Adjunct professors at Anne Arundel Community College have voted to unionize, the Service Employees International Union announced Monday.
The move comes more than eight years after adjuncts — professors who are hired on contract and paid on a per-class basis —began lobbying for collective bargaining rights at the college, seeking higher pay, more benefits and workers’ rights.
Under the current pay scale, the community college adjuncts who teach three 3-credit classes are paid between $9,459 and $11,034 per semester and receive no benefits other than limited sick leave.
The Maryland Public Employee Relations Board tallied the ballots Monday, said Erica Snipes, acting executive director of the board. More than 30% of the 606 eligible adjuncts returned ballots, the threshold needed for a valid vote; of those, 163 adjuncts voted to be represented by the SEIU, and 45 voted against. (Two ballots could not be processed.)
“I am overwhelmingly overjoyed,” said Lou Carloni, a longtime business teacher at the college and member of the organizing committee. “It really was just a handful of us tilting at windmills for the longest time. To have gotten to this point is almost unbelievable.”
Anne Arundel Community College President Dawn Lindsay, a longtime opponent of the unionization effort, declined to comment. “Eligible employees who cast their ballot in favor of union representation prevailed in the election,” Lindsay wrote in a conciliatory email sent to all faculty and staff Monday afternoon. “We look forward to working with SEIU Local 500 and negotiating in good faith toward a collective bargaining agreement.”
In a 2015 interview with the Capital Gazette’s former editorial board, Lindsay said the problem with faculty unions is that, “first, they instill fear, and then they create a solution that’s going to benefit them.”
She also argued that students would experience tuition increases due to the college spending, “tens of thousands of dollars for labor disputes.”
Carloni and his colleagues deny those accusations, and believe that better working conditions for the adjuncts, who outnumber tenure-track professors 3-1 on campus, will improve the quality of an AACC education.
“Pay us well, treat us fairly and let us serve as ambassadors for the college,” Carloni said.
The vote comes two years after the Maryland state legislature cleared the way for collective bargaining at public colleges and universities, a multiyear process that included overriding a veto from former Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. Before 2021, only a handful schools — including Baltimore City Community College, Montgomery College and Prince George’s Community College —had been able to gain collective bargaining rights.
“We hope that yesterday’s win inspires adjuncts across Maryland,” SEIU organizer Sara Katz said in a statement on Tuesday.
The American Federation of Teachers Maryland is also organizing some of the state’s higher-education workers: traditional full-time faculty members at community colleges in Frederick and Howard counties voted to collectively bargain through the AFT earlier this year. Harford Community Colleges professors, meanwhile, opted to join a third union, the Maryland State Education Association.
College campuses are a hotbed of labor organizing nationwide, a response to a seismic change in American higher education that has shifted teaching loads from traditional tenure-track professors, who hold steady jobs with benefits and garner middle class wages, to adjuncts and graduate assistants. By 2009, more than 75.5% of America’s professors did not hold tenure-track jobs, according to the federal Department of Education. Yet universities continue to turn out graduate students seeking teaching positions. Many leave school with PhDs, significant graduate debt and little potential to earn more than $40,000 per year in their chosen field.
“There are many, many people who — locked out of a stagnant tenure-track job market — live and work under these professionally stressful conditions. Their situations deserve our action and attention,” a pair of researchers wrote in 2021, analyzing the adjunct quandary for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
In Anne Arundel County, those “professionally stressed” adjuncts include Courtney Buiniskis, who graduated from AACC in 2008, then earned a master’s degree in higher education and was shocked by the working conditions when she began teaching communication classes in 2019. She led three standard for-credit classes and one noncredit continuing education course. Between her prep work, teaching time, email obligations and grading, she easily clocked 40 hours per week.
“I worked full-time, absolutely, but I wasn’t considered a full-time professor,” Buiniskis said.
Assistant professors at AACC earned $74,919 during the 2022-2023 school year, according to the Maryland Association of Community Colleges, about $6,000 more than the state average. An AACC spokesperson said there are a total of 227 non-adjunct faculty members this fall, compared to 606 adjuncts. The college is currently advertising for 51 adjunct faculty positions and zero traditional faculty posts.
Buiniskis says she is lucky; she wanted to teach, and her husband is her family’s main breadwinner. But she was still frustrated by how adjuncts were treated, especially when attempting to use their sick leave, and during the pandemic, when classes were abruptly canceled and college administrators attempted to block adjuncts from filing for unemployment benefits.
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“I needed to fight for other people, so that’s what I did,” Buiniskis said.
She joined the organizing committee and introduced “Coffee and Donut Mondays,” drop-in sessions for adjuncts to learn more about unionizing efforts. Both Buiniskis and Carloni said a turning point came when they booked a listening session with County Executive Steuart Pittman, where Buiniskis shared her story of graduating from AACC, earning a master’s degree, returning to teach and struggling to continue while coping with a health crisis.
“I made him cry,” Buiniskis said. “That really helped me find my voice.”
When the state legislature overrode Hogan’s veto and the SEIU held a rally on campus to celebrate, Pittman served as the keynote speaker.
Buiniskis eventually left teaching full time to join the county executive’s staff as a community engagement and constituent services director, but continues to teach one course each semester. Now she, Carloni and their fellow committee members are preparing to bargain their first contract, with three key objectives:
- Guaranteed work opportunities for long-time adjuncts, and compensation when their classes are either canceled suddenly, or reallocated to tenure-track faculty.
- Fair compensation and raises. (The adjuncts note that the last increase was at least 3% for tenure-track faculty and only 1% for adjuncts.)
- Pay for what is now expected as volunteer service, such as serving on committees or attending mandatory training.
Carloni said the committee had yet to hear from Lindsay, but ideally, bargaining would move forward as collegially as possible.
“I’m really hoping that the administration will invite the organizing committee to lunch soon,” he said.
An earlier version of this story misstated the union joined by faculty from Harford Community College. Those professors unionized with the Maryland State Education Association.