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Life is Getting Better for Part-Time Faculty After Contract

By Nicole Fuschino

To make ends meet after his job was unionized, Richard Schiavoni works at a newspaper weekdays and as a photographer on weekends, in addition to teaching part-time in the history department at Point Park University, but feels like his unionized job makes him “happier and more productive.”

Carol Lorenz still drives back and forth between Point Park and Robert Morris University to teach performing arts and communications classes along with being a tutor and substitute teacher on the side for extra income, but she earns more money now as a part-time professor than ever before.

It would be the week before classes started that Girard Holt would receive his teaching schedule for the semester, which made it difficult to balance teaching dance classes part-time Point Park, the Pennsylvania Academy of Dance in Sewickley and Seton Hill University, but now, he has a better idea of what his courses look like with newfound job security.

While Schiavoni, Lorenz and Holt all share the same title of part-time professor at Point Park — more commonly known as an “adjunct” professor — they were also key players in the long fight for better worker treatment and unionization that has changed their lives for the better.

In 2016, part-time professors from Point Park and Robert Morris formed a union chapter through the United Steel Workers Union, officially forming the USW Local 1088. Since then, the union has been fighting to increase their pay and create job stability for adjunct professors. One of the most significant achievement since unionizing is the pay increase: Over the life of the three-year contract, they’ll receive an overall pay increase of 21.5%.

Damon Di Cicco is the President of the USW Local 1088, and a part-time professor in the communication department at Point Park. He says that while the union has greatly helped part-timers in many ways, they still have a long way to go.

“People end up in this hamster wheel of driving around to two or three different schools to try to cobble together enough classes to make a living,” said Di Cicco, who earned his Ph.D. in Communications from the University of Washington.

“’She was a professor?’ I said yes. The caseworker was shocked; this was not the usual type of person for whom she was called in to help.” – Daniel Kovalik in “Death of an Adjunct”

The inspiration for many Point Park part-time faculty to form this union did not happen on a whim. Shortly after the release of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article titled “Death of an Adjunct” by Daniel Kovalik in 2013 — an article written in response of the tragic death of former Duquesne University adjunct professor Margaret Mary Vojtko — adjunct professors were in an outrage.

Vojtko, an adjunct professor teaching French at Duquesne for 25 years, had received a letter from Adult Protective Services saying that she needed assistance in taking care of herself. According to the Labor Center at the University of California Berkeley from 2015, 25% of part-time faculty are on public assistance.

That’s because Duquesne stripped Margaret’s courses away from her over the years, eventually “letting her go” for being “too old and too sick,” according to Kovalik’s story. Although, at 83 years old with cancer, she never missed a day of class and had “many glowing evaluations from students,” Kovalik wrote. Her loss of employment thrust the woman with health problems to be stuck in extreme poverty, which ended with a deadly heart attack.

Kovalik is a human and labor rights lawyer and adjunct professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh. He became friends with Margaret during her time of distress and talked her through the difficult times.

“I may have been the last person she called before she died,” said Kovalik.

“I was morally outraged.” – Sharon Brady

When Sharon Brady — USW Local 1088 Vice President and part-time theater arts professor at Point Park — saw the story, she became so “morally outraged” that she and others began the effort to unionize other part-timers. They started organizing the faculty in 2013, won the vote in 2014 and got certified with their first contract in November of 2015.

The National Labor Relations Act states that Point Park’s administration didn’t have to accept it the vote — if a majority of people in the workplace vote to have a union, the employer is legally obligated to bargain with them. Overall, Brady says that joining the union has created a stronger sense of unity among the part-time professors.

“It also shed a light on the issue,” said Brady, “because many people didn’t even know what an adjunct was.”

According to the Labor Center at the University of California Berkeley from 2015, twenty-five percent of part-time faculty are on public assistance.

Now that the part-time professors at Point Park and Robert Morris have successfully organized a union, other postsecondary schools in the Pittsburgh region are trying to follow their lead.

Kovalik says that adjunct professors at the University of Pittsburgh are currently trying to organize with the Steelworkers Union. Kovalik says that he’s not sure whether or not they’ll have their own separate union or if all Pittsburgh part-time professors will form one big union, but Pitt part-timers will organize fairly soon either way.

Duquesne part-time faculty voted to join the Steelworkers Union after the death of Vojtko, but the University has been fighting unionization to this day, claiming that it should have a “religious exemption.” The Office of Marketing and Communications at Duquesne did not respond to an email message for comment.

Louis Corsaro, spokesman for Point Park, did not respond to telephone and e-mail messages for comment.

“I don’t want to end up like Mary (Vojtko).” – Richard Schiavoni

The “Death of an Adjunct” article also inspired Point Park part-time professor Richard Schiavoni — who works three part-time jobs to survive — to join the unionization efforts.

Shortly preceding the formation of their union, Schiavoni had to see a specialist after being sick, since none of his three jobs provide him with healthcare. He says that he was in shock when he received his medical bills.

