ELON — Seeking better wages and working conditions, some Elon University professors plan to organize a union.
Elon Faculty Forward — a group of non-tenured professors at the university — filed papers Thursday with the federal National Labor Relations Board to start the formal process of creating a union. Organizers announced their intent to join the Service Employees International Union at a rally on campus Thursday morning.
“This is a momentous step forward,” said Catherine Bush, an organizer who has taught biology for nearly seven years at Elon. “Non-tenure track faculty at Elon will finally get a voice … and the ability to make the changes on this campus that we want to see.
“We will make the changes that we believe will make Elon a better university.”
Organizers say they want better pay and benefits, longer employment contracts and fairer and more consistent treatment from Elon administrators. They also want grants for research and professional training and to attend academic conferences. They also want private offices and opportunities to mentor students — perks that go routinely to Elon’s tenured professors but rarely to faculty without tenure.
They spelled out their demands in more detail in a column published Wednesday in Elon’s student newspaper.
The union drive is being organized by non-tenure track faculty — full-time and part-time teachers who are paid less and often have fewer perks and less job security than their colleagues with tenure.
Most colleges and universities award tenure — a virtual lifetime appointment — to a majority of their professors. Many new faculty hires are referred to as tenure-track because they’re on a track to gain tenure within several years of being hired.
But in recent years, as universities have sought to rein in labor costs and remain flexible as enrollments and student interests change, colleges have relied more on full-time and part-time non-tenured teachers who go by titles of lecturers, instructors and adjuncts.
At Elon, lecturers work full-time, are paid a salary and get health and other benefits. But these aren’t tenured positions, and contracts generally run for one to three years, though they’re usually renewed.
Elon’s adjuncts are part-timers who are paid several thousand dollars per semester course but don’t always get benefits. The number of courses they teach — and the pay they receive — can vary each semester. Adjuncts say they don’t know until the end of one semester if Elon wants them to return for the next one.
Elon professors said pay rates often vary by academic program though these non-tenured faculty do essentially the same work. Neither adjuncts nor lecturers are eligible for tenure at Elon.
At Thursday’s rally, the professors organizing the union effort were joined by Elon students, tenured faculty, SEIU organizers and the president of the North Carolina State AFL/CIO. The non-tenured professors said they love teaching at Elon and are fully committed to their students despite the tenuous nature of their employment.
Sharon Eisner has been a communications adjunct at Elon since 2007. Most semesters, she teaches four classes but holds two other part-time jobs to pay her bills.
But those classes aren’t guaranteed, and Eisner has worked on a semester-to-semester basis for 11 years. Every five years, she added, Elon policy limits her to just two classes for a semester.
“I am not a fly-by-night,” Eisner said. “I love it here. Let me give myself full time to my students.”
Dr. Jennifer Nunez, who holds both a medical degree and a doctorate, taught five biology classes in the spring semester but got just one class this fall when she moved to Elon’s physician assistant studies program.
The huge pay cut she took “would have been unworkable if I didn’t have a spouse to support me,” Nunez said. Her current paycheck is so small, she deadpanned, that “I say I’m volunteering.”
Martin Fowler, who has taught philosophy for nearly 25 years at Elon, said too many non-tenured faculty feel isolated and insecure.
“If we could put that in the past,” he said, “that would be a great accomplishment.”
There’s some disagreement over the proportions of tenured and non-tenured faculty among the roughly 600 professors at Elon.
Union organizers said that nearly half of Elon professors — 46 percent by their count — don’t hold tenure or aren’t on track to get it. Roughly 250 faculty members, they said, could be eligible to join a new Elon union.
The university said 72 percent of its professors are tenured or on a tenure track — up 20 percentage points since 1995 as many other universities have increased their numbers of adjuncts. Elon also said just 27 percent of its professors work part-time and teach only 16 percent of undergraduate courses.
The university said its pay and benefits for non-tenured faculty “is highly competitive and in line with peer institutions.”
In addition to filing a petition with the NLRB, organizers asked the university Thursday not to interfere with its union drive. The university has until next week to announce its intent. If the university opts to remain neutral, a campuswide vote to form a union could be held as soon as December. If Elon contests the organizing effort, that vote would come later.
In a statement, the university said it “has taken no actions to restrict the SEIU organizing effort or retaliate against individuals and will comply with all federal and state labor laws.”
The university statement also noted that some Elon professors “have reported feeling uncomfortable” when union organizers approached them.
Elon professors are seeking to become just the second faculty union at a private North Carolina university.
Duke University’s non-tenured faculty formed the first union at a private university in the South in 2016. A year later, the Duke Faculty Union signed a three-year contract that guaranteed higher pay and multi-year employment contracts, among other benefits.