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John Barry Explains the Upcoming Adjunct Union Vote at MICA

This Labor Day weekend, adjuncts at Maryland Institute College of Art started receiving ballots by mail. It represents a transformative moment at MICA and, possibly, for the adjunct community in Baltimore.

Inside each envelope, there’s a set of instructions, and, below that, a dotted line, which, when cut, creates an anonymous ballot with two boxes: YES and NO. There’s a summary of a proposed contract, recently negotiated between the part time faculty – represented by SEIU Local 500 – and the MICA administration. Finally, there’s a letter from the bargaining team supporting approval of the contract. The ballots, once sent, go to a PO Box held by SEIU. After voting ends on September 16th, the votes will get counted.

For some MICA part time faculty members, that ballot is their introduction to the collective bargaining process. For the first time in Baltimore, part time faculty members are being asked to vote on an employment contract with the MICA administration. For the vast majority of that faculty, it’s a new experience.

Until now, the role of a MICA adjunct in determining conditions of employment has been pretty simple: there has been none. You get what you’re paid, and if you don’t like it, you can find another part time job. Now, after demanding a position at the bargaining table, MICA adjuncts are being asked to approve a contract, join a union, and pay dues. This is a new experience, easily misunderstood, so what follows is a very basic story of how exactly this process has developed, and what it means.

This extended process that began three years ago, when a few part time faculty members (calling themselves the MICA Part Time Faculty Committee, or PTFC) began to push for meetings with the MICA administration. The subjects of discussion: working conditions, uncertainty, low pay, and other issues that MICA adjuncts felt needed addressing. The discussions were cordial, but, in the view of the PTFC, largely inconsequential. Discussions were open; the decision-making process was claimed by MICA alone.

After discussion and debate, the PTFC decided to consider the union option: a mediated negotiation process in which the adjunct body as a whole would engage directly with the administration. Members of the SEIU Local 500, a Maryland-based chapter of the nationwide Service Employees International Union (SEIU), were invited to Baltimore to meet the PTFC. SEIU Local 500 represented about 70 percent of the adjunct faculty in Washington DC. In a meeting with the PTFC, Anne McCleer, director of research and strategic planning, made the case for a MICA union. They laid out the timeline: a petition for a vote, and, in spring, a collegewide vote on representation by SEIU 500.

The union was opposed by the MICA administration at the time, and the college hired a corporate law firm to push back. [A March 26 memo by then-President Fred Lazarus was pretty simple: “I urge you to vote, and to vote no.”] Several collegewide forums were held by the administration to press that point. In an election held in April 2014, the MICA adjuncts, by a 2-1 majority, rejected that claim and voted for representation by SEIU Local 500.

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And so the negotiation process began: a call was made to all part time faculty who wanted to participate in the process. A contract action team was formed (which would promote the contract), and a bargaining team was formed (to negotiate the contract). Over the summer of 2014, in response to surveys and direct dialogue with the adjunct body, that team came up with two sets of contract proposals: nonfinancial (dealing with issues affecting job stability and self-governance) and financial. The SEIU 500 guided the development of the contract proposals, inserting the concerns expressed by MICA adjuncts into a formal contract proposal.

Once the proposal was drawn up, the team issued a request to the MICA administration to initiate the negotiation process. These meetings began in August 2014, with a meeting with incoming president Sammy Hoi, then-Provost Ray Allen, and Chief Financial Officer Doug Mann – all representing the university. The administration was legally represented by their lawyer, a partner at DC-based Morgan Lewis law firm, which represents corporate clients in negotiations. The MICA bargaining team was composed (in alphabetical order) of John Barry, Alex Fine, Christopher Saah, Leslie Shellow, Joshua Wade Smith, and Dianne Witter. Negotiations were led by David Rodich, executive director of SEIU 500.

Over the following year, negotiations took place on a bi-weekly basis. The process was pretty regular: the MICA bargaining team would present contract proposals, and the administration would respond to them. Responses would be drawn up in consultation with their attorney. Then the MICA team would caucus, and determine whether to accept that version, or to press for further changes. That ultimately was how the current contract was formed.

An important point, which can be easily lost: What is being sent out is NOT the contract written up by the MICA adjunct bargaining team. This document includes the contract proposals as accepted and adjusted by the MICA administration. After several iterations – on issues ranging from evaluations to placement of bulletin boards, to appointments – agreements were reached, and the item in the contract was signed off on by the MICA team and the administration. This document contains compromises from both sides and it moves the process forward.

The contract in its current form is the product of that bargaining process. It includes the demands of the original contract as accepted by the MICA administration. It includes the non-financial and financial agreement.

The job of the bargaining team is easily misunderstood. The team’s job is not to advocate or to mobilize. In low-key discussions, the team looks for actual points of agreement between the two parties. As we were reminded, advocacy and organizing job action is what the MICA adjuncts do in support of the MICA contract proposals. So, a strong effort by adjuncts outside the bargaining team in the negotiation process gives union negotiators a stronger hand: faced with a highly mobilized employee base, employers tend to find more points of agreement than they would otherwise.

