for the SU students. Sure, some staff positions are appropriate to be union positions, but academic personnel are not the service employees that SEIU should be getting involved with.

  8. Perhaps students should explore the connections between the skyrocketing cost of tuition, government loans, and union guaranteed pensions before blindly supporting the other feel good arguments. Just a suggestion, but since people around here seem to like marching in the streets against self inflicted outcomes, by all means continue to play follow the leader.

  9. According to the SU website, there is an elected Academic Assembly. Did Larry Cushnie even try to have his issues addressed there?

  10. These adjuncts need to hear from people who have been burned by membership in SEIU. And introducing a union like that into the working relationship will result in nothing but more conflict because that is what unions in 2013 do.

  11. Pingback: Flash mob planned at Seattle University for oil divestment, faculty unionizing rights (possible nudity) | CHS Capitol Hill Seattle