Part-time professors say they’re underpaid and undervalued. Are unions the answer?

Broward College adjunct professors celebrate their decision to file for a union election at a BBQ hosted by their union organization, SEIU, earlier this summer.
Broward College adjunct professors celebrate their decision to file for a union election at a BBQ hosted by their union organization, SEIU, earlier this summer.

Michelle Mitchell teaches religion at Broward College.

After class, she takes a Lyft or Uber (whichever is cheaper) to her mechanic’s parking lot, where she lives with her 19-year-old son in her broken-down 2007 Dodge Caravan. She nicknamed the van Tinny, “because it’s like living in a tin can.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Mitchell, 50, fell in love with teaching at the Miami campus of Brown Mackie College. And after the for-profit chain closed most of its campuses she was immediately offered work teaching classes part time at Broward College. Part-time (or adjunct) work wasn’t ideal, but Mitchell said she was told it would lead to a full-time position with benefits like health insurance.

Years later, she’s still an adjunct. Like many of her peers, she’s tired of the low wages, unpredictable schedule and hardscrabble life of a part-time professor. At Broward College — where two of every three instructors is part-time — the frustration has sparked a campaign to unionize.

The promise of full-time work never panned out, Mitchell said.

“I think a union would hold the administration to those kinds of promises, and then I wouldn’t be in the mess I’m in.”

Earlier this summer, Mitchell and other Broward College adjuncts filed to hold an election to determine whether the part-time faculty at the college want to form a union with the Service Employees International Union as part of its Faculty Forward campaign. There are some state hurdles to jump before it’s clear when, or if, the election can be held, and it isn’t immediately apparent how wide the support is for a union.

If they succeed, Broward adjuncts would be the third Florida school to unionize this year and signal the strengthening of a movement by national unions betting on adjuncts as the next big thing in union growth.

Broward College hasn’t officially responded to the union election request, although Greg Haile, the college’s general counsel, said the school is aware of the petition.

The election petition is the culmination of years of advocacy in South Florida, much of it from the South Florida Part-Time Faculty Association.

Alice Wujciak, a Broward College adjunct and one of the group’s leaders, said pay is the number one concern but not the only one. Part-time professors don’t get sick days, their course load changes semester-to-semester and there’s little opportunity for advancement in a job category that is usually defined as the start of a career.

“Once you have the adjunct job you’re looked upon as an adjunct — no way up,” she said. “We’re actually our own scabs. By holding the adjunct job we’re holding ourselves back from the full-time job.”

More than half of college faculty in the U.S. are part-time, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education, and the numbers at Broward College are even higher. SEIU said 67 percent of the college faculty was part-time in 2015. At Miami Dade College, the breakdown this fall is 45 percent adjunct and 55 percent full-time.

And although these professors are part of a workforce that is traditionally considered upper middle class, many are struggling. Nationwide, 31 percent of part-time faculty live near or below the poverty line, according to 2015 data. Florida falls slightly below the national average at 27 percent.

Mitchell said she makes about $20,000 a year teaching the maximum number of classes she can at Broward College. That puts her slightly above the national poverty level of $16,240 for a family of two.

“I make just enough to not be considered poor, but not enough to live,” she said.

That’s not an uncommon refrain among adjuncts, who are often limited in the amount of classes they can teach at each school. The workaround is usually to teach at multiple schools, which in South Florida are often a long commute apart.

“You have to cobble together as many classes as you can,” said Harvey Whitney, a former adjunct. He used to take the Tri-Rail back-and-fourth between his classes at Broward College and Miami Dade College.

The decision to form a union came after years of fighting for better wages. The last leader of the movement, Evan Rowe, left the state in 2015 after a decade of adjunct teaching and filing a lawsuit against the college.

Rowe, a part-time history professor at Broward College, said a school administrator retaliated against him by assigning him no classes after he began writing articles for the Broward New Times about his adjunct complaints. The college denies the claim.

One of Rowe’s articles was about an adjunct faculty task force started by the college to find solutions to adjunct concerns. The task force agreed on some small changes, including splitting a pot of travel money with full-time professors, but Broward College decided against any further raise for adjuncts than a $100 per class bump approved earlier in the year.

That works out to about $6 a week, or $3 per class. That’s not enough, said Whitney, who recently quit working for both Broward and Miami Dade after eight years of adjunct teaching over his frustrations with the working conditions, some of which he previously documented through his Adjunct World comic series.

Whitney, 48, used the Facebook page to catalog his grievances with the administration and connect with others in the same situation. In one post, a khaki-clad figure skateboards on a check for $847. The caption: “Disposable Adjunct has found a new use for his low, low biweekly check.”

If Broward adjuncts unionize, they’ll follow Hillsborough Community College and the University of South Florida as the third Florida school to make moves toward unionzation this year, mirroring a national spike in adjunct faculty unions.

National unions, like SEIU, are looking to adjuncts as an untapped market to grow their membership, said Robin Sowards, vice president of adjunct advocacy group New Faculty Majority. He also works with the United Steelworkers union, which has been organizing adjuncts in Vermont, Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

Unionization has grown more popular in the last 15 years, he said, as adjunct pay remains stagnant while inflation and tuition soar.

“There’s not abrupt changes, but it’s getting steadily worse,” he said.

In the last four years, SEIU has organized almost 17,000 adjuncts around the country and held more than 60 elections for part-time faculty and graduate students. Union officials said higher education is its most-successful industry, and in an internal document from a different Florida union, an SEIU organizer said that while the national budget for the coming year is lower, the higher ed budget is being doubled.

In choosing to pursue adjuncts, national unions have plenty to work with. More than 700,000 potential members teach at schools across the nation.

The majority of those would-be union members are at state colleges, like Miami Dade and Broward. Universities often have adjuncts, but they bulk up staffing with graduate students, many of whom are also forming unions.

Plenty of full-time faculty already belong to unions. In Florida, one of the largest groups is the 7,000-member United Faculty of Florida. Mike Budd, who taught for more than 30 years at Florida Atlantic University, joined UFF early on in his academic career. Now that he’s a “traditional” adjunct (a retired professor teaching a single class he’s passionate about) he’s gotten involved in organizing adjunct faculty too.

Originally his union looked into organizing for adjuncts, too, but the money wasn’t there, said Budd, 72.

Florida is a right-to-work state — “we call that a right to work for less,” he said — so there’s no obligation to pay into a union. Less union dues mean weaker unions who can’t afford to pay organizing staff.

Budd said he wants to see the two unions work together because he believes unions are an important resource for workers.

“There’s no question you see a significant difference,” he said. “Faculty is happier. Working conditions are definitely improved when they have better salaries and a voice in the workplace.”

SEIU boasts their first contracts usually include pay raises of 20 percent or more, as well as professional development programs, but even if a union election is approved, it will likely be some time before the adjuncts at Broward College will see the effects of union representation.

“I love teaching and it’s what I want to do,” Mitchell said. “I have to live at the same time, and that’s all I’m asking for.”