With strike looming, Howard University opens negotiations with faculty union

Non-tenure and adjunct faculty want better compensation or they say they will be willing to walk out on Wednesday.

The union representing adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty at Howard University said the first round of direct negotiations with administration officials made very few gains on Monday, setting the stage for a potential strike on Wednesday if the two sides cannot close gaps on compensation.

Although the university showed a “willingness to negotiate,” its proposals were far below what the union had hoped for, with members claiming their pay is much less than that of their R1 and R2 institution peers. Larry Alcoff, chief negotiator for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 500, said they would exhaust all efforts to reach an agreement but noted that faculty are willing to walk out if Howard doesn’t present more competitive offers and include a sizable bump for adjuncts.

“On the adjunct faculty pay, what’s very frustrating is that the university proposed nothing,” Alcoff said. “They still are trying to figure out what they currently pay people and what they should pay people. They really can’t get out of their own way. We don’t want to strike. We want to settle. But we don’t want to settle for anything.”

The fact that the two sides are talking is progress from last week when some faculty and students took to campus to protest a lack of direct talks, low wages and little stability for non-tenure faculty, who must effectively reapply for their positions every seven years. Howard officials said the system “is in place to ensure that Howard has the correct variety of faculty to meet academic needs while also protecting the integrity of the tenure process.” It also admitted that cutting out the seven-year rule could severely impact the university financially and “reduce the number of temporary faculty openings moving forward.”

But the union on Monday said that without that guarantee, non-tenured faculty are nothing more than a “disposable workforce” who can lose positions and then be rehired to teach as adjuncts with lower wages and no benefits. The union said some progress had been made on that front on Monday but provided no further details. He also said that Howard offered an 8% pay raise for those instructors; however, Alcoff said it “still leaves them far behind any peer institutions in the DMV, or around the country” that are paying $12,000-$20,000 more for similar positions. “It’s progress, just not enough progress,” he said.

Alcoff also said compensation for adjuncts is too low, ranging between $3,100 and $5,000 for each three-credit course they instruct at a university that allows them to teach only two per semester. At a potential $20,400 in earnings per year (not counting summer) and living in the Washington, DC, area, that pay would rank near the bottom of any of its peers in a list Howard compiled in December (of full-time faculty) that includes the University of Miami, George Washington, Georgetown and Tufts University. Howard officials say they are aware of the high cost of living.

“This is a very, very low-paid adjunct and full-time lecturer group relative to peer institutions—certainly the nine peer institutions that Howard itself identifies publicly with,” Alcoff said. “We are working on two tracks. One is to try and reach an agreement that bends the arc of history toward justice, or Howard students and the people who teach them. But we’re also working hard to prepare for an effective strike on campus if that fails.”

Although Howard claims it has been in negotiations with the SEIU and made two proposals for pay increases to both non-tenure and adjunct members, Alcoff said it engaged in unfair labor practices over the past 2-4 years by “refusing to make proposals, walking out of bargaining and engaging in what’s called surface bargaining where no meaningful proposals are made until today.”

So faculty might be prepared to walk. That includes the 200 adjuncts who teach approximately 2,000 courses. “Not only do we teach that many courses, we also typically are teaching foundational courses,” said Aisha Bonner, adjunct associate professor in Howard’s School of Social Work. “If you want to pick a way to disrupt, this is a very, very good way. We don’t want that. We’re doing our best, but we simply cannot lay down and be a doormat for the administration.”

If a strike does occur, the university said faculty will not lose their jobs because they have the right to do so under federal law, but it would be “detrimental to the learning environment for our students, particularly as we continue to navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic. Courses will continue as scheduled by our non-unionized faculty, and the university will implement contingency plans to lessen any adverse impact on our students.” When a settlement is reached, faculty would be returned to their positions.

Even though it did not get what it wanted during the initial meeting, the protest clearly got the administration’s attention. “There’s more student support for the teaching faculty than Howard estimated,” Alcoff said. “There’s also a lot of support from tenured faculty for their teaching faculty colleagues. It is not good for Howard to provoke a disruption to the educational experience of their students because of bad faith bargaining that they’ve conducted for four years that’s led us to a place we’re in today. I recall the words of the mayor of Newark, NJ, Ras Baraka when he spoke in the fall in on Howard’s campus – that Howard’s legacy and mission is actually the product of protest and struggle for justice. And I think this is one more chapter in that.

“That in and of itself will make our world a better place at the end of the day. And it will also be an important learning moment and learning experience for the students of Howard University.”

A few non-tenure and adjunct faculty members, including some who graduated from Howard or had family members who were instructors at the university, were in on a press call Monday to discuss their feelings over the negotiations and struggle to get administrators to budge on pay increases and more job security.

“I have been continuously teaching every semester since 2014, so I don’t feel like a very temporary worker,” Bonner said. “I feel like my contribution to my department is pretty essential. I sit on the departmental committee; I help with textbook recommendations. I also designed one of our hybrid classes that I have spent the last three months filming and designing with the company that the School of Social work hired for no additional pay, in the middle of my full-time work. I don’t teach because I need it. I teach because I have dedication to Howard and the students. But I’m in this fight for the rest of my colleagues because what they are being paid is absolutely disgraceful … and so that people aren’t working two, three and sometimes four part-time gigs to cobble together enough money to keep the lights on.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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