Adjunct instructors at Point Park deciding whether to unionize

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Last December, in between classes at Point Park University and Indiana University of Pennsylvania — where she teaches students how to make arguments and cite sources in composition courses — Mary Grace Gainer took a bad fall on the ice.

She never saw a doctor, though she still limps, she said. Family members cobbled together money to replace her laptop computer, which was shattered when she fell.

Ms. Gainer, 38, is an adjunct professor who, two years after finishing her doctorate, struggles each semester to line up teaching loads at two universities that provide her little job security and no clear route to full-time employment. She receives health insurance through neither university, though IUP gives her the option of purchasing it -- for a price she says is unaffordable: 57 percent of the given premium, according to the university.

It’s a perilous way to live, she said.

“I cannot be an adjunct for life,” Ms. Gainer said. “It will kill me.”

The Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers is trying to organize adjunct faculty members such as Ms. Gainer.

The faculty is in the midst of a mail-in ballot election that ends Tuesday. Results will be tabulated Wednesday at the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board in the Federal Building, Downtown. If the vote is favorable — and no objections are filed — the bargaining unit could be recognized seven days later, according to NLRB rules.

Pay ranks highest among the items that Ms. Gainer hopes will be the subjects of collective bargaining, a list that also includes job security and working conditions. She said she was paid about $2,200 per course last year at Point Park. She taught three courses during the fall semester, which is the limit, and two in the spring.

Rebecca Taksel, 70, who teaches English and French, said her pay was about the same. Compensation for adjuncts ranges from $2,091 to $2,727 per course, according to the university.

“Of course it’s not enough money to support yourself on,” said Ms. Taksel, who has worked a series of additional jobs, including as an interior designer and exercise instructor. If it weren’‍t for her Social Security check, she might need food stamps, she said.

At IUP, where a union represents full- and part-time faculty, Ms. Gainer is paid more — about $5,000 per course, she said — but similarly lacks health insurance and other benefits. She said she earned about $43,000 this year, teaching 11 classes at two universities nearly 60 miles apart.

Point Park University is “confident the compensation for adjunct faculty ... is comparable to similarly situated institutions,” Louis Corsaro, a spokesman for Point Park, said in a statement. The school does not require its adjunct faculty to have advanced degrees and thus cannot be compared to many seemingly peer institutions, he said.

Randa Ruge, an organizer with the USW, said more than 50 percent of eligible Point Park adjuncts have pledged union commitment, and she believes the vote will carry. She said the professors’‍ eagerness to unionize stems from their having been “marginalized for the [past] 30 years,” during which time universities nationwide have increasingly relied on temporary instructors. Ms. Ruge said the university has locked them out of decisions about curriculum and university governance.

The union contends three-quarters of the faculty members are adjuncts, but the university says that figure is misleading. In written responses to a six-page document that the USW distributed, the school claimed that full-time faculty still teaches the vast majority of courses, conforming to Pennsylvania Department of Education standards. Ms. Ruge said 406 adjuncts are eligible to vote in the current election. The university did not respond to inquiries about the precise number of adjuncts nor the ratio of adjuncts to full professors.

“Point Park strives to hire adjunct faculty [members] who are full-time professionals in the fields in which they teach, in order to complement the teaching of full-time faculty and offer its students exposure to real-world experience in the classroom,” the university stated.

Ms. Taksel said that fits the profile of some adjuncts, who have full-time appointments in law firms, for example, or other universities. In her case, teaching is is not a “hobby,” she said. Most adjuncts are “depending on this job for some or all of our living.”

Patricia Zusinas, who has a full-time appointment at Robert Morris University and has taught at Point Park as an adjunct as recently as spring 2013, disagreed. Most do other work, she said. Because she has been away from the classroom for a year, Ms. Zusinas will not vote, but she said she believed she was fairly compensated for her work at Point Park and had health insurance from her other academic job.

In a June 9 letter to adjunct faculty, Point Park University president Paul Hennigan urged eligible voters to decline USW representation, instead asking members to choose to “work directly with the university.” He underscored the importance of voting, saying that “all too often recently, union elections among adjunct faculty have been decided by a small but vocal minority.”

Mr. Hennigan vowed to respect the outcome of the election, which would distinguish the present organizing drive from previous such efforts among full-time faculty at Point Park and among adjuncts at Duquesne University. Both are caught in legal battles, the first because Point Park alleges that full-time faculty members are management and the second because Duquesne claims it is exempt from federal labor law as a “church-operated school.” The September 2013 death of a longtime Duquesne adjunct, Margaret Mary Vojtko, brought renewed attention to the USW’‍s fight to organize part-time instructors there.

“Since both sides stipulated to the election, I think it’s going to be smoother,” said Rhonda Ley, acting regional director of the National Labor Relations Board's Pittsburgh office. “The things that led to the prior cases being litigated aren’‍t involved here.”

Point Park has retained the counsel of Jackson Lewis, a labor and employment law firm based in White Plains, N.Y. The university declined to make attorneys available for comment.

Correction, June 23: An earlier version of this story misstated the provision of insurance that Mary Grace Gainer has. She has the option of purchasing health insurance through Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she also is an adjunct, though she does not do so. 

Isaac Stanley-Becker: or 412-263-3775. Twitter: @isb_isaac.

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