Dear St. Kate’s adjunct faculty—
I write to you as co-steward of Hamline’s Adjunct Faculty Union, SEIU Local 284.
I know you recently received ballots for your union election. You may have already marked and mailed your ballot. I’m writing to those of you still contemplating your vote. I hope it’s YES.
I’ve been an adjunct instructor of religion at Hamline since 2004. I’ve also taught as an adjunct at Augsburg (2002-2005) and St. Kate’s (2003-2009). From spring 2014 to the present I’ve been involved in organizing, bargaining, and serving as a steward for Hamline’s union.
From that vantage point, the first thing that struck me in reading the information about “unionization efforts” on the university website and the President’s personal appeal to you is how frightfully scared St. Kate’s is of the prospect of a union.
They’ve given you several of the gains we had to bargain hard for (such as a significant pay increase). But that’s precisely because we unionized and bargained for them right next door. The improvements you’ve seen at St. Kate’s (pay, parking, office space, committee) are an effort to stop the union process. Having taught as an adjunct for fifteen years in the Twin Cities, I can say from experience: our pay was flat, our concerns largely ignored, our voices virtually invisible until unionization began. This is true even of Macalester and St. Thomas. The gains they experienced came because of their union rumblings—and because of our union success.
Why would St. Kate’s be so determined to avoid a union that they’d even start offering you union-style improvements without one? Simply put: to avoid sharing power with you, which is the sine qua none of a just relationship. They hope to take the edge off your discontent while keeping you as far as possible from becoming a collective voice that can shape your own future. Gains that come as charity are always controlled by others—and can always be withdrawn. A union makes you a full partner in the venture of creating conditions of justice for your teaching—conditions that empower you vocationally and that support the most effective teaching that you can do … ultimately, conditions that support the best learning opportunities for your students.
I don’t say this to “attack” St. Kate’s. It is, quite simply, the way power operates in most spheres, and it’s endemic in higher education today. Given the escalating power differentials between university administration and faculty of all levels, unionized faculty offer perhaps the best protection for a vital culture of education—because unions provide those doing the teaching with a measure of power to balance out the priorities of those counting the dollars and the numbers. It’s not that dollars and numbers don’t matter. It’s that increasingly they drive everything. If you unionize, you not only claim a measure of power for yourselves and your vocation, you also help protect the power of fulltime faculty because you insure that adjuncts are no longer an exploitable resource that can be played off against fulltime positions. See the AAUP’s One Faculty statement on this on depth of fulltime faculty solidarity with us.
I also want to respond to the President’s most recent direct appeal to you.
It’s no doubt true that you’ll make the best progress at St. Kate’s by working together with administrators. Absolutely. But unionizing won’t “get in the way” of that—unless the university chooses to vindictively “punish” you once you unionize. Rather, a union empowers you to pursue that progress together with the university on terms that insure your gains are preserved and your future goals are set by your collective voice, not by the administration.
I heard the claim that SEIU is not the right union for adjunct faculty often at Hamline, too. It is, in fact, a thinly veiled attempt at the “politics of division,” suggesting that we should feel “better than” the “mere” service workers that comprise most of SEIU’s members. Coming from the president of a university steeped in the Catholic tradition of deep respect for the dignity of all labor, this is an appeal to your lesser instincts. I’ll counter by noting three things.
First, the transience and relative isolation that are hallmarks of adjunct teaching have also made us easy targets to exploit over the past decades. SEIU has a vibrant successful history of organizing workers who labor under conditions that make them easy targets to exploit.
Second, SEIU’s vision statement says, “We are 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.org) That mission aligns so closely with St. Kate’s they ought to be pleased you’re working with SEIU.
Third, later this summer, through SEIU’s Faculty Forward Congress, I’ll travel to DC to join unionized adjunct faculty and graduate instructors from across the U.S. in laying further groundwork for the labor movement in higher education. Unionization is just coming to adjunct faculty, and SEIU is among the unions leading this work. Yes, they still have plenty to learn, but they are committed to doing this work right and doing it well—and to bringing our voices into the leadership of that work. I am one of those voices.