“It really opened my eyes,” said Schiavoni. “I can afford to pay my healthcare, but not enough that if I got really sick, that I could pay the bills. I don’t want to end up like Mary.”

Even with the contract, Schiavoni wakes up at 5 a.m. Monday through Thursday to drive to the Valley Mirror newspaper in Munhall, Pa., then to downtown Pittsburgh for Point Park, then back to the Valley Mirror — taking twenty minutes to drive to each destination. In between going back-and-forth between the newspaper and the University, Schiavoni finds time to meet with students, grade papers, prepare lectures and finish answering emails until about midnight. On the weekends, he’s a photographer. Despite earning two master’s degrees, Schiavoni was nominated for a Distinguished Teaching Award by students but was told by administration that he does not qualify for it since he is a part-time professor and not full-time.

Richard calls the world he is working in the “gig economy.” In his case, it takes a few gigs to make one income. Because of this, he practices creative budgeting to safeguard how he spends his money. He once carried his iPhone 6 around with him for four-and-a-half years, getting to the point of having to carry an extra battery attached to it. While he says he could have purchased a new phone, it all goes back to creative budgeting.

“It looked like I was carrying a corded phone around,” he said. “There are months where I live paycheck to paycheck, and some months where I go a little over,” said Schiavoni. 

Richard Schiavoni says that he gives Point Park credit because they “recognize the legitimacy” of part-time faculty unionizing while universities like Duquesne are still “battling it out,” he says.

That’s still underpaid, but that is a big deal,” – Robin Sowards.

While there are still problems part-time faculty are pushing to solve, there have been many improvements since unionizing: the main being a pay increase. Over the 3.5 years of the first contract, the per-course pay range for part-time professors went from $2,091-$2,727 (Fall 2015) to $2,541-$3,315 (Spring 2019), according to Sowards. “That’s still underpaid, but that is a big deal,” he said.  

Schiavoni says that after taxes, he’ll take home about $6,000 from Point Park for three courses in one semester. He had been a part-time professor at Point Park for five years when he began seeing the pay increases in his own paycheck, once the unionization process started. He says that he’s known adjuncts who have been teaching for 20 years who have never seen an increase in their paychecks.

While the part-time professors at Point Park say that unionization has improved their lives – mainly through the pay raise, job security, and more respect — Di Cicco says it’s still not enough.

“If you look at hours in the classroom, we are dramatically uncompensated,” he says.

“People didn’t know their children were being taught by people who didn’t get paid well.” – Carol Lorenz

On a typical Monday, Carol Lorenz — who received her Ph.D. in Theater from the University of Pittsburgh — wakes up at 5 a.m. and drives into Pittsburgh to teach courses within the Conservatory of Performing Arts and the School of Communication at Point Park. Then, she drives to Robert Morris University to teach more humanities classes, then drives back to Point Park to work in the Tutoring Center for the rest of the afternoon. She will sometimes substitute teach at local high schools and will spend the remainder of her time grading student outlines or completing research. She is a member, trustee and steward of the USW Local 1088.

“People didn’t know children were being taught by people who didn’t get paid well,” said Lorenz. “My friends who aren’t in higher education ask me how they can help. I tell them that when they’re going on college tours, ask the tour guides what percent of the faculty are adjuncts? How much do they get paid?”

While Lorenz ping-pongs back and forth between many different workspaces, her office is located in her home. She says that she does not have an office space at Point Park, which she says does not allow for much collaboration and communication between her and her colleagues.

“It would be wonderful and helpful to have somewhere you can go and work,” says Lorenz. “There’s no real opportunity for contact. You get to know each other by seeing each other, and without someplace central, it does not foster much communication.”  

Part-time professors at Point Park are not even invited to the staff meetings.

Jehnie Burns use to be a part-time professor at Point Park making adjunct pay but has worked her way up to a full-time Associate Professor of History. She said the biggest issue she encountered while she was a part-timer was having a “disconnect” between her and the full-time professors.

“I felt like I didn’t have a way to interact,” said Burns. While she did have a small office space in the humanities department, it did not suffice for what she needed, so she held her office hours in the University Center library.

“We stand with our colleagues in the part-time union.” — Karen Dwyer

Part-timers at Point Park have more support than just that of each other’s; the full-time faculty also have their backs. Karen Dwyer, a full-time professor of creative writing classes in the Literary Arts and Social Justice Department at Point Park, says that the adjunct faculty are their “allies,” too.

Point Park full-timers have been a part of the Newspaper Guild Union since 2017, forming Local 38061, where Dwyer is the chair. “We stand with our colleagues in the part-time union,” said Dwyer. “Professors are grossly underpaid in the Pittsburgh area.”

While the immediate concerns of full-time and part-time professors differ, Dwyer says that they are all advocating for the same things through their unions: compensation and security. She says that if the part-time faculty decided to go on strike, the full-timers would refuse against the administration to substitute in for them.

“We would stand with them,” Dwyer.

