Adjunct Professors Face Challenges in Trying to Unionize

Adjunct professors, generally defined as non-tenure-track and part-time, are becoming increasingly common at two- and four-year colleges and universities around the country. As their numbers grow, however, they are struggling with a lack of job security, low pay, and few benefits. Some of them are successfully demanding better treatment, and several unions are offering their support and assistance. They face some difficult legal obstacles, however, including Supreme Court precedent that limits the applicability of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and claims by some schools that more recent Supreme Court decisions allow them to prevent their adjunct professors from holding union elections.

An article published by Al-Jazeera America in July 2014 describes the experiences of several adjunct professors and describes how faculty employment has changed in recent years. Approximately 30 percent of the 1.8 million faculty members employed by U.S. colleges and universities hold tenure-track positions, meaning that their position offers them the possibility of promotion to “full” professor with a very high degree of job security. Only 24 percent of faculty members actually have tenure, a decrease from about 45 percent in the 1970s.

Most of the remaining faculty members, around 700,000 total, work part-time, with median pay of $2,700 per semester-long course and few, if any, benefits. Some adjunct professors work part-time to supplement income from a full-time career, but many want a career in academia but can only find part-time positions. Organizations like the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) are getting involved in the adjuncts’ efforts.

Adjunct professors seeking to unionize already face an uphill battle. More than 30 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held that tenured faculty members at private colleges and universities are excluded from the NLRA. Nat’l Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva Univ., 444 U.S. 672 (1980). The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Harris v. Quinn, 573 U.S. ___ (2014), which held that public-sector unions cannot require certain employees who do not join the union to pay fees, may affect efforts by adjunct professors at public colleges and universities to organize.

Schools that are directly affiliated with religious institutions may pose an additional challenge for adjunct professors. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which enforces labor laws involving workers’ rights to organize, does not have jurisdiction over “teachers in schools operated by a church to teach both religious and secular subjects.” NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 440 U.S. 490, 491 (1979). The NLRB is investigating whether Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, which is citing both the Yeshiva Univ. and Catholic Bishop cases, may bar faculty members from unionizing.

Finally, schools that claim a religious affiliation, but are not necessarily part of a broader religious institution, may claim that the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, 573 U.S. ___ (2014), allows them an exemption from the NLRA’s requirements. The court essentially held in Hobby Lobby that a private corporation may claim an exemption from a federal statute based on sincerely held religious beliefs. Several Catholic schools, including Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University and New York’s Manhattan College, have claimed exemptions from the NLRA as adjuncts and other employees try to unionize. The NLRB ruled in April 2014 that one of the schools, Seattle University, must allow its adjuncts to form a union if they decide to do so, but that decision has been called into question in the wake June’s Hobby Lobby decision.

If you need to speak to an employment attorney in New Jersey or New York, contact the Resnick Law Group at 973-781-1204 or (646) 867-7997.

More Blog Posts:

NLRB Proposes New Procedures for Union Representation Votes, Rules that College Football Players May Vote on Unionizing, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, April 25, 2014
NLRB Addresses the Question of When the NLRA Protects Employees’ Statements on Social Media, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, March 18, 2014
NLRB Rules that Facebook Posts Regarding Coworkers Were Protected Concerted Activity, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, February 7, 2013

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