While it’s true that any union contract expresses an “agreement” between you and your employer, so long as both St. Kate’s and the union are focused on pursuing conditions under which teaching flourishes, vocations are supported, and justice is done, then agreement will happen. In fact, the only conditions under which the president’s claim, “union representation guarantees you nothing,” is true is if the president is committed in advance to obstruct agreement with a union. And, frankly, that’s all the more reason to unionize, in order to insure that you have the power to actually fashion and choose agreement rather than merely submit to it.
As a lead organizer, negotiator, and now co-steward of the Hamline union—and with two decades of teaching religion as my primary vocation—I’m honestly weary of hearing the union portrayed as some “third party.” It’s not. The union is YOU. It’s your voice. Your energy. Your goals. Yes, there are SEIU staff to support you, but I attest personally that at Hamline adjunct faculty leaders had final say—and exercised it—in every single decision we made. Staff from the union local advised us, shared resources, and assisted us throughout the organizing and bargaining process. I hope President Roloff doesn’t view the AAUP, in which many fulltime faculty maintain membership, as a “third party” nuisance at St. Kate’s. As an organization SEIU fulfills a similar role for adjunct faculty. Be very clear: an Adjunct Faculty Union at St. Kate’s will be 100% comprised of and led by adjunct faculty from St. Kate’s. It’s simply untrue to call the union a third party; it’s YOU.
Having taught at St. Kate’s for six years and worked in campus ministry there for three years as well, I know the school has the long legacy of fostering justice. I find it disappointing that the president cannot imagine a unionized—that is, an empowered-for-partnership—adjunct faculty as an opportunity to extend that legacy into tomorrow.
Hamline shares similarly deep roots of social justice, and our administration has also found it difficult at times to meet us on terms of true collaboration. But we are in this for the long haul. We know that anytime unequal power relationships are disrupted—as unionizing does—some folks, especially those who find themselves needing to share power they’d prefer to hold unilaterally, react with anxiety and even anger. We’ve felt both at Hamline. But we’ve also seen progress; we’ve also won respect. And we remain confident that a brighter future is built by justice than by charity. It’s in our tradition as much as it’s in yours. We are reminding our respective administrations in practice of the ideals to which they are committed too often only in theory.
When you unionize, you’ll join Augsburg and Hamline in establishing unions at three of the five historic ACTC schools. At that point, we achieve a critical mass that allows us not only to pursue goals that strengthen our teaching on our respective campuses, we gain the leverage to partner across campuses, strengthening the position of our adjunct peers and our fulltime colleagues throughout the Twin Cities. Quite beyond simply improving our own working and teaching conditions (which are also our students’ learning conditions!), with critical mass we have the opportunity to help reset the priorities in higher education so that education rather than economics is the animating factor in our vision.
Ironically, you could read all of St. Kate’s “official” information on unionization on the website and learn that Macalester and St. Thomas (both mentioned by name) made the “right” choice in the administration’s eyes. But you won’t see Augsburg and Hamline—whose adjunct faculty have unionized—mentioned anywhere. There’s acknowledgement of certain “higher education systems” that did unionize, but we’re left un-named because we made the “wrong” choice. It’s a dismissive, almost insulting rhetorical move by a university dedicated to educating women, who’ve often been similarly strategically erased and unnamed by those who found their pursuit of dignity inconvenient. It’s a very telling move on the part of your administration.
No, I don’t think unions are perfect (neither are universities). Indeed, I’ve challenged some of SEIU’s ideas when I felt they were the wrong fit for Hamline or for higher education. But amid the forces at play in higher education today, being unionized is your best chance to become a full partner in shaping the campus ecology at St. Kate’s. Yes, a union will preserve and strengthen your own economic position and benefits, but more importantly it does so for the generations of adjuncts who will come after you, and most importantly it positions you to model active engaged social justice at Kate’s. And that strengthen the entire university, both academically and culturally.
I hope you vote YES. There is exciting work to do in higher education in the Twin Cities, and I’ll be glad to be a partner in doing that work with you.
Steward, Hamline University Adjunct Faculty union