USF adjuncts petition to unionize, university leadership resists

Adjuncts demonstrate outside of Marshall Student Center on Oct. 12. Photo by Mike Ruso.

Adjunct teachers at USF are in the midst of a campaign since April to establish a union, but not without resistance from the administration.

Months of effort have culminated to a legal standstill as USF pushes to block a vote for adjuncts to unionize. Tenure-track faculty positions are becoming harder to find, adjunct professors are making up an increasingly important part of the academic workforce. They fill in gaps by teaching classes other faculty members can’t teach or accommodate for last-minute changes or additions of classes. USF is attempting to prevent adjunct faculty from unionizing on the grounds that they are temporary employees.

Adjuncts at USF submitted a petition to unionize to the state of Florida’s Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) in April.  This petition was filed in conjunction with Faculty Forward, which is part of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

In pushing for this union, adjunct professors, Faculty Forward and SEIU say adjunct professors aren’t compensated properly for their work and that establishing an adjunct professor’s union will help establish a better standard of living for the professors.

USF responded to the petition with legal action, filing with the Florida PERC to block the petition. The USF board of trustees cited Florida Statute 447.307 in a statement in court documents submitted in September.

“Even if the Hearing Officer were to determine that the adjuncts in this case possess an expectation of continued employment, the petitioned-for unit would still be inappropriate, because the USF System adjuncts do not share in a community of interest, as required by (the statute),” the board wrote in the court documents.

In October, as reported in USF St. Petersburg’s The Crow, state hearing officer Lyyli Van Whittle recommended that the state PERC allow adjunct professors to vote to form a union, which Mike Ruso, an adjunct professor in the English department at USF,  said is a step in the right direction.

“The wording of PERC’s decision is so unequivocal in its support for the adjuncts that a vote to form a union is now inevitable,” Ruso said. “The ruling is a major victory not just for us, but for adjuncts across the state because it sets a precedent that adjunct professors  at all Florida universities have the legal right to unionize.”

While they waited for the PERC to make a decision, adjuncts demonstrated by sitting in on a USF board of trustees meeting and then walking out, marching through the Marshall Student Center and protesting in front of the building on Oct. 12.

Since the PERC recommended order, the board of trustees has filed 17 exceptions to the terms of the union vote, which will delay the process of unionization for adjuncts. Caught in a legal battle, the vote cannot happen until the PERC issues its final order.

Faculty Forward and adjuncts sent an email response to the exceptions put forth by USF.

“Due to this change the organizing committee will be changing strategies,” Faculty Forward wrote in the email. “Adjuncts will be deterred, but only will take this time to recalibrate and shift into a better, stronger position.”

Adjuncts sit-in at USF board of trustees meeting on Oct. 12. Photo by Justin Garcia.

The board of trustees at USF does not feel that a union for adjuncts is justified, as outlined in their court submissions. The Tampa Bay Times reports that USF officials are also worried about an adjunct union, not wanting to deal with a third party and concerned about upticks in costs and potential layoffs.

“Though they provide a valuable service in supporting the mission of the university, the USF System believes forming a union is not in the best interests of the adjuncts and continues to oppose this effort,” university spokesman Adam Freeman said in a statement.

According to a 2013 report from NPR about the death of an adjunct professor at Duquesne University, the typical adjunct professor in the United States earns between $20,000 and $25,000 a year.  Ruso said the average adjunct is making $3,000 per class. According to information in court documents submitted to Florida PERC by USF, adjuncts at USF can earn from $2,600 to $12,000, depending on the department and the number of course hours. The course hours can range from three to 12. Adjuncts at USF say that these wages, along with the fact that adjuncts receive no benefits mean that they need a union, whether or not they are temporary employees.

Ruso joined the union movement earlier this year.  As a graduate student, he read the Chronicle of Higher Education and the stories in the publication about adjuncts resonated with him.  

“I read that they drove from campus to campus to teach six, seven or eight classes a semester,” Ruso said. “I read that they didn’t have health insurance. The whole business model of using adjuncts struck me as unjust.”

Ruso said he is still proud to teach at USF but thinks the treatment of adjuncts needs to change.

“I take a lot of pride when I tell someone that I’m a professor at USF, but I don’t think we can truly be a great institution if we have 600 professors who are being exploited, many of whom are living in poverty,” Ruso said.

However, change in the form of voting for a union will have to wait until the PERC gives its ruling.