SEIU files complaints against the school following an aborted union vote

By Gary Walker

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A campaign to unionize adjunct faculty members at colleges across the nation has hit a roadblock at Loyola Marymount University.

The Service Employees International Union filed four National Labor Relations Board grievances against LMU last month, prompting the NLRB to cancel a scheduled Feb. 13 vote by part-time faculty on whether to unionize. A new union vote may be set after the agency completes its investigation.

In its complaint, the union claims LMU administrators have “interfered with, restrained and coerced” employees in their attempt to organize.

Adjuncts at LMU earn about $5,000 per course, typically teach a maximum of two classes each semester and are hired on a term-by-term basis. Adjuncts are at-will employees, but their tenured colleagues cannot be dismissed for cause without a hearing.

Union supporter Darrin Murray, who has taught part-time at LMU since 1993, said his adjunct status precludes him from having the job security and protections afforded full-time, tenure-track professors and believes LMU’s leadership wouldn’t have it any other way.

“They have done everything that they can to oppose us [on organizing],” said Murray, who also teaches at Cal State Northridge, where he has been able to join a union. “The reality is, [without a union] there is no assurance that we will be treated fairly by the administration. I have no assurance that I’m going to be teaching next fall.”

But LMU Vice President of Communications & Government Relations Kathleen Flanagan disputes charges that the university has tried to impede the organizing effort, but does want faculty members to fully understand the choice in front of them before being asked to cast a vote.

“We’re unaware of any allegation that supports these charges of unfair labor practices,” Flanagan said.

SEIU representatives did not return several calls.

Historically focused on health care, maintenance and public sector jobs, the SEIU has been successful in organizing adjuncts at Georgetown University and American University in Washington D.C., Tufts University and Lesley University in Massachusetts, Whittier College in the Los Angeles area and several other schools. It has called for a union vote at University of La Verne and has filed NLRB complaints in its attempts to organize Seattle University, according to the union’s website.

Emily Hallock, an adjunct political theory instructor at LMU, echoed Murray in accusing LMU of making it as difficult as possible for part-time teachers to form a union.

“They have rebuffed attempts to discuss any problems that exist with the adjuncts and without collective bargaining. They don’t seem to think that they need to,” said Hallock, who also teaches part time at UCLA, where she is a member of a union.

Hallock said LMU’s political science department has treated her well — calling it “a model department for the university” in terms of faculty appreciation — “but your treatment by the university should not depend upon whether you’re lucky enough to be in a department that is run professionally.”

Comparatively low pay for part-time faculty has frequently been a driving force of organizing efforts.

According to data submitted by part-time college teachers to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Adjunct Project, adjunct salaries at California colleges range from less than $1,000 to as much as $12,000 per course.

Employment attorney Genie Harrison said employers often seek to curtail union organizing during periods of economic downturn.

“Unions have had a positive effect on employees” but “the pendulum tends to swing back and forth” in terms of public support, said Harrison, who represented former Westchester firefighter Tennie Pierce in his settlement with the county over being forced to consume dog food during a hazing ritual in 2004.

Claiming a need to reign in public employee pensions as a budget control measure, lawmakers in Wisconsin and Ohio passed laws in 2010 that restricted collective bargaining rights by public employees. Ohio votes later overturned the effort through a state ballot measure.

Hallock said she sees as a stark contradiction in LMU’s approach to adjunct organizing efforts and the Jesuit universities to instill moral values in its students.

“The administration has mounted an unjust and insidious effort to discredit the adjuncts,” she said. “I think the university has been acting in flagrant disregard of its mission of social justice.”

Flanagan was dismissive of the accusation.

“I don’t think there’s a conflict with traditional Catholic teachings when we tell our employees that they need to be informed before making any final decisions [on unionizing],” Flanagan said.

LMU President David Burcham addressed the issue in a campus letter sent out after the SEIU’s grievance was announced.

“LMU, as a Catholic university in the Jesuit and Marymount traditions, embraces the Catholic principle on the dignity of human work. … We have strived to provide all of our employees fulfilling work in an environment of mutual respect and dialogue,” Burcham wrote. “LMU recognizes the inherent rights of our part-time faculty to freely determine how they choose to be represented.”

Hallock believes a union vote at LMU is inevitable.

“It’s just a matter of time,” she said. §

gary(at)argonautnews.com

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