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MICA part-time faculty member Hannah Brancato and organizer Maria Maisto discuss the growing nationwide trend of adjunct professors organizing in order to collective bargain for decent salaries and benefits

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

In the next few weeks, part-time faculty at the Maryland Institute College of Art, or MICA, will vote on whether or not to unionize. They would join the Service Employees International Union, more commonly known as SEIU. This is part of a bigger push to unionize adjuncts across the country. Not only do adjuncts get paid significantly less than tenured professors, but they often don’t receive benefits like health insurance. And with a large share of adjunct professors making up colleges’ faculty, a trend to unionize could have lasting effects on higher education.

Now joining us to discuss these issues are our two guests.

Hannah Brancato is an adjunct faculty member at MICA, where she taught undergraduate art history, fiber, and foundation courses.

We’re also joined by Maria Maisto, who is the president of the New Faculty Majority, a coalition fighting for adjunct and contingent equity and academic freedom.

Thank you both for joining us.



DESVARIEUX: So, Hannah, you’re a MICA adjunct professor, as I said, and you’re obviously going to vote for unionization, ’cause that’s why you’re basically on the program. Why do you think part-time faculty should unionize?

BRANCATO: Basically, we need an official and sustained place at the table, a committee of part-time faculty members started working together in 2011 directly with the administration at MICA to try to make some positive changes. There hadn’t been a pay increase since 1999. There were some questions about job security as it relates to contract, access to benefits, and things of that nature. And, also, the main push was actually that there was no part-time committee. There was no official representation of part-timers at the school. And so the real effort was actually to form that committee.

Those negotiations ended in some very small changes, and with the administration deciding that we could not officially form a committee that would regularly be able to meet with them. So we found that the only way to have a sustained place at the table would be to unionize.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. I want to talk about that administration, because they have not come out supporting this effort to unionize. They actually haven’t taken a position at all. MICA’s vice president for academic affairs, Raymond Allen, he recently told City Paper, quote:

“It’s part of our values to make sure people are fairly compensated for the good work they do here. . . . [W]e decided to raise [the maximum per-class pay to $5,000] and to give them a cost-of-living increase in the future based on the [Consumer Price Index]. That was something that hadn’t been done in the past, and we will do it in the future.”

So this sounds like some reasonable improvements here, Hannah. Why is that not enough?

BRANCATO: So the $5,000 cap that was created is actually only for adjuncts that have been teaching for more than ten years. And the cost-of-living increase is definitely a good change, and one that is–both of those changes are a result of the organizing that was being done by the [incompr.]

Now, the problem is that there will continue to need to be changes, and like I said, the only way for us to continue to be able to negotiate with the administration as we did this year in order to get those changes made, we need to form a union, because they’ve told us that we cannot continue to meet with them on our own. And so that’s a really important fact.

And, you know, the thing is that, sure, if it’s part of MICA’s value system that, you know, they respect their workers, then they should respect our right to unionize and to form this official organizing body.

DESVARIEUX: Let’s get Maria into the conversation. Maria, put what’s happening in Baltimore in a broader context. MICA has not taken an official stance, as I said before, but there have been other administrations that are doing different approaches and are either really oppressing schools–I should say, faculty unionizing. Can you speak to that?

MAISTO: Sure. Certainly what MICA’s administration is doing is a common tactic to try to improve conditions on the surface as a tactic to discourage faculty from unionizing. So we’ve seen that before.

But there is a range of reactions. The best reaction in the B.C. area has been from Georgetown University, which did not oppose the adjuncts’ efforts to unionize. But then we’ve also had some pretty stringent and robust opposition to unionizing from administrations at other places across the country.

DESVARIEUX: Which places, specifically?

MAISTO: Well, you have Pacific Lutheran. There’s been a lot of opposition to unionizing. Duquesne continues to–the Duquesne administration continues to oppose its own social justice teaching in opposing unionization. There’s Xavier College, there are a number of different colleges that have actively opposed unionization by their adjuncts.

DESVARIEUX: So, Hannah, I’m going to turn back to you, ’cause I have a statistic here that says MICA adjuncts do reportedly make more than other adjuncts, about 35 percent more. Do you think that you guys have a good chance of getting a union? What has been the reaction of your colleagues?

BRANCATO: There’s been an overwhelming amount of support. All of our colleagues are–many of our colleagues and most of them are on board with the idea that we need [incompr.] place at the table and the ability to negotiate. As of now, any kind of benefits or perks that adjuncts are receiving, any kind of security for getting a contract the next year, being on the schedule, any kind of job security, is based on relationships and it’s not sustainable. It’s not a sustainable way for people to make a living. And so everybody sees the need for it, right?

So I’ve actually been very excited, and there’s a lot of really great energy forming, and even a little bit of student support, for the idea that, you know, better pay and better working conditions for the adjunct faculty at MICA is actually going to result in a better school for all of us.

And again I want to emphasize that certainly the pay increase, which–we haven’t received a pay increase since 1999 at MICA–that’s not even the central point here. The central point is to have a continued ability to talk with our administration about future changes that need to be made.

DESVARIEUX: Maria, I’m going to turn to you again to get the bigger picture. Why are we seeing universities hiring more adjuncts at the end of the day?

MAISTO: Well, according to the universities and colleges, they’re saying that it’s because of decreases in state funding and other rising expenses. But what we actually know is that colleges and universities have made a conscious choice to balance their budgets on the backs of adjuncts by increasingly hiring faculty off the tenure track at much, much lower wages. So it’s really a combination.

It’s certainly true that there has been a decline in state funding, but there hasn’t been a corresponding rise in attempts to persuade legislators to increase funding for higher education. So it’s a combination of external factors. But really it’s primarily an internal, conscious decision. It’s a way also to control the faculty, it’s a way to suppress academic freedom, because when you have a faculty that’s all contingent, you’re going to have far less feeling of security to speak out on issues ranging from curriculum to political conditions on-campus. So those are the real reasons.

DESVARIEUX: Very interesting story. We’ll certainly be tracking it here at The Real News when the vote comes up in a few weeks. Thank you, ladies, both for joining us.

BRANCATO: Thanks for having us.

MAISTO: Yeah, thank you for having us.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Maria Maisto is a co-founder and president of New Faculty Majority: The National Coalition for Adjunct and Contingent Equity (NFM), a 501(c)6 nonprofit established in February 2009. NFM works to improve the quality of higher education by improving the working conditions of the majority of its faculty. In late 2009 she helped establish the NFM Foundation, a now 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, which is the main research and education arm of NFM. She serves as its executive director. Maria's November 2013 testimony before a congressional committee was the catalyst for a national e-Forum that resulted in a January report by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democratic Staff, The Just-In-Time-Professor. Maria is co-author of a report for the Center for the Future of Higher Education, "Who Is Professor Staff, and how can this person teach so many classes?" and has written about contingency faculty issues for national publications. She has taught English as an adjunct faculty member at Cuyahoga Community College since 2009. Before that she taught as an adjunct at the University of Akron and in the 90s at the University of Maryland at College Park.

Hannah Brancato is a faculty member at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She is the co-founder of Force: Upsetting Rape Culture, a group working to end rape culture and promote a culture based on consent through art actions that generate media attention and get millions of people talking. Brancato is also a member of the Open Society Institute Leadership Council.