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Why Adjuncts at Robert Morris University Need a Union

by Jim Talerico

What are some of things people look for in a job—and why do they stay in a job? Typically, we want a career in which we are paid fairly, receive benefits, feel respected and valued, are able to make a contribution to the business or organization and, finally, where we are—at least most of the time—content and satisfied.

Unfortunately, for most adjunct professors—who make up more than 75 percent of all college professors—these goals are unattainable.

I talk from experience. My journey as an adjunct in English the past 12 years at Robert Morris University (RMU) has been a demoralizing, lonely battle to do what I love in a system that has no love at all. New reports suggests students are drowning in debt and cannot recover even after years of working multiple fulltime jobs. They are frequently hounded by debt recovery firms who know that student loans cannot be discharged. Adjuncts at RMU teach an average of six classes a year at an annual salary of $13,500. Here is a laundry list of the struggles most adjuncts face:
·        no pay increase—some adjuncts for up to 10 years
·        no job security
·        no benefits
·        no retirement plan
·        no seniority
·        no office of their own
·        no recognition of a job well done
These are just some of the reasons that adjuncts are joining hands at RMU to establish a union. We have been inspired by the success of adjuncts in forming bargaining units at Point Park University and Duquesne University.
As a footnote, this fall, the university finally gave adjuncts a “pay raise” of $150 for a one-semester class. I believe this is a calculating move aimed at patronizing adjuncts and heading off a union bid. In addition, adjuncts recently received a letter from RMU President Gregory Dell’Omo, where he says, “While some may find the idea of union representation appealing, it is worth noting that a union cannot guarantee any additional benefits. RMU can give no more to any employee than what the university’s finances will allow.”
This seems an audacious statement considering the president’s annual compensation is more than $600,000.
Like many adjuncts, I work at more than one college in order to make a living. Some semesters I have taught up to eight classes. Even at an average of six courses a semester, when you factor in the prep time and grading of papers, most adjuncts work at least 60 hours a week, which equals $2 an hour—30 percent of minimum wage.
In the summer, adjuncts rarely receive classes at RMU. Each year, the adjuncts receive a letter from the university in late May stating that we have a reasonable chance of returning to work in the fall. This legal maneuver prevents adjuncts from receiving unemployment benefits if they are unable to find summer work.
A union will give adjuncts a united voice, a bargaining unit, a say in what is fair compensation and how we should be treated. Although many say a union is about power, there is something even more important—value. All of us want to feel valued in the workplace. All of us need support and encouragement in our jobs. All of us desire to advance in our careers and achieve success.
Unfortunately, being an adjunct is much like a dead-end job. Despite our hard work, dedication and success in the classroom, when a full-time position opens on campus, many of us are not even considered for the job. This defies logic. We are good enough to teach the same classes as full-time professors—to the same students in the same classrooms—but we are not good enough to be hired full-time. That’s a poorly run business, a broken system. In California, adjuncts who teach for five years are automatically given a full-time position.
RMU places great emphasis on student evaluations of their professors. I am happy to report I have received excellent reviews from my students over the years. However, I have never received one comment from my superiors regarding my job performance. This lack of acknowledgement sends a  metamessage that it doesn’t matter how well you do, as long as you aren’t causing any problems.
It seems ironic that adjuncts strive to encourage students, but we are discouraged; adjuncts desire to get students excited about their careers, yet we are uncertain about our own; adjuncts fill students with hope and optimism about the future, but we often feel powerless to change ours.
It’s now time to change the conversation about RMU adjuncts. This is an ethical and moral issue that can no longer be ignored. Will all students and faculty who want to see the end of adjunct exploitation please join us in an effort for equality.
Jim Talerico has served as an adjunct professor at both Robert Morris University and Community College of Allegheny County since 2003. He teaches courses in English, Business Communication, Professional Writing and Public Speaking.