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Union election in progress

SEIU logo.
SEIU logo.

Over the last month, Mills College has seen an influx of support for the adjunct faculty: flyers have appeared across campus alerting the community that the adjunct faculty filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board [NLRB], and since, a petition asking that the administration remain neutral in the union decision has been circulating among students.

The adjuncts are being represented by the Service Employees International Union [SEIU], who filed the petition on the faculty’s behalf. The SEIU typically represents employees in the healthcare, property service and public service industries including janitors, bus drivers and nurses, but in recent months has moved to unionizing higher education institutions with the campaign Adjunct Action. Their goal is to create a nationwide union of adjuncts.

A recent article in The Chronicle for Higher Education says “the thinking behind the approach holds that sufficient union saturation of a given local labor market will not only produce big gains at unionized colleges, but put nonunionized ones under pressure to treat adjuncts better, too. Those colleges might be prompted to improve pay or working conditions to be able to compete for talent or, in some cases, to discourage potential unionization drives on their own campuses.”

So far, the Adjunct Action campaign has reached 10 metropolitan areas and 30 campuses, employing around 25,000 adjuncts.

Why Now?

Today, adjuncts account for a higher portion of the nation’s public and private college faculties than ever before. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that about half of the nation’s educators are adjunct, while KQED Arts and The Atlantic cites numbers closer to 75 percent. Either way, there is now a much smaller number of highly competitive tenure positions and a plethora of temporarily employed professors.

These contingent employees receive disproportionately low pay compared to their tenured colleagues and are often part-time employees, splitting their time between different institutions to make ends meet. Many adjuncts across the nation also do not receive any benefits, though Mills does offer health care for some adjuncts, depending on the contract.

In the midst of this disproportionate turn towards easy-come-easy-go adjuncts, a union is welcome news to many, as seen on the flyer posted around campus donning the faces and thoughts of several Mills adjuncts.

“When adjuncts — the majority of instructors — are fostered, we will have a stronger school and a richer experience for the students,” visiting artist Michael Swaine is quoted as saying on the flyer.

Distinguished visiting writer Achy Obejas expressed similar sentiments.

“We all want the same thing,” her quote reads, “the best possible education experience, for both students and teachers.”

However, not all professors believe the union will take care of these problems. One professor, who wished to remain anonymous, was unsure of how effective a union could really be given the fact that non-tenured professor’s contracts can simply now be renewed, and thus those represented by the union will be constantly shifting.

This professor also brought up concerns about how equipped the SEIU is to represent faculty, given their minimal experience with educational organizing, among other things.

The majority of the faculty contacted for this article declined to be interviewed out of fear of administrative retribution. Though the Mills administration has hired an anti-union lawyer, an email from President DeCoudreaux to the faculty on April 11 pledged neutrality. In the email, the president acknowledges that it is the fundamental right of the faculty to unionize and encourages the adjuncts to vote, but closes with a mixed statement:

“While this is a very important issue for our campus, I must remind you that Mills is engaged in an ongoing effort to reduce its operating deficit during these difficult financial times. Mills will continue to focus on this effort and will not actively engage in a campaign with respect to the organization of our adjunct faculty.”

What Next?

The faculty will vote for or against the union through mail-in ballots that were sent out on April 28 and will be counted on May 14. If the majority vote is “yes,” the Mills adjuncts will join the SEIU’s union. If the majority vote is “no,” the adjuncts will either choose not to unionize, or will have to wait one calendar year before selecting another union organization to represent them.

If the SEIU is chosen, a bargaining process will begin as early as this Fall between the union and Mills, through which a contract will be negotiated between all adjuncts and the administration. Among other things, the contract could bring legal protections, higher pay and more job security to union members.

With Mills’ adjunct professors currently in the process of a union election, you may be wondering what exactly the difference is between tenured and adjunct professors. Read on to find out.

Tenure vs Adjunct


Tenured faculty are professors, lecturers and instructors who hold permanent, salaried positions.

Title – Tenured professors can sometimes (but not always) be identified by the title “Professor of…” Tenure-track faculty at the different stages of their tracks (see below) can be identified by the titles “Assistant Professor” and “Associate Professor.”

Tenure Process – To obtain tenure, a faculty must first be hired on a tenure-track line. At this point, they are generally (but not always) called assistant professors. After several reviews of their professional, teaching and college service work, they may be granted tenure and promoted to associate professor. This promotion usually comes after about six years. The performance reviews then continue every three years for the duration of their career at Mills. After six years as associate professors they are eligible to be promoted to full professors.

Contract – Tenured professors have a standing contract that does not change.

Pay – Tenured professors receive a yearly salary with potential for a steady raise, though a six-year pay freeze has halted raises.

Job Security – A tenured professor’s position is essentially locked down. Tenured professors can only be dismissed with just cause or circumstance and only after a hearing before a faculty committee.


Adjunct faculty, also known as contingent or “at-will” faculty, are professors, lecturers and instructors who do not hold a permanent or salaried position.

Title – Adjunct professors can often, though not always, be identified by the title “Visiting.” This includes Visiting Professor, Visiting Artist, Visiting Writer, etc. However, some adjunct professors hold “Professor of…” titles.

Contract – Adjunct professors typically negotiate single-semester, one-year or two-year contracts. Every adjunct professor’s contract is different in pay and length of term.

Pay – Adjunct professors are paid per course, and each professor negotiates a different rate of pay for each course.

Job SecurityAdjunct professors essentially have no job security. If, for instance, a professor has a year-long contract, at the end of that year they may or may not be asked to return. If they are asked to return, they must negotiate a new contract. If they are not asked to return, they are not considered laid-off. They are simply not rehired.

Cancellation Clause – Every adjunct professor’s contract includes a Cancellation Clause, which states that the adjunct professor’s contract may be cancelled at any time for any reason. This includes, but is not limited to, when a class does not reach its enrollment goals (generally 12 students). If a class taught by a tenured professor draws fewer than 12 students, it could also be canceled, but due to the fact that tenured professors are paid a yearly salary instead of per course, their salary is not impacted.

Read Visiting Asst. Professor of English David Buuck’s call for unionization here.

This article appeared in The Campanil‘s special Commencement issue which came out on Tuesday, May 6. For more graduation-related posts, check out The Campanil‘s designated 2014 Commencement webpage here or click on the “Commencement” link in the upper right hand corner of the header.