Adjunct professors at Miami-Dade College began voting last week on becoming union members, the latest group of part-time, non-tenured college instructors in Florida pushing for representation.
Nationally, adjuncts have been joining unions in large numbers over the past decade as a way to overcome the low wages and insufficient medical benefits that is their fate. In just the past two years, more than half of Florida adjuncts in the state college system – about 9,000 – have either formed for filed to join a union.
Pay for adjuncts is so low that a quarter of part-time college faculty and their families have received some kind of public assistance, according to a 2015 report.
Apparently cognizant of that statistic, the vice provost for human resources wrote an email to Miami-Dade College adjuncts in January informing them that their children might be able to qualify for free or low-cost health insurance coverage with Florida KidCare, the state’s health insurance program covers children from ages 0-18.
Union officials say that email shows that the college’s administration officials are very aware of the precarious financial situation most adjuncts find themselves in.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Florida Public Services Union has been the driving force to get adjunct professors to unionize in recent years, and they’ve had enormous success, with five schools in the Florida College System voting to do so in the past two years and professors at another seven colleges voting in December to add to their ranks.
Miami-Dade College would be significant for the SEIU because it has the largest undergraduate enrollment of any college or university in the country. And tensions have been rising as the voting gets underway during the next month.
“Organizers hired by SEIU have invaded adjunct faculty classrooms and even gone to their homes,” Miami-Dade College spokesman Juan Mendieta told the Phoenix. “They have placed unauthorized stickers and signage at our campuses which have damaged walls. Some adjuncts have advised the college that they are fearful of SEIU organizers who they feel are stalking them to the point of requesting public safety escort to their cars.”
Adjuncts at Miami Dade College earn $2,460 per standard three-credit course. Some say the time has come for them to join the labor movement.
“We know that enrollment is going up. We also know that compensation is not going towards full-time faculty, and not to adjuncts. It’s going towards the administration. And we have to start fighting against that,” says adjunct professor Christian Schlaerth, 38. “The only way that we can bring about any meaningful change for adjuncts, and beyond just the adjuncts, is to unionize. Because a split adjunct (workforce) is not able to stand up to their department or their administration at all.”
Miami-Dade College officials are pushing back, with administration officials citing in one email that 62 percent of all full-time faculty hired in the last five years at the school started as adjuncts.
“The SEIU ‘talks’ about what it can do for you, but look at what MDC has done for adjuncts without any union, union dues or union organizers interfering in your life!” reads one email penned by school president Eduardo J. Padron, formerly an adjunct professor himself. “The SEIU does not want you to be full-time faculty – because that would mean losing your union dues.” The note then urges the recipient that if they don’t want a union, they must return their ballot with a “no” vote.
Another Padron email emphasizes that his administration is adamantly not anti-union, but is in fact simply very “pro-individual rights.” He writes that that there is no guarantee that the salary and working conditions that adjuncts “enjoy now” will be the ones that emerge after a bargaining session.
That argument isn’t very convincing for 36-year-old instructor Shelley Dockery, who teaches graphic design at the Kendall campus.
“I mean, quite frankly, what other option do we have?” she asks. “Unless they can bring to the table what kind of lifestyle we would have if we would not form this union, we don’t really have an option.”
Dockery says that she’s been encouraged by negotiations she’s heard that are ongoing at schools like USF and Broward that have voted to unionize. “If you’re telling me not to go here (to a union) and stay with you, then tell me what’s going to happen if I stay with you?” she asks rhetorically to Miami Dade College administrators.
President Padron, in his emails, claims the only thing that the SEIU really cares about is getting dues.
Whether that strategy will work to discourage adjuncts from unionizing is questionable, considering that protests by school administrations in all the recent adjunct union campaigns have failed to dissuade them.
Adjuncts at seven state institutions filed to unionize in December: St. Petersburg College, Santa Fe College, Lake Sumter Community College, Polk State College, Florida Gateway College, Chipola College and South Florida State College.
They join members who have already become unionized in recent years from the University of South Florida, Hillsborough Community College, Broward College and Seminole State College.
There are approximately 2,800 adjuncts at Miami-Dade College who will be receiving ballots in the mail over the course of the next week or two. Balloting will continue until March 27.