In Pittsburgh’s New Economy, Organized Labor Reorganizes in Unconventional Ways

Organizers Robin Sowards and Clint Benjamin at USW headquarters in downtown Pittsburgh, two blocks away from the campus of Point Park University. PPU adjunct faculty are voting this month on whether to join the Steelworkers. Credit Josh Raulerson / 90.5 WESA

Steelworkers organizing Professors

By Josh Raulerson

Beaver County Blue via NPR Pittsburgh

Like any English professor, Clint Benjamin spends a lot of his time grading papers.

“There’s a mountain – a teetering Matterhorn of papers at the end of the weekend, or during the week,” Benjamin said. “You’ve just gotta get through them.”

By his own estimate, Benjamin spends 30 to 40 hours a week on grading alone. He also has to attend meetings, answer emails, keep office hours, and commute between the Community College of Allegheny County and Duquesne University campuses, where in a typical week he prepares and teaches five sections’ of English and writing classes.

For his troubles, Benjamin earns between $25,000 and $30,000 a year and no benefits – if he’s lucky enough to get the maximum number of appointments each institution offers. As a contingent employee, Benjamin is compensated at a fraction of what his similarly credentialed tenured and tenure-track colleagues earn. (Adjunct faculty normally hold a terminal degree in their field: typically a PhD or, in Benjamin’s case, an MFA.)

Benjamin recently took on a third job as an organizer with the United Steelworkers’ Adjunct Faculty Association, which recently led a successful effort to organize part-time faculty at Duquesne.

The campaign drew national attention last year, when the death of 83-year-old adjunct professor Margaret Mary Vojtko became a cause célèbre for the higher-ed labor movement. Vojtko was broke and facing homelessness when she died shortly after being let go by Duquesne, her employer of 25 years.

Many adjuncts, like Benjamin, saw in Vojtko’s story a glimpse of their own possible future – and that of their profession.

"I do love what I’m doing, but that’s how the administration gets us," he said. “It’s a crisis.”

With help from USW, Duquesne adjuncts voted overwhelmingly to form a union in 2012. Two years later, they’re still fighting the university for recognition. But they’re not waiting to organize workers on other city campuses.

Ballots are being mailed out Tuesday to more than 300 contingent instructors at Point Park University, making the downtown Pittsburgh campus the latest battleground in a citywide campaign to organize Pittsburgh’s higher-education workforce.

The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education show part-time faculty account for nearly three-quarters of instructional staff at Point Park – more than most other post-secondary institutions in the region. Organizers think that degree of reliance on adjuncts makes the school ripe for unionization.

“Point Park faculty are among the lowest paid in the city, and receive among the least support, and are subject to rather draconian employment conditions,” organizer Robin Sowards said.

73.6 percent of Point Park University faculty are part-time employees (source: National Center for Education Statistics data for 2012-2013 academic year). Credit IPEDS Data Center, U.S. Department of Education

Administrators dispute that characterization, saying the school “takes pride in providing a positive atmosphere for our faculty and space.”

In a written statement, the administration maintains that — irrespective of the distribution of employees — more than half of Point Park’s courses are taught by full-time employees. Spokesman Lou Corsaro says that puts PPU in compliance with standards set by the state Department of Education.

Students pay $38,000 a year to attend Point Park University, accounting for the vast majority of its revenues, though the school spends only half its budget on classroom instruction (source: National Center for Education Statistics data for 2012-2013 academic year). Unionization advocates say adjunct faculty deserve a bigger slice of the pie.  Credit IPEDS Data Center, U.S. Department of Education

Corsaro adds that the majority of Point Park adjuncts teach one or two courses per semester and hold other, full-time jobs elsewhere. In other words, many fit the traditional profile of adjunct faculty: supplemental staff with day jobs in professional fields, teaching a class here or there for the sake of service, or to supplement their primary income.

That’s increasingly rare in a labor market where graduate degree holders vastly outnumber full-time appointments, and most, like Clint Benjamin, rely on two or more teaching jobs to get by.

Sowards, who teaches at Duquesne, earned his doctorate in 19th century English literature. But he’s also a student of labor history, and said it’s no accident that non-tenure-eligible positions now account for the lion’s share of college teaching jobs.

“What happened is a deliberate decision by managers in higher ed to divide the faculty,” Sowards said, “and to divide the faculty by using the opportunity provided by these adjunct positions, which were low paid because people didn’t need the money.”

As recently as 1969, more than 78 percent of post-secondary teaching positions were eligible for tenure, according to a 2013 report from the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. Forty years later, the distribution is reversed: Only a third of faculty jobs are on the tenure track.

“Instead of one faculty that has a powerful voice over what goes on in the institution and can ensure the institution remains focused on its educational mission,” Sowards said, professors are split between two faculties: “One of which is small and comparatively more privileged, and the other of which is essentially treated like low-wage workers.”

New Economy, New Strategy

With respect to wages, Corsaro said Point Park’s minimum pay rate of $2,091 per three-credit course is “competitive” with other, comparably sized private universities. But when it comes to organizing strategy, those national benchmarks may be beside the point. For labor’s purposes, it’s the local wage standard that matters.

Service workers and their supporters rally for higher wages outside UPMC headquarters. The SEIU-led protest shut down a broad swath of downtown Pittsburgh for two days in March. Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

That’s where Pittsburgh’s transformation from a manufacturing economy to one based on tech, healthcare and higher education comes in.

What do PhD-educated college professors at Point Park have in common with custodians and cafeteria workers at UPMC Presbyterian? Stephen Herzenberg, with the labor-affiliated Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg, said they’re both employed in what economists call “non mobile services.”

That is — unlike manufacturing jobs — they’re hard to outsource.

“The bedpans in the Allegheny Hospital can’t be emptied in Tijuana or in Shanghai,” Herzenberg said.

The same goes for McNuggets. It’s one reason so much of the labor movement’s energy lately has been focused on organizing fast-food workers to demand better pay.

“Most of the jobs, including the vast majority of the jobs that pay a poverty wage, close to the minimum wage, can’t go anywhere because they’re tied to where the customer is,” Herzenberg said.

That advantage may be less pronounced in higher education, where there’s been a big push in recent years toward online instruction and MOOCs. Still, Herzenberg maintains, individual, human interaction is indispensable at the college level, especially when it comes to teaching process-intensive skills like writing.

“Innovative organizing efforts among contingent faculty absolutely have the ability within a metro area to establish new wage and benefit norms,” Herzenberg said.

The part about “within a metro area” is key, because colleges that share a geographical location also draw from the same labor pool. If wages go up at one school, there’s less pressure on teachers to accept a lower wage at the others.

It’s the same reasoning behind the Service Employees International Union’s aggressive campaign on behalf of UPMC service workers. Herzenberg says if SEIU succeeds in raising wages at the region’s largest employer, they’ll be two-thirds of the way toward establishing a substantially higher regional wage standard across the service sector.

The metro-level organizing approach may have other tactical advantages for adjuncts.

“Administrators and even tenure-stream faculty are to some extent penned within the four walls of their own institution, whereas adjuncts are dispersed across the whole city,” Sowards said. “That’s one of the things that are disadvantageous — we’re stuck having to have multiple jobs — but it also means that we already have, in a way, a citywide network. We’re already connected across multiple institutions."

It’s already happening in Philadelphia, where both SEIU and the American Federation of Teachers have announced plans to build citywide collective bargaining units. Similar efforts are underway in Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.

But unlike in the industrial era, "the union effort doesn’t have to win everywhere at once," Herzenberg said.

"It just has to make progress in one place," he said. "You begin to see a way that unions can come back in a big way."

Shifting Boundaries

There’s reason to believe modern unions can make better inroads in the non-mobile services sector than in manufacturing, where the labor movement came of age in the last century. Compare the results of the 2012 NLRB election at Duquesne — 85 percent of adjuncts in favor of the union — with last February’s vote at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Workers there rejected representation by the United Auto Workers, even though the company’s management did not oppose it. 

But even if adjuncts are well positioned to build networks with other academics, there may be some cultural barriers to overcome.

Journalist and labor historian Ted McClelland writes about the intersection of social and economic identities in his work on the Rust Belt’s collapsing industrial middle class. A central theme in his book, "Nothin’ But Blue Skies," is the way class stereotypes can lead working people to misconstrue their role in the economy.

“Middle-class jobs have traditionally been thought of as jobs you do in an office,” McClelland said. “But I think a lot of office workers are certainly not as well paid as a lot of industrial workers, and definitely not as well paid as tradesmen like plumbers or electricians. We might think of them as blue collar or as working class, but they’re definitely making more money than, well, than an adjunct professor.”

If academic workers are going to play a role in a reconfigured “eds-and-meds” labor movement, McClelland said, it will mean revising such commonplace assumptions about class: getting blue-collar workers to see their fortunes as linked with those of professors, and vice-versa. He said many white-collar workers still view themselves as middle-class, despite decades of stagnating wages, rising debt and dwindling opportunities.

“I think part of it is the labor movement’s fault,” McClelland said. “It hasn’t done a good enough job of expanding the consciousness of labor, the consciousness of the union movement, beyond blue-collar workers.”

Benjamin acknowledges the effort to organize faculty wasn’t universally supported at Duquesne.

"Originally when we started these campaigns there was a little bit of pushback from professors: ‘We’re professors, we profess things, we don’t need a collective bargaining agent or a union,’" Benjamin said. "But given the working conditions for adjuncts it seems there is a definite and palpable need."

Sowards agrees the transformation may be a long time coming among some tenure-stream faculty. But he thinks adjuncts understand the situation just fine.

“They recognize immediately that they’re low wage workers,” Sowards said. “Having a spectacularly low wage helps that.”

Leaders of the Adjunct Faculty Association view the Steelworkers union as a natural partner, in part because USW has a long history of representing workers in sectors other than heavy industry.

“Back in the ’30s when the Steelworkers organizing committee was organizing the mills, they didn’t just organize mills — they organized all the grocery stores in between the mills,” Sowards said. “It was whole communities they were focused on organizing. And that was a deliberate strategy. They felt that you needed a diverse membership.”

In economic terms, Sowards argues, adjuncts are no different from any other low-wage workers in the new economy.

“From our point of view," he said, “college professors aren’t some rare and fabulous and special breed that needs special and exotic protections, but are ordinary workers who deserve a living wage, just like other workers in this city.”

Contingent faculty at Point Park have until June 24 to return their ballots. Official results are due back from the National Labor Relations Board by the end of the month.

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