Faculty win union election after 5-year struggle in Santa Clara

Photo credit: SCU Adjunct & Lecturer Faculty

The author is a California Faculty Association (CFA) member at CSU Long Beach

On June 21, the adjunct and lecturer faculty at Santa Clara University voted to form a union. Approximately 62% of the 544 non-tenured, tenure track faculty participated in the election with an overwhelming final tally of 245 to 93 in favor of forming a union. After a five-year-long hard-fought effort by the Adjunct Faculty and Lecturer Organizing Committee, these SCU faculty will be represented by the Service Employees International Union.

“It’s exciting to know that after a five-year effort, we’re finally able to join the union family as members of SEIU 1021,” said Philosophy Lecturer and committee member Madeline Cronin. “As an adjunct and now lecturer, it’s been easy to feel isolated and at the mercy of your employer. But this way of organizing with my fellow workers, having conversations with them and understanding their wants and needs and struggles, is how I want my job to be and how I want my community to be.”

This victory is the most recent in a series of successful struggles led by SEIU’s Faculty Forward. For over the past decade, Faculty Forward has helped to unionize higher education faculty at dozens of institutions, and this victory is only the latest in their ongoing work. They have currently unionized over 60 campuses consisting of more than 54,000 faculty in both public and private higher education institutions. 

Adjunct and lecturer faculty positions have been increasing for years at both public and private institutions across the country, while full-time and tenured positions are dwindling. These lower-paying positions are second tier in relation to full-time faculty, despite the fact that these faculty teach the majority of classes on most college campuses. In addition, many of these part-time positions provide zero benefits, and demand exploitative hours and short contracts requiring faculty to re-apply to teach as often as every academic year. 

This unstable employment situation combined with the inflation crisis — especially when it comes to housing costs — pushes these faculty members into stressful lives, poverty and even homelessness. This is especially true for faculty who teach at SCU, which is located in the San Francisco Bay Area, which always tops lists for highest cost of living in the United States. “Having a union would be the first time we ever had a mechanism through which we could seek fair improvements to our working conditions, benefits and compensation we receive, and also to have a grievance process,” said Theater & Dance Senior Lecturer Kristin Kusanovich in a union testimonial prior to the victory.

The Adjunct Faculty and Lecturer Organizing Committee at SCU faced many challenges during their long five-year struggle. The university hired notorious union-busting law firm Littler Mendelson. “There was a lot of misinformation and misdirection. For instance, suggesting that the proposed in-house vote was an untested path or was somehow exceptional. We were cast as a vocal minority who might divide the campus, when in reality, we filed with majority support. Once we got an election, they emphasized that they were not as bad as Amazon etc., but they still sent out several mailers explicitly stating their preference for the status quo,” said Cronin.

Andy Wolfe, a Lecturer in Engineering at SCU and a member of the Organizing Committee, said, “It’s a big win for all the faculty at Santa Clara. We’ve been working towards this day for years, and we’re not surprised by this outcome. We’ve been talking to our supporters and hearing their enthusiasm, and when it came time to vote, they showed up! We really feel that this result is representative of what the faculty wants, and we hope the administration takes this vote as a signal of what the faculty expects from them.”

After years of declining influence, unions in the United States are enjoying a much-needed resurgence. During the pandemic, union drives had begun to spread, and successes have inspired other workers from various sectors across the nation. From October 1, 2021 to March 31, 2022, union representation petitions filed with the NLRB have increased 57% from the same period the previous year. A Gallup poll conducted last year found that 68% of Americans approve of labor unions, which is the highest rate since 1965. From higher education to warehouses and from healthcare to tech, workers are coming together to fight back and are building the groundwork to win historic gains.

Brandon Dawkins, SEIU Local 1021’s Vice President of Organizing, stated, “If we’re not engaged in bringing all workers up, our movement will die. We have to fight for every worker to get the things they need, like a living wage, healthcare and a voice in the way their employer operates. As workers, we’re the engines that make our organizations run, and we’re proud to help bring these adjuncts and lecturers into our movement.”

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