In recent months attention to the situation of low-paid academic workers—adjunct teachers in particular but also graduate student employees—has been rising; several incidents at universities across the country have been reported at The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. None of these developments provide an assured route to improvements for members of the academic proletariat, and each presents its own issues. But together they suggest that there is reason for hope.

At the University of Illinois, Chicago, the union representing tenure-track faculty took the apparently unprecedented step of staging a 2-day strike on 18 and 19 February, in which they demanded substantial raises for contingent faculty. This action "sends a clear signal to colleges elsewhere that the two sides" of the faculty, which on many campuses are at odds over pay issues, "are capable of working together to remedy inequities in how they are treated," The Chronicle's Peter Schmidt writes. The union proposal, which the university opposes as too costly, would guarantee full-time, contingent faculty a minimum of $45,000 a year, up from $30,000. Part-timers' pay would be prorated from the new full-time amount according to the number of hours they work.

In Michigan, meanwhile, a federal judge invalidated a state law passed in 2012 that forbade unionizing by graduate research assistants at the state's public universities. Although the judge ruled on procedural grounds rather than the merits of the law, the decision gives hope to union organizers such as Andrea Jokisaari, a Ph.D. student in materials science and engineering at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who has been active in the years-long effort to organize the campus's research assistants, The Chronicle' s Vimal Patel notes in another article. Nonetheless, "major hurdles remain before graduate research assistants can form a collective-bargaining unit, even if the ruling withstands a possible appeal," the article states.

In Seattle, Washington, the Service Employees International Union is working to organize adjuncts at two of the city's institutions, Seattle University (SU) and Pacific Lutheran University. SU's adjuncts have petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a union election. Both universities oppose the unionization drives on the basis of their religious affiliations. (SU is Roman Catholic.) In 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that unionization at religious schools could not be compelled because it could constitute "a significant risk of infringement of the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment if the act conferred jurisdiction over church-operated schools." The NLRB is studying how this ruling affects adjuncts at religious colleges, Inside Higher Ed's Scott Jaschik reports.

Stay tuned for future developments.

 

Top Image Credit: Bain News Service/Library of Congress

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1400051