Seattle University adjunct professors will form a union after the university blocked their efforts for more than two years. Faculty votes, which had been impounded since 2014, were counted on Friday.
More than two years after nontenure-track professors at Seattle University cast ballots on whether to form a union, the votes were finally counted Friday. And the union won.
The vote was 73-63. As long as no objections are filed, the union will be certified in one week.
Seattle University, a Jesuit school, had long fought the professors’ right to unionize, arguing that because it is a religious institution, its faculty is not covered by the National Labor Relations Act and could not join the Service Employees International Union 925.
But late last month, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the votes should be counted, and only nontenured faculty in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and the School of Theology and Ministry should be excluded from union eligibility.
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So on Friday, the ballots were taken from a secure, locked location at the NLRB offices in downtown Seattle, and taken out of three plump manila envelopes, crisscrossed with masking tape, with a signature overlying each piece.
Seattle U employs both adjunct professors, who work on a quarter-to-quarter basis, and contingent professors, who generally have one-year contracts. Both work on short-term contracts, are not eligible for tenure and usually receive lower pay and benefits. About half the faculty at Seattle U fall into one of those two categories.
Nontenured faculty at Saint Martin’s University, in Lacey, voted to unionize in June, but the university has asked for a delay, on the same religious grounds claimed by Seattle U. The SEIU also organized at Saint Martin’s and is currently working to organize adjuncts at the University of Washington, but no union vote is currently scheduled there.
Julie Harms Cannon, a contingent professor of sociology at Seattle U, could barely contain her glee at the result and, finally, an end to the limbo.
“It’s beyond what we expected,” said Harms Cannon, in her ninth year at Seattle U. “The last year has been really tough, now we can get busy again.”
She said that the union’s top priorities would be fighting for better benefits, higher pay per class taught and more stability and certainty in terms of course load.
Currently, Harms Cannon said, an adjunct’s class can be canceled if not enough students sign up, leaving professors unpaid and with no compensation for time already spent preparing.
Last year, hundreds of faculty members and students walked out of class to protest working conditions of adjunct professors and the university’s efforts to keep the votes sealed.
Seattle U has argued that it has steadily increased pay for adjuncts in the last several years and that a union was not the way to address faculty’s concerns. It says it has increased minimum full-time faculty salaries from $24,600 to $45,000.
“The university respects the right of working men and women to organize,” Seattle U said in a prepared statement, noting that some staff members are already unionized.
“The distinction with faculty is the central role each plays in carrying forward our Jesuit Catholic educational mission,” the university wrote. “The right to carry out our faith-based education on our terms is paramount to who we are and what we are about.”
The university said it would have another announcement on the vote later this month.
The counting of the votes on Friday was tedious — but not without drama.
First, the university’s lawyers challenged 15 of the votes, arguing they were from professors who taught a course with religious content and should be excluded. Those were set aside.
The union pulled ahead early and there was a whoop from the crowd of about 20 professors and union organizers.
The “no” votes pulled ahead. There were no whoops.
When the counting ended, it was 73-63 for the union, but there were enough challenged ballots to swing the result.
Both sides huddled.
SEIU lawyer Paul Drachler announced that they would agree to exclude the ballots — a strategic move that would guarantee victory, but perhaps by a smaller margin than it might have been.
But Matt Lynch, Seattle University’s lawyer, balked, saying that the university would agree only if the union agreed that those professors taught classes with religious content.
Drachler said no. There was arguing. And more huddling.
“It’s been two years,” Drachler pleaded.
The university’s team went out into the hall to confer. They returned about 10 minutes later.
“We are in agreement to exclude,” Lynch announced.
The audience erupted in cheers.