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The Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC) will have an election as the last legal step for NMU adjunct professors to gain union representation.
Under the Public Employment Act, public employees have the right to bargain collectively with their employers concerning wages, hours and other conditions of employment.
MERC supervises the group of adjuncts who wish to gain the right to bargain. An adjunct is a professor who does not hold a permanent position at a university. They are contracted one semester at a time.
“Many of NMU’s adjuncts have worked at the university for years, but are still hired on a semester-by-semester basis,” said Heidi Stevenson, current board secretary of NMU Coalition of Contingent Faculty (CCF).
Adjuncts often work at, near, or below poverty-level wages and often have more than one job in order to support themselves, said Jamie Kuehnl, current chairwoman of CCF.
“Adjuncts are often overworked and underpaid as a whole,” Kuehnl said. “Across the nation adjuncts are coming together and unionizing. It has become a trend in the last 10 years.”
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) of Northern Michigan University chapter filed a petition for representation through MERC to represent qualifying NMU adjuncts.
The national trend has been for universities to hire more part-time instructors and fewer full-time. At NMU, adjuncts represent about one-third of faculty members.
CCF was formed by a group of adjuncts and full-time faculty in December 2007. The organization was concerned about the working conditions of adjuncts and the challenges created by the higher education system for professors who fluctuated between adjunct and term status. They worked quickly to urge the participation of adjuncts and discuss the concerns they have.
Continual research was conducted by CCF to improve working conditions for NMU adjuncts. According to CCF, they contacted other adjunct groups at similar universities and studied national trends of adjuncts to decide how to move forward.
It was decided to pursue adjunct membership in the pre-existing chapter of AAUP because it ensured more immediate positive changes in the working conditions. As well as, representation by a single union, allowing adjuncts to work with full-time faculty on shared concerns.
“Once the election is certified, adjuncts are members of our chapter,” AAUP president Ron Sundell said. “We will work with the adjuncts on what we can do for them regarding wages and benefits.
AAUP was established in 1951 and the first collective bargaining at Northern was held in 1972. There is a local charter, state charter and a national charter in Washington D.C.
AAUP represents the majority of faculty at NMU; about 300 full-time faculty members are a part of the union. They have a three-year contract and are in the last year of it. If adjuncts join the union they will be integrated into the next contract.
The union not only helps faculty, but it benefits the students as well, Sundell said. Adjuncts follow strict guidelines on what they are allowed to teach students. Joining the union will give them more freedom.
“AAUP allows faculty to think independently and teach what they need to teach in order to help students get the best learning experience possible,” Sundell said.
There are numerous benefits the adjuncts will get if voted into the union. Adjuncts will have support of a union organized under a national organization. They will be included in regular contract negotiations. Adjuncts have no way to legally negotiate their contracts currently.
One hundred adjuncts qualify to vote in the MERC election. Adjuncts must teach a minimum of eight credit hours in three consecutive semesters to be eligible.
Ballots will be sent to their home address on Oct. 3, and the vote results will be in Oct. 21.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles about the adjuncts’ vote.