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WASHINGTON – Capital-area adjuncts could be the first to unionize on a metropolitan level in support of greater job security, equal pay for equal work and health care exchanges, among other benefits now denied to many part-time professors.

Faculty and union experts from across the country discussed the plan during a conference Saturday at the offices of Service Employees International Union Local 500, which already represents adjuncts from three institutions in the District and Maryland.

“Every achievement at an individual school is an incremental step toward a vision that involves the entire industry,” said David Rodich, executive director of SEIU Local 500. “Part-time faculty are an instructional reality now,” he added.

According to union data, part-time faculty outnumber full-time faculty at Washington, D.C. institutions (3,124 to 2,946, respectively). Among community colleges in the state of Maryland, the ratio is even more lopsided: approximately 75 percent of faculty are adjuncts.

Key aspects of the union’s plan include a citywide contract for adjuncts offered