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Adjuncts at one community college fight for independent union

Solvejg Wastvedt
Robert Earle leads an English as a Second Language class at Tompkins Cortland Community College. Earle is a lead organizer in the TC3 adjuncts' fight for a union.

Part-time professors at Tompkins Cortland Community College want a union, but not just any union.

The college wants its adjuncts to join the full-time faculty union. The adjuncts say they need their own space, and they’re fighting for independence.

Last week, Robert Earle leaned back in his chair in front of his class at Tompkins Cortland Community Colllege, or TC3. Soft jazz played in the background.

Earle is an adjunct professor, and despite his easy demeanor, when he’s not teaching, he’s one of the driving forces behind the TC3 union fight.

TC3 adjuncts petitioned for a union last year. Now they’re held up on this technicality. The college wants them to combine with full-time faculty, but both groups of teachers say there are too many conflicts of interest.

“There would always be a sense that one of the two groups was getting better than the other,” Earle said.

He says adjuncts’ priorities could get bargained away in negotiations with the whole group. Full-timers and part-timers can be at odds in other ways, too.

For example, at TC3 full-time professors can take away courses from adjuncts.

“It’s referred to as ‘bumping,’” Earle says. “They can bump an adjunct and take that section from them in order to get their contractual commitment. Or, actually, for any other reason, which is their right, but it definitely is a conflict of interest.”

Adjuncts might bargain for an end to that. Full-timers probably would not.

Another example: part-timers’ per-course salaries. They’re set at the same amount a full professor makes for teaching an extra class beyond their usual load.

Earle says in contract negotiations that amount would be much more important to the adjunct than to the full-time professor.

TC3 administrator John Conners says he wants faculty to settle these issues before they start negotiations.

“Once you decide on something with one group, then you start talking with the other, but it may have some different positions it takes,” said Conners. “Then you’d have to go back to the others and say, ‘Well, this is what we’re hearing from the others, what can we do to work this out?’ I think it could become very cumbersome.”

Conners wants to deal with a single union. There’s a test case for that: SUNY uses it in all state-run schools. The union adjuncts have health benefits, but they still don’t have a minimum salary, and per-course payments can be very low.

Barbara Chepaitis is an adjunct at SUNY Empire State where the majority of faculty is part-time. She says the system doesn’t work and that adjunct interests get bargained away.

“Our union is supposed to have our backs,” Chepaitis said. “When you have 80 percent of your membership at a college part-time and you’re not fighting to get them appropriate pay ... they have let us down.”

Not so, says Jamie Dangler, a vice president of the SUNY professors’ union.

“We have not bargained it away, we have met with adamant refusal,” Dangler said.

Dangler points out that the union has won other benefits for adjuncts. She says the refusal on salaries came from the state.

Back at TC3, Earle won’t settle for less than independence.

“TC3 Adjunct Association, it’s right there in the name,” Earle said. “We want to make sure we have a voice for adjuncts.”

The association recently made its case before the Public Employee Relations Board, and a decision should come by fall.

Earle says they’ll need to redo union sign-ups, though because the membership cards they gathered last year will have expired by then.

Solvejg Wastvedt grew up in western Pennsylvania and graduated from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Over the summer, she served in Los Angeles as an intern on NPR's National Desk. Plus, before coming to Upstate New York, Solvejg worked at the Minneapolis community radio station KFAI. When she isn't reporting the news, Solvejg enjoys running and exploring hiking trails.