Taking a Stand: Virginia College Faculty Unionize Despite Restrictions

They came to demand that the administration to reverse the firings of some non-tenure faculty.

By Dogwood Staff

March 1, 2021

Faculty and staff at public universities in Virginia face enormous obstacles in forming a union. 

RICHMOND-Virginia remains one of the most hostile environments for workers in the United States. One of the biggest challenges to unionization on Virginia college campuses is a state law barring public employees, such as teachers and civil servants, from collective bargaining. That legislation is a part of Virginia’s broader “right to work” framework, which severely limits union activity statewide.

But that hasn’t stopped workers at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), William and Mary, and other universities across the Commonwealth from speaking out against inadequate pay, unstable contracts, and lax responses to the COVID-19 epidemic.

William and Mary’s Worker’s Union

The William and Mary Worker’s Union (WMWU) started when, in the Summer of 2019, the college delayed payment to graduate students in the anthropology department for over a month. The college later claimed this delay was due to a processing error. Initially, the graduate students, who teach classes, conduct research, and assist in academic administration, only wanted greater transparency and consistency in their compensation.

But when the graduate students started organizing, they quickly noticed disparities with other college departments . For example, unlike many STEM programs, theirs didn’t provide health insurance and often paid much less for similar work.

“We began organizing among grad students at the university,” said union president Jasper Conner, “And quickly realized we lacked power to influence the university if we focused only on our issues as graduate workers.”

A Union for Everyone

According to Conner, WMWU now seeks to represent all graduate students, non-tenure faculty, and staff

“All employees who do not have the immediate power to hire and fire people,” Conner said.

Their demands have expanded along with their scope. While in the short term the union is advocating for the rehiring of non-tenure faculty whose contracts were terminated, in the long term they’re seeking better benefits and a living wage for all workers on campus. That includes students, faculty, and staff alike.

At William and Mary, school officials claim that they can neither recognize the union nor respond to its demands under current law, because William and Mary is a public university. According to a public employee policy on the school’s website, “Although W&M employees cannot strike or engage in collective bargaining, they have the ability to promote their interests to the university through other means.”

One of those avenues is the Graduate Student Assembly. The assembly is a school-sanctioned body which gets funding from the administration to represent graduate students. But, Conner says this and other university-endorsed organizations are severely limited.

“The problem is that those bodies can only go so far before stepping on the toes of the administration results in a restriction of their budget,” said Conner.

Fighting for a Fair Contract

In Richmond, adjunct faculty at VCU have been fighting since 2017 against unstable and inadequate working conditions for non-tenure faculty. Their group, VCU Adjuncts Organizing for Fair Pair (VAOFP), began with VCUArts faculty demanding better adjunct rates. But, it expanded this year to include non-tenure faculty from across the university.

VAOFP has seen some success in the past, gaining an $1100 per credit minimum from administration in 2018. This equates to a maximum salary of $19,800 per year. Adjuncts say it’s essentially a full time job without full time benefits. 

Now the group is mobilizing to demand a living wage. They also want access to VCU’s healthcare plan and stable contracts for adjunct faculty. Currently, many adjuncts at VCU are on semester contracts, which can be terminated at any time by the administration.

“There’s very little provision in our contracts or elsewhere that we’ll receive any kind of continuous work,” said Rose Szabo, an adjunct instructor at VCU. “Additionally, VCU at any time can decide to cancel our courses without paying us for our work so far.”

According to Szabo, there’s an enormous disconnect between VCU’s treatment of adjunct faculty and their importance on campus.

“VCU has substantially more adjunct and contract faculty than tenure track faculty,” Szabo said.

VCU currently employs 2,158 instructors, of which 1,429 (or 66%) are non-tenure eligible, contract instructors.

Inadequate Responses From College Administration

In 2020, VCUArts released an executive summary of a task force report which they claim meets faculty demands. But, the report didn’t address VAOFP’s key demands for longer contracts and higher base compensation.

The administration’s response has been a point of frustration for Thomas Burkett, an organizer with VAOFP.

“[The report] took multiple years to get out of the Provost’s Office,” Burkett said. “Even what we have now is a redacted version of the research – so we haven’t even seen the full report at this point.”

Representatives of VCU did not respond to requests for an interview in time for publication.

VAOFP encourages supporters to add their name to a petition with their demands. The petition will be delivered to VCU administration on March 4.

Campus Advocacy Across Virginia

Campus labor organization has experienced a resurgence across Virginia in recent years. At George Mason University, the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has not only spoken out against poor working conditions for contract workers there, but also publicly expressed their support for VAOFP.

And in Charlottesville, the United Campus Workers of VA (UCWVA) has called for more stringent COVID-19 protocols at UVA. The university recently experienced a surge in cases. They also worked to grow the union representing health workers in UVA’s hospital system, the largest employer in the city.

Governments Decide Rights of Unions

Fortunately, some of the restrictions on union activity in public colleges will lift soon. Legislation going into effect on May 1, 2021 will allow workers at public universities and other government bodies to collectively bargain. However, that’s only if they can get the consent of local government.

The legislation, introduced by Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D – Prince William), passed early last year. It will require local governments to vote on whether to accept or reject union bids. These bids must be made by over 50 percent of employees working at a public institution.

Jakob Cordes is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach him at [email protected].

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