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UNH lecturers follow national trend of non-tenure faculty seeking to unionize

For the University of New Hampshire’s 200 lecturers, there are no formal policies on hiring and firing and no long-term job security. There aren’t any rules on workload, promotions or even maternity leave.

That could all change, however, if a small group of lecturers win in their effort to unionize.

“It’s one of those situations where people don’t see the need maybe right away,” said Sarah Hirsch, a Spanish lecturer and president of the organizing group. “And then you find out, people slowly come to this realization that, ‘Hey, wait a minute, there really aren’t any rules for us.’ ”

Hirsch and several other lecturers are seeking representation from the American Association of University Professors and filed a certification petition with the Public Employee Labor Relations Board earlier this month. If the labor relations board finds sufficient support, all parties will meet to schedule a secret ballot election. If the majority of lecturers vote in favor of unionizing, contract negotiations will begin.

The effort for non-tenure track teachers to unionize isn’t unique to UNH. Adjuncts, which are part-time teachers, at both the Community College System of New Hampshire and Plymouth State University ratified contracts earlier this fall after more than two years of wrangling with their administrations. Both groups are represented by the State Employees’ Association.

John Curtis, AAUP’s director of research and public policy, said efforts to unionize are growing nationally, as colleges and universities rely more heavily on non-tenure track faculty than in the past. In the long run, non-tenure faculty usually cost less money, because they often receive fewer benefits and don’t have a structured career path, he said.

“A lot of organizations like the AAUP have been advocating around working conditions for non-tenure track faculty for quite some time,” Curtis said. “But I think somehow a critical mass developed (recently); there’s been a lot more advocacy from within. You could almost say people just got fed up.”

Ensuring lecturers get fair compensation and codifying things like grievance procedures and evaluations are key points the lecturers pushing to form the union are seeking. UNH’s lecturers have a broad range of salaries based on what they teach but salaries are, on average, lower than at comparable institutions, said Cindy Pulkkinen, an English lecturer. For the College of Liberal Arts’ roughly 120 lecturers, the base salary is $36,000 on a one-year contract, she said.

Lecturers also lack a formal grievance process if, for example, their contracts aren’t renewed. Hirsch and Pulkkinen said the dean of UNH’s College of Liberal Arts has treated lecturers well, but formalizing policies would be fairer for everyone and eliminate arbitrary decision making by department chairs and deans across campus.

Ultimately, these lecturers say, creating a contract will be a good thing for the students, because it will ensure quality faculty are hired and aren’t let go unfairly, and it will formalize things such as their expected workload. The lecturers also want an evaluation process, as many of them are rarely reviewed by anyone other than students.

“We take a lot of pride in our work, and we love this job, and we love our students,” Hirsch said. “We want to make sure that they’re getting what they paid for.”

The AAUP already represents UNH’s tenure-track faculty, and those professors have been broadly supportive of the lecturers’ move to unionize, said Emilie Talpin, a French lecturer and vice president of the organizing group.

An effort to unionize UNH’s lecturers failed about six years ago, but it was primarily driven from the outside, Pulkkinen said. This time around, it’s the lecturers themselves who are knocking on doors and meeting with faculty in different departments to hear their concerns, she said, which seems to be making a difference.

“We’ve done all the legwork,” she said, referring to a group of about six lecturers. “We knocked on the doors, we made contact with the lecturers, we brought the cards to be signed. It’s been our movement the whole time, and it will be until the end.”

UNH Provost Lisa MacFarlane issued a statement recently saying a union is not necessary.

“We believe that UNH has made many gains that benefit lecturers through direct communication, and that the involvement of a union or collective bargaining is not necessary. We encourage lecturers to understand the pros and cons of union representation and to become educated about the union organizing and collective bargaining process. This will allow each lecturer to make an informed vote, should an election be held,” she said.

The lecturers driving the push to unionize said UNH’s administration tends to be lecturer friendly. This effort, they said, is really about solidifying practices and procedures so that lecturers have support no matter who’s in charge.

“I think our key word with this effort is really fairness, and a contract that is more than one page and a half so that the administration can go back to the contract, the lecturers can go back to the contract and there is a clear understanding of what your position entitles you,” Talpin said. “That’s why we really started the effort – (to have) a clear vision of who we are, what we have to do, what we can do.”

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3390 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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