Before casting your vote, it is important that you understand what collective bargaining actually means. First, it is truly “collective.” If SEIU wins the election, then a union representative and a small number of faculty members would bargain with the University for a collective contract covering the terms and conditions of employment for all represented full-time fixed-term faculty. The University would be prohibited from working directly with faculty members to make any individual arrangement about any issue addressed in the collective contract. And there is no guarantee that your individual interests or concerns will be addressed in whatever collective contract the union may be able to negotiate.

Second, it’s “bargaining.” There is a common misperception that collective bargaining leads only to enhancements to the status quo. That is not the case. All terms and conditions of employment will be on the table in collective bargaining. There are always three possible outcomes in this process: employees may end up with more than they had when the bargaining started, they may end up with the same, or they may end up with less.  All a union can do is make requests. The University would consider those requests carefully. But the University is not required to agree to anything the union proposes and would necessarily have to evaluate each request in light of its other obligations, responsibilities and priorities. The University already provides full-time fixed-term faculty with competitive compensation and full benefits. It is not likely that any significant changes would be made to these items as a result of collective bargaining.

The SEIU’s recent collective bargaining negotiations with the University concerning adjunct faculty are a case in point. A number of adjunct instructors have complained that the SEIU did not deliver on primary campaign promises, even though they now must pay dues, fees or contributions. For example:

  • The SEIU promised to enhance job security and sought multi-year appointments for adjunct faculty. During collective bargaining negotiations, the University explained that the welfare of students and their educational programs required that the University maintain the flexibility necessary to address changing needs and circumstances. The final contract therefore retained the existing semester-by-semester appointment model and the University’s broad discretion over appointment renewals.
  • With respect to compensation, the SEIU conceded at the outset that “Washington University pays adjunct and non-tenure track faculty very well compared to other higher education institutions in the region.” In fact, nearly 80% of the bargaining unit was already paid above the minimum compensation level ultimately agreed upon in the contract. In addition, the SEIU collective bargaining team agreed to a one-year pay freeze for nearly ⅓ of the represented adjuncts, a group with little representation on the union’s negotiating team. In this instance, SEIU decided to bargain away possible increases to one group of faculty in favor of others, while ensuring that the union received dues and fees from both groups.
  • During collective bargaining negotiations, the SEIU requested substantial enhancements to a variety of benefits. However, the contract negotiated by the SEIU contained no changes to any employment benefits.
  • The SEIU requested enhanced access to office space for adjuncts. The University explained that access to space is a challenging issue for all faculty and staff, and that schools and departments do the best they can given the finite options. The union ultimately agreed to the status quo: adjunct faculty receive access to available space, but not necessarily individual office space, determined by the University in its discretion to be necessary for them to perform their duties.

In the end, the contract for adjunct faculty contained only what the University was prepared to agree to and what it deemed appropriate for its academic programs. That may be why, during the ratification process requiring the adjunct faculty to vote in favor of the proposed contract, the SEIU made it difficult for the adjunct faculty to see the complete contract and its actual provisions. Adjuncts complained that the SEIU refused to post or send them copies of the proposed contract, and instead required adjuncts who wished to see the contract that they were voting on to travel to the union’s office, during a limited time window and during the last week of classes, to see a hard copy.

In short, collective bargaining is an uncertain process with no guarantees, and one in which individuals surrender to the interests pursued by the union and its bargaining team and to the tradeoffs they choose to make on behalf of others not at the bargaining table.

H. Holden Thorp
Holden Thorp