Yea or Nay? The Push to Unionize Visiting Faculty at Bay Area Art Schools

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Sally Field in Norma Rae

Last week, San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) President Charles Desmarais sent an email to part-time and temporary faculty about a forthcoming vote over joining the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). SEIU is most widely known for organizing labor unions for healthcare workers, facilities workers, and public services workers; but in recent months the organization has also been working with visiting faculty at Bay Area art schools to create a union for part-time college educators.

According to Desmarais' email, the SEIU filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board seeking an election to determine if part-time and visiting faculty at the Institute wants to be represented. (Disclosure: Having taught as visiting faculty at SFAI last semester, I am among those eligible to vote.) Ballots are scheduled to be mailed out on May 12.

Mills College is also voting presently and Mitchell Schwarzer, President of the Faculty Senate at California College of the Arts recently announced a special meeting scheduled for this evening for all un-ranked faculty “to provide some background information and, more importantly, a forum for discussion on the SEIU union drive.”

One longtime educator who wished to remain anonymous surmised, “This is the first time CCA has held a meeting solely for adjuncts in my experience. The union drive is having an impact.”

Last year, the death of Duquesne University adjunct Margaret Mary Vojtko sparked a national labor debate around conditions for part-time educators, as reported online by Vojtko had been part-time faculty for 25 years, and at the time of her death she was essentially destitute, lacking insurance to cover extensive medical bills, and nearly homeless. Her tale brought to light the hardships facing part-time faculty and the fact that extreme stories of survival, from living without healthcare to selling plasma to buy food, are frankly commonplace among her counterparts.


After a radical shift in education in the 1970s, part-time faculty currently represent three-quarters of college instructors and the vast majority of academia. Such positions typically pay between $20,000 and $25,000 annually, and the marketplace for those essentially unstable jobs is becoming increasingly competitive, resulting in educators rallying for new contracts from one semester to the next and/or traveling extreme distances for gigs at remote schools. Meanwhile, visiting educators are paid minimally without benefits or retirement packages, and have little recourse when contracts aren't renewed.

So then, why do it at all?  For many the lure of a permanent position, the prestige of the institution and, at the fore, engagement with young minds and scholars invested in the same field, continue to attract new faculty. But the prevalence of horror stories like Vojtko's has led to a crossroads in academia, with unionization as a viable route to take.

The logic behind a push to unionize multiple schools in the region, as noted in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, is that “sufficient union saturation of a given local labor market will not only produce big gains at unionized colleges,” it will also pressure non-unionized colleges to improve conditions in the interest of remaining competitive.

“The approach seeks to shift labor-market dynamics, turning a buyer’s market in which colleges have broad leeway to set employment terms into a seller’s market in which adjuncts can take the highest bid for their services,” states the article.

Also, conventional wisdom argues that college administrations are less resistant to the formation of unions when competing schools also adhere to union demands.

Bay Area artist, writer and educator Christian Nagler supports unionizing visiting faculty at SFAI, where he has taught since 2010. Previous political work with a teachers' union in El Salvador taught him “that organized scholars/writers/artists can have a good, powerful influence.”

Other perspectives are mixed. One educator spoke on the condition of anonymity about being uncomfortable with SEIU’s aggressive campaign after organizers came to her home.

“I'm very invested in collective power, but in my experience the part-time faculty union at my school often serves to maintain and intensify a deep fissure between full-time and part-time faculty," said Shane Aslan Selzer, an artist and union educator at Parsons the New School for Design in New York. "As a small fine arts department, this fissure has the potential to cripple us intellectually and creatively.”

Selzer's sentiments echo those in a second email sent from Desmarais to SFAI faculty that included the header "Why I encourage you to vote No to joining SEIU." In the email Desmarais noted, "There is no guarantee that SEIU would negotiate any better arrangement than could be achieved by working directly and collegially with the SFAI administration. And without the burden of Union rules, requirements, dues, initiation fees, etc."

It is hard to know if collective bargaining has the potential to create a shift in working conditions for part-time faculty, but the conversations being generated seem to represent change in itself.

“For me, in addition to a pragmatic push, it's been an experiment to see if, and what it takes, for artists to organize, to be able to see themselves as part of a larger labor struggle, and to begin to remake the institutions they serve,” said Nagler. “Now that we're heading towards an election, it will be interesting to see what sort of issues continue to be at the fore among the faculty -- God knows it's been complicated so far! A balance between strategic momentum and making space for idiosyncratic process.”