By Chris Cunningham
The Scene staff
St. Louis Community College’s part-time faculty will unionize after a landslide election victory.
The adjuncts voted 188-15 to organize with Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 1. Some 574 were eligible to cast ballots on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.
“I was thrilled,” said Richard Newman, who teaches English on the college’s Meramec campus. “It validated a lot of the work we were doing. I am glad a lot of people overcame their fears of unionizing.”
Newman is a member of an organizing committee that distributed literature, talked to adjuncts and collected the 200 signatures needed to hold an election.
During the fall campaign, the college took no public action to oppose unionization.
“I think it is a good thing,” Chancellor Jeff Pittman said Nov. 4. “I think it will help improve communications.
“Where I came from at Ivy Tech, I’d say 70 percent of our sections were taught by adjuncts. They are a group that have other jobs, and they aren’t on campus very often, so students can’t have a lot of discussion with them.”
STLCC Director of Public Information and Marketing Dan Kimack also spoke on union advantages.
“It is a positive whenever you can work better with a group and share ideas,” he said. “This structure will allow for a better back and forth.”
The STLCC Board of Trustees will formally approve election results Nov. 19 after the League of Women Voters verifies the final count.
Then bargaining will begin on a union contract. Adjuncts are being asked to fill out surveys to provide input on what provisions they would like to see.
“The university’s representatives and (adjuncts) will work through what our issues are, and we will come to an agreement about what is best for both parties and the students,” said Nancy Cross, vice president of SEIU, Local 1, based in Chicago.
In January, Washington University adjuncts voted to unionize with SEIU, Local 1, and they now are negotiating a contract. In May, Webster University adjuncts rejected unionization.
STLCC organizing committee members have been attending Board of Trustees meetings for about a year. Many adjuncts at Forest Park learned of the effort in August, when SEIU representatives manned tables at a college training session in the cafeteria.
On Oct. 23, all adjuncts received an email from the college notifying them that an election would take place Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 with polling places on the Forest Park, Meramec, Florissant Valley and Wildwood campuses.
A total of 203 adjuncts cast ballots, about 35 percent of eligible voters.
“I thought it was a good turnout, considering it was a weekend,” Newman said. “With the Wash U. vote, it was a mail-in ballot. I think around the same number of people voted for that as well.”
Newman said adjunct employment figures are ever-changing and that the list provided by the college to polling places was incorrect in some cases.
“For example, three people on the list don’t teach (at STLCC) any more, and one of my office mates wasn’t on the list,” he said.
In the 249 ballots cast at Washington University, the vote was 138-111. Some 404 adjuncts were eligible, making turnout 61 percent.
Newman has worked as an adjunct for 15 years at colleges and universities in the St. Louis region. He formerly taught at Florissant Valley and joined the Meramec faculty this semester.
Newman said the main problems he has heard from adjuncts are low wages and inconsistency in course load.
Newman gave an example from Florissant Valley. He had been teaching poetry classes for seven years when a full-time faculty member decided to take them, shortly before the start of a semester.
“I was suddenly without a job with a 12-year-old daughter and no time to find another teaching job,” he said.
Forest Park adjunct Claudean Kizart, who teaches reading, didn’t vote in the election. She said she was turned off by the union after being visited by SEIU representatives one Saturday morning at her house.
“They shouldn’t have had (my address) from the beginning, so that put a bad taste in my mouth,” she said. “I didn’t get involved. I don’t know if that was a mistake, but I did it because of the way they began it.”
She said she is unsure how she feels about the election victory.
“I am not comfortable speaking against a union when I haven’t attended any meetings, so I don’t know what their concerns are,” she said.
Like Newman, Kizart also has noticed a problem with course consistency for adjuncts. She dislikes the fact that full-time faculty can take over classes at the last minute.
Kizart said full-time faculty sometimes teach eight or nine courses per semester, which she doesn’t think is in the best interest of students.
Students having difficulty in her classes come to her office 45 minutes each week to work on homework, Kizart said, and that individual attention would be impossible with a huge course load.
“We know our students need hands-on attention,” she said. “How can you do that with so many classes? We are here for the students, period.”
Negotiations between the college and SEIU on an adjunct contract are expected to take six months to a year.
“For a first contract, it takes longer,” Cross said, “because you aren’t working on a document that you have already agreed to. But we will make sure the negotiations happen in a timely fashion.”