MICA adjuncts – who appointed the bargaining team – are now given the opportunity to accept or reject the contract in its current form. The contract as it now stands is a result of the collective bargaining process. This is NOT the contract proposal as the union initially presented it, nor does it represent what the MICA administration (which, in 2014, urged faculty members to vote against unionization) would have wanted. It represents common ground that emerged as the administration responded to and revised proposals.

For the most part, the administration inserted modifications into the initial proposals which maintained its legal and administrative status. At each point, the bargaining team had two options – to accept a modified version, or, ultimately, to bring the process to a halt until a resolution of differences came about. Decisions were tactical: would the proposals in the final form actually bring the part time faculty closer to their goals of professional and financial equity, or would a protracted standoff (which would be supported and carried out by a unified, involved body) be more useful?

Throughout the year, the MICA bargaining team held regular information sessions and group meetings to keep the bargaining unit up to date on the progress of negotiations. MICA part time faculty is, by its nature, a fragmented community: some commute, some teach one semester a year, many are professional artists, heavily involved in outside projects. Standoffs take time to resolve; some negotiations in DC have gone on for years. But the MICA faculty, with revolving appointments, changes rapidly. This was always a consideration in the decision to accept compromises.

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A YES vote is a vote to institute the results of the negotiations as they now stand, and to institute the MICA adjunct body as a democratically elected representative of the MICA body. The actual elements of the contract, and a summary, are posted here, on the SEIU 500 website. The three year contract will expire in fall 2018, when another MICA bargaining team will present its next series of demands to the administration. It will develop grievance and arbitration procedures, a revamped evaluation procedure, and offer other benefits listed here.

A NO vote rejects the contract. It will send the MICA negotiating team back to the table. The creation of the union, the management team, and election of union reps will be put off until the contract is finally resolved.

The bargaining team ultimately chose to endorse a YES vote. The nonfinancial agreement came closest to the original contract proposals. The nonfinancial elements of the contract were intended to create a professional, stable work atmosphere, with an improved evaluation system, grievance procedures, and other important elements. The administration certainly tweaked the proposals – often to maintain their legal and administrative position in the process — but it addresses many of the issues that motivated the MICA faculty to organize in the first place. It also created the foundation for a Labor Management Team, which would address adjunct issues directly with the administration. SEIU 500 would also give the MICA union legal support (and other forms as well) to make sure that the spirit of the agreement was being honored by the MICA administration.

The final version of the financial proposals, however, reflects less flexibility than was hoped for, on the part of the administration. The original proposals by the bargaining team – written up after a survey of part time faculty members – included a change in the pay scale that reflected, in the MICA team’s mind, a reasonable move towards equity. The administration itself – reflecting the board of trustees — made significantly less movement in that direction: citing the reduced incoming freshman class as a reason for the tiny increase.

The differences here seemed initially irreconcilable, and, at first, appeared to leave the negotiations at a standstill. But the administration did not present their response as a final offer, so the bargaining team continued to look for some common. Meetings were held, and the concerns of the adjuncts were relayed to the administration. The negotiations continued through the summer in the empty classrooms of MICA. Eventually, thanks to prodding from members of the team, an avenue for progress was worked out: the administration offered little increase up front, but would agree to changes in the pay scale which would allow MICA faculty to increase their earnings significantly, and at a faster rate. It also agreed to the institution of regular cost of living adjustments, adjusted to the CPI index.

Again, this was far less than the bargaining team – and the MICA part time faculty – had been looking for. But it did provide an avenue for MICA adjuncts to move up the salary scale, by requiring fewer course credits, and with a more liberal definition of professional experience. After long discussions the team took the three year contract option as the most favorable alternative for the MICA adjunct body, and one that would significant increases for many faculty members. The decision was also tactical: with a formal Union – in which all adjuncts were capable of voting, and holding elected positions – the part time faculty would be better mobilized to advocate for future financial and nonfinancial gains.

Ultimately, though, the decision is up to each voting member of the part time faculty. It’s a vote which should be considered carefully and practically by the adjunct community. Political action can be emotional and cathartic, and we live in an era of instant response, but the actual process of negotiating for increased governance in any institution is slow and frustrating. That process has begun at MICA, but it is not nearly complete. Had the administration delivered everything the bargaining team asked for, that might be an argument against forming a union.

But the adjunct body needs to establish itself as a formal involved force on campus, with a recognized role and the legal protection that membership in a union offers. The contract is an important step in that direction. As a team, MICA adjuncts – making up 70 percent of the faculty — have made important changes and achieved recognition as a bargaining unit in a college. The next step – a pay scale that reflects the value of the adjuncts as teachers – is going to require a stronger, mobilized body with direct representation in the process. That’s why, in its communications, the MICA bargaining team has supported approval of the contract.

Author John Barry is a Baltimore-based writer and professor. He is a member of the MICA Adjunct Faculty Bargaining Team.

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