Hamline adjunct professors become first to unionize

Hamline's Old Main.

Hamline's Old Main.

Jennifer Beckham has worked as an adjunct English professor at Hamline University in St. Paul for nine years. During that time, she hasn't received a raise or even a cost-of-living adjustment to her pay, and she has little hope of ever being promoted.

So you can understand why Beckman joined with 44 other adjuncts last week in voting to unionize, creating what the Service Employees International Union says is the first adjunct-only union in Minnesota.

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"This is important because Hamline isn't unique," Beckham tells us. "I wouldn't say by any means Hamline University is the bad guy, but there's been a really unhealthy trend in higher education that's been building for the past couple decades of growing dependence on part-time laborers who just get a contract from semester to semester and receive no job security."

Adjuncts who work full-time typically make somewhere between $18,000 and $30,000 annually. But the way things played out at the five other private college in the country where adjuncts have unionized suggests instructors like Beckham can expect to make about 25 percent more than they did previously, according to information in a Star Tribune report.

"If you were to figure out the hourly [pay] it wouldn't come close to what a public school teacher makes," Beckham says. "We've invested a great deal in becoming qualified to do this academic work in higher education institutions, but there's real cost-of-living issues."

Hamline actually has more adjuncts than full-time staff -- 194 compared to 184, according to the Strib -- but only those who taught last semester could participate in the union vote. Out of 62 who cast ballots, 45 voted in favor of unionization.

St. Thomas adjuncts will soon have the opportunity to create Minnesota's second adjunct-only union, as a unionization vote is scheduled there for next month.

"St. Thomas is on the same path, and adjuncts at more area schools are interested in doing this," Beckham says.

In an SEIU-distributed statement, David Weiss, an adjunct who teachers religion classes at Hamline, characterized the vote as marking "a great day for faculty, students, and the whole Hamline community."

"By coming together to address the low pay and lack of benefits and stability for adjunct faculty, we are taking steps to strengthen all of higher education for students and faculty alike," Weiss says. "I'm confident that our success today will help empower other workers, including adjunct faculty like ourselves at schools like St. Thomas, to change working and learning conditions in higher education."

But as you'd expect, Hamline administrators aren't as thrilled by the news.

"We believe this may create inequities and barriers among our larger community of adjunct professors and could impede our efforts to build collaborative processes and stronger relationships," university officials wrote in a statement.

-- Follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter at @atrupar. Got a tip? Drop him a line at [email protected]