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Calling the Question: Point Park adjuncts eyeing summer unionization vote 

"We think winning here is inevitable."

Last year, Duquesne University drew a firestorm of criticism after a longtime adjunct professor, 83-year-old Mary Margaret Vojtko, died in poverty. Vojtko's death made Duquesne a lightning rod in the national debate over the fate of part-time faculty. But Jon Manning, who works as an adjunct at both Duquesne and Downtown's Point Park University, says there's little doubt about where adjuncts would rather work.

"Duquesne is much better," says Manning, who teaches composition classes. "The conditions are better, the pay is better. We make $3,500 per class at Duquesne. At Point Park, I make $2,190."

That may be about to change. Manning and others spent last winter organizing to get a union of their own. And the United Steelworkers, which is fighting to get a contract for Duquesne's adjuncts, is poised to call for an election at Point Park, too.

Adjuncts make up about three-quarters of Point Park's faculty, according to the National Center for Education Statistics — close to the national average. Roughly half of those 300-plus adjuncts have already signed union cards, USW organizer Randa Ruge says. The union plans to file for an election under the National Labor Relations Board next week; Ruge predicts adjuncts will be able to vote by mail this summer.

It may not easy: Point Park has already held off another union for more than a decade. But Ruge says, "We think winning here is inevitable."

Point Park largely declined comment for this story, although university President Paul Hennigan has spoken about the campaign in campus emails. According to a statement, the school said it "prefers to ... keep communication on this matter between leadership, its adjunct professors and other involved parties." Spokesman Louis Corsaro added that Point Park's "ultimate calling is to provide a high-quality education," and that it "takes pride in providing a positive and healthy atmosphere for our faculty and staff."

Indeed, to outward appearances, Point Park is thriving. Its dance program is nationally recognized, and in 2008, it launched a $200-million campaign to create a "multi-block living and learning hub" Downtown. Features include a new performing-arts theater and an already-completed "Urban Corner Park" built on an old parking lot.

Internally, though, there are signs of strain.

In a February address to the Faculty Assembly, Hennigan warned the school was "very near a crisis of integrity." Surveys showed dwindling student satisfaction, he said, while recruiting was down and graduation rates were below average. While the school's finances were sound, he warned that Point Park "needs to find [its] way," according to a transcript.

Hennigan's solutions included more rigorous teacher evaluations, and additional counseling for students. But union supporters have another answer.

"Building a park is not going to educate me," says Samantha Lee, a global cultural studies major who will graduate next winter. "What will educate me is spending more money to allow my professor to focus on his classes."

Union backers say that adjuncts are seeking better wages — at most, they say, a Point Park adjunct can hope to earn $13,440 a year — along with enhanced job security, and a shot at full-time teaching jobs. Point Park claims that adjuncts "often continue for years on end" without fear of job loss, and that 15 percent of its full-time faculty were adjuncts. But Manning says full-time posts are hard to come by: "Most of us are juggling classes at multiple schools."

Lee is a member of the Student Solidarity Organization, which supports the union bid. Generally happy with her education, Lee says it's been marred by the fact that some instructors "don't have offices or computers on campus." Adjuncts often can't provide office hours, she says, because "they are forced to work multiple jobs, and can't give us all that we need outside the classroom."

Not everyone agrees. Lee's group is circulating petitions to support unionization, and while Lee says most students are receptive, "some people say, ‘It will drive up tuition.'" In February, Point Park's student-governing body rejected, by one vote, a resolution supporting the union. University administrators urged a no vote, and Point Park's student paper, The Globe, quoted the student-body president saying there was too much uncertainty about "the real implications of unionization."

Support among adjuncts may also be uneven.

Manning says unionization is most popular among adjuncts in humanities and the performing arts. The toughest sledding has been in the criminal-justice and business programs, where adjuncts are most likely to hold down careers outside of teaching.

Point Park claims, in fact, that it seeks "adjunct faculty who are full-time professionals in the fields in which they teach," which gives students "exposure to real-world experience." Ruge acknowledges that's true in some cases, but estimates that 60 percent of Point Park part-timers are "what we call full-time adjuncts."

Not that Ruge is giving up on the others: "Their time is worth money, too."

This isn't Point Park's first union fight. The school's full-time faculty organized under the Communications Workers of America in 2004, but Point Park has refused to bargain with them. The school has filed a legal challenge arguing that full-time faculty are managerial employees — and thus not eligible for union membership — because they guide university decision-making through the Faculty Assembly.

"They fight unionization in every way they can," says the CWA's Marge Krueger. "This has been well beyond what employers usually do."

By contrast, Point Park is extending an open hand to adjuncts: Hennigan recently urged them to join an advisory group to discuss adjunct concerns this summer.

Manning calls it a "stall tactic" and says an advisory group "seems like a waste of time."

Ruge predicts that this labor fight should be resolved more quickly. In fact, she says, "We expect to move on to other local colleges and universities that use adjuncts very soon" — perhaps as early as this summer.

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