“There’s more of a push to have classes finalized, making it easier for the adjuncts to incorporate their other jobs into their schedules as soon as possible.” – Girard Holt

On a typical Wednesday, Girard Holt teaches dance classes at Point Park and Seton Hill, two universities that are about an hour away from each other. He also teaches at the Pennsylvania Academy of Dance in Sewickley, Pa., and teaches dance on the weekends.

Holt says that one benefit of unionization that has benefitted him is union-negotiated “preferential hiring pool,” where part-time faculty who have been teaching at the school consistently are given priority to choose their course assignments, and which may result in more definitive scheduling.

“Before unionization, our schedules would go out the week before classes started,” said Holt. “Now, there’s more of a push to have classes finalized, making it easier for the adjuncts to incorporate their other jobs into their schedules as soon as possible.”

“Universities figured out it’s a lot cheaper to hire four adjuncts than one tenured faculty member.” – Damon Di Cicco.

An “adjunct” looks different now than they have in the past, according to Robin Sowards, Organizer and Researcher for the United Steelworkers. He says that these part-time professors used to be people who were teaching on the side, or as a hobby.

“They’d bring some special expertise to the table,” said Sowards. “Like a tax lawyer teaches one course in tax law. They’d be a practitioner.”

But today, many part-time professors have fallen into their positions because they originally intended to be full-time.

“What you end up with is a lot of people like myself, who have PhDs and graduated from doctoral programs with plans to be career academics, who were unable to find full-time positions,” said Di Cicco. He says that because there are less full-time positions available, part-time faculty are trapped in the cycle of needing side jobs and struggling financially. “Universities figured out it’s a lot cheaper to hire four adjuncts than one tenured faculty member,” said Di Cicco.

The National Center for Education Statistics stated in its “The Condition of Education” 2017 report that over a twenty-year period, from 1995 to 2015, the number of full-time faculty at postsecondary institutions increased by 47%, while the number of part-time faculty increased by 95%.

Sowards says that this trend is not local; it’s national. “They treat people in this disposable way,” he said.

Sowards said that universities have a “structural incentive” to poorly pay their part-time faculty, because they produce more and more people with graduate degrees but have fewer livable jobs for them. Universities make money off of these future “adjuncts” while they’re in graduate school, but then don’t fairly compensate them upon graduation when they’re looking for a job in a university, Sowards explains.  

“Just because someone doesn’t do it for the money, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be paid reasonably.” – Damon Di Cicco.

At one point, Di Cicco was teaching three courses at Point Park during the day and would drive to Penn State of Greater Allegheny — just under a half hour away from Point Park — to teach a night class.

“That doesn’t leave a lot of time for one-on-one attention with students, or even being responsive to emails,” he says.

Di Cicco said it’s important to remember part-time professors aren’t teaching to become rich, they are all committed to teaching students. “Just because someone doesn’t do it for the money, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be paid reasonably,” said Di Cicco.

Sowards said that respect is one of the most important reasons why they are working towards this unionization process.

“If somebody has to work four jobs, they don’t have any time to meet with you, they don’t have time to respond to your emails in a prompt fashion, they may not have time to do more labor-intensive kinds of assignments that will take them longer to grade,” said Sowards.

“It is a really useful tool to have in your toolbox.” – Damon Di Cicco

Another main advancement that the unionization process has made is a grievance procedure. If a part-time professor feels that their rights have been violated or not respected under their contract, such as a course being unjustly taken away from them, or being discriminated against on the basis of gender or race, they now have the option to file a grievance.

Once they file, they can sit down with administration and talk it out. If the adjunct and administration can’t reach an agreement, they have the option of taking that grievance to an arbitrator. While Di Cicco says that they have never had to reach this at Point Park, “It is a really useful tool to have in your toolbox.”

“Normally, under the law and without a union contract, you’re an at-will employee in the state of Pennsylvania, and that means they can fire you at any time, for any reason, or for no reason,” said Sowards. 

“Building on the foundation that we’ve created with that first agreement, and trying to win some bigger gains to increase fairness for part-time faculty at Point Park.” – Damon Di Cicco

What’s next for the USW Local 1088 Union? Di Cicco says that they will go back to the table this August 2019 to renegotiate for their next contract. He says that they will keep working to raise their pay — along with the push for more of what they’ve already received, this time.

He says that one thing to keep in mind about the union is that it’s a democratic organization.

“What we’re going to be working for in that second contract is going to be dependent on what the members of the organization tell us is most important to them,” he says.

Going into contract negotiations, Di Cicco says that it is standard practice to have meetings and fill out surveys for members to voice what they like and don’t like about the existing agreement. They will then sort out the top priorities with the bargaining committee based on the process.

Di Cicco called this August 2019 re-negotiation a “crucial juncture for the union,” in the terms of, “building on the foundation that we’ve created with that first agreement, and trying to win some bigger gains to increase fairness for part-time faculty at Point Park.” 

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