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Seattle University faculty member Larry Cushnie doesn’t know if he’ll have a job teaching political science from one quarter to the next. Hired to teach from term to term, he believes a union can bring more predictability to his profession.

Bring in a third party to negotiate contracts? Bad idea, says Joe Barnes, who believes he’s been treated well by Seattle University.

“I do not see any reason for a union to come between me and the administration,” said Barnes, a business lecturer, in an email.

Seattle University’s contingent faculty members — nontenured instructors without long-term contracts — have a Monday deadline to decide whether to join Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 925.

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The Catholic, Jesuit-led university joins a growing number of schools across the country where contingent faculty are voting on unionization. The movement has been coalescing on campuses for more than a year, and is starting to get broader attention from students, who say their professors deserve greater job security and better benefits.

In the Seattle area, some students say they’ve been inspired to get involved by the movement for a citywide, $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Nontenured faculty make up the fastest-growing segment of teachers at all colleges and universities. As the economy improves, they are stepping up demands for improved job security and better benefits. And national unions, sensing a fertile playing field, are on the move, organizing at campuses around the state and nation.

SEIU 925 has also organized at Pacific Lutheran University and is starting work at Gonzaga University. It is part of a national campaign by SEIU called Adjunct Action, to organize adjuncts, sometimes also called contingent faculty.

What’s behind the discontent?

A growing group of higher-education instructors and professors believe they’re being taken advantage of by a two-tiered wage system, where the rules can seem arbitrary and people who do similar jobs don’t share equal standing, said Dan Jacoby, a professor at the University of Washington-Bothell’s School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. Jacoby has studied labor issues in higher education.

That sense of betrayal is an open door for organized labor, he said. “If we really are moving into a period where the recession is behind us … I think organized labor is going to push people, and I think people are going to want to be pushed,” he said.

A national study shows that for the first time, in 2011, half of all faculty teaching at the nation’s colleges and universities were part time — up from 36 percent in 1991. And average salaries for all faculty, both full and part time, decreased nationwide during the recession, when adjusted for inflation.

Because Seattle University has filed an appeal with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) over the faculty’s right to unionize, it’s likely the ballots cast in this election will be impounded until the NLRB rules on the appeal.

Seattle University argues that it has made significant progress on compensation and working conditions for contingent faculty over the last five years, including a boost in pay and benefits, opportunities for multiyear contracts and a career ladder for all full-and part-time faculty.

As part of that work, contingent full-time faculty will make a minimum salary of $45,000 in 2014-15; until fairly recently, the minimum salary was as low as $24,000.

According to the annual salary survey by the American Association of University Professors, a full professor at Seattle University made an average of $123,500 in 2012-13, and an associate professor made $86,400.

Social-justice mission

The idea that contingent faculty are being treated as second-class employees has resonated with some students — especially at religious schools that embrace a mission of social justice.

“Some students really see this as a direct violation of our mission,” said Isaac Gardon, a Seattle University student and student-government leader.

Earlier this year, student-government leaders passed a resolution asking the administration not to block the union vote, and on Thursday, a group of about 50 students held a small protest on campus, marching to the administration building with signs and a bullhorn, asking the university to drop the appeal.

“We’re not necessarily in support of the presence of a union — this gets a little tricky for us,” said Eric Chalmers, who is a senior and president of Seattle University student government. “We share the concern — a union is an outside party that doesn’t understand how higher education works. A union is a solution here, but not the optimal solution.”

Chalmers said students would prefer a third-party option: a homegrown union made up of just Seattle University contingent faculty. That option is not currently being considered, however.

Gardon said he finds no difference in teaching ability between contingents and tenured professors. Indeed, he says, some of his best professors have been contingent faculty members.

Yet he tries to take most of his classes from tenured professors because he knows they’ll still be working at the university after he graduates — making it easier to call on them for recommendations.

Cushnie, the political-science lecturer who supports the union, said for Seattle U. contingents the biggest issue is not pay but stability.

“It really is about making sure we know, quarter to quarter, if we’re going to be employed,” he said.

Bellevue, UW actions

Seattle University isn’t the only place where students are making their voices heard on wage issues for faculty.

Last month, Bellevue College student government leaders held a demonstration and passed a proclamation calling for the public college to improve wages, particularly for adjunct faculty, who make about 60 percent of what full-time faculty make.

Bellevue College faculty members are unionized, and are in negotiations on a new contract.

At the University of Washington, a dispute over wages and job security has been simmering since 2011, when about 70 instructors of the UW’s International and English Language Programs voted to join the American Federation of Teachers. The instructors teach English to international students.

The union and university have failed to agree on a contract despite nearly three years of negotiation. Peter Messinger, an extension lecturer and second vice president of the union, blames the UW administration for stonewalling and delaying negotiations.

UW spokesman Norm Arkans said most first contracts take longer to negotiate. And because the program’s enrollment is driven by student demand, negotiating on job security has been difficult, he said.

Messinger said the instructors decided to unionize because they felt they were being treated as second-class employees. But even though there’s still no contract, “We’ve never been so unified,” he said.

He predicted an uptick in union activity in higher education.

“There are unions throughout (the UW), and we’re now all talking with each other,” Messinger said. “The game is changing.”

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or On Twitter @katherinelong.

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