The Union Stew 9/18

Dear Hamline Colleagues –

If this message had a “status level” to it, it would be marked “URGENT.” We have a real opportunity to make change at Hamline this fall, and to send a message of hope rippling outward to our adjunct colleagues across the Twin Cities and across the nation. But not without a show of real solidarity on our part. We will need as many of our members as possible to become visible and vocal in the next weeks and months.

We’re at a critical juncture in negotiations. In June the administration put their first economic proposal on the table. After a decade of absolutely flat pay for adjuncts, they offered zero increase beyond a $200/course bump for those with a terminal degree. We were stunned and angry, and we let them know it. Last week they came back with a proposal that they characterized as a “significant movement” toward our position. It put a mere $200 more on the table, this time across the board. (Well, across for the board for those of us at the lowest pay rate of $1000/credit hour. It offered no increase for those already higher than that and no increase in future years of the contract.)

We know that over the past decade our pay has lost at least $800 of purchasing power. But the mindset of the administration continues to intimate an almost palpable sense of contempt that we dared to form a union. Every exchange since we began the economic phase of bargaining suggests they believe that we have no right to actually seek justice but should be grateful for anything more than nothing. I don’t write those words lightly. I think every member of the bargaining team would say that this is a gentle characterization of the tone in the room.

Nonetheless I am still hopeful for change. Why?

It’s time. We voted on June 20, 2014 to unionize. It was a decisive vote: nearly 80% of eligible adjuncts voted and nearly 80% of those who voted, voted YES. That was over 400 days ago, and since then we’ve met over 20 times to bargain. That may seem like things are moving slowly (and they are), but our pace is comparable to other schools where adjuncts have unionized. First contracts always go slowly. However, it’s also true that the pace (both here and elsewhere) directly reflects the administrations’ desire to drag their feet. Higher education as a whole has chosen to benefit from the exploitation of adjunct faculty, and few administrations are eager to right that injustice on their own initiative. Sadly Hamline is no exception.

Nonetheless, we had hoped for better. From our first meeting (pre-vote) with then Provost Eric Jensen and several deans and throughout negotiations we have consistently said we want to work with Hamline in charting a course for the university that offers a future that is just and sustainable for everyone in the Hamline community—including adjuncts. We’ve emphasized partnership and win-win opportunities every step of the way. And the administration has consistently declined our offers, dismissing them as idealistic, unrealistic, and unworthy of genuine engagement. We’re disappointed, but we remain undeterred in our commitment to bargain from a vision that reflects Hamline’s own stated mission and values.

There’s a new president. Fayneese Miller is an “unknown” as far as our union efforts go. I made an official gesture of welcome to her and asked for an opportunity for a couple of us from the bargaining team simply to introduce ourselves (not to bargain, just to put faces to names). She politely declined, which is understandable, but we continue to believe her presence is more opportunity than obstacle. By naming her to the presidency, Hamline signals a readiness to begin a new chapter in the university’s story. And we believe that President Miller would prefer that this new chapter open with a resolution that coheres with the university’s prized ideals rather than a lingering labor struggle that calls those ideals into question at the very beginning of her tenure.

Despite this anxious moment. I continue to hear through the grapevine that many fellow adjuncts (and many fulltime faculty) are on close terms with anxiety these days. Many notification of appointment letters went out inexplicably late over the summer, leaving too many members in our unit uncertain about fall teaching. Among fulltime faculty overwork is a common complaint and uncertainty about the shifting politics at Hamline creates a climate of unspoken fear. Academia is most often viewed as an ideal community of ideas … only in the minds of those at a sufficient distance from the hidden politics and the day-to-day demands on all sides. In truth, just beneath the public displays of excitement about a new president roil the private fears about whose stock will rise—or fall—on her watch.

Sometimes institutions think they benefit from this type of climate because it works to silence voices of dissent. But it also works to silence aspirations and to muffle attempts to embody ideals in practice. I am no stranger to anxiety, but I have toiled too long for too little pay—and I have touched the lives of too many students through my teaching and my outspoken ideals—to let anxiety have the deciding word this fall.

We choose respectful agitation. Instead, as the fall unfolds, you can expect to see us begin to respectfully but unmistakably agitate the administration for movement toward justice. We’ll be inviting students, fulltime faculty, alumni, and others in the Hamline community to support our cause. You may already see students circulating flyers about our call for a fair contract—now. And we’ll be counting on you. No group achieves justice without the support of allies. But no group achieves justice without its own concerted efforts as well.

Agitation means we will be creating a swell of pressure that urges the university to act with speed and justice in resolving the contract. It does not mean being disrespectful or merely disruptive. It does mean—through both symbolic means and direct actions—creating an active (and public) tension between the university’s current treatment of adjuncts and its own widely heralded profession of social justice and civic responsibility. And, while we will be working feverishly to arouse a network of allies, more than anything we need the visible and vocal presence of our members at this point.

So we’ll hold several “members only” meetings in the coming weeks to invite you into these efforts. Watch for a short meeting notice message to go out in the next few days. You’ll only need to attend one meeting, but we’ll set several meetings on different days and at different times to be as accessible as possible. “Members only” means YOU. If you’re receiving this email direct from me (not as a forward from someone else) then you’re on our roster of unit members (even if you aren’t currently teaching or haven’t yet signed a union card). “Members only” also means these will be closed door meetings where we lay out for you, our members—but not to the general public or the administration—our strategy to move Hamline forward this fall. We hope to see you there.

Beyond Self-Interest. I know some in our unit see the union as irrelevant to them. You either don’t plan to be adjunct faculty very long, see this work merely as a stepping stone to something bigger, have found a way to fit adjunct teaching in its current form into your life and budget, or regard your teaching as a service to the university for which you don’t need to receive a fair wage. We have a diverse unit and our lives are legitimately framed by a wide variety of circumstances and interests.

But in this moment I’m asking you to stand with those in our unit for whom change is most necessary. The contract we’re bargaining for will improve pay, benefits, and working conditions for all of us, but for some of us those improvements will be measured in very mundane things like groceries, clothing, and health care. Even if the union contract doesn’t promise such day-to-day necessities to you, I hope you’ll stand alongside your colleagues for whom it does. Few things in life are so meaningful as taking a stand with others to make a difference in the world. This is our chance to make such a difference. And its impact will be felt in the households of your colleagues, in the culture at Hamline, and ultimately on the terrain of higher education as a whole.

History is happening right now and right here. Consider Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous reference to the “moral arc of the universe.” This fall Hamline University sits on that arc as it bends in the direction of justice. I intend to leave my name etched on that arc this fall. I hope you choose to etch your name there, too.

David Weiss
Religion Department
Steward for Hamline Adjunct Faculty Union, SEIU Local 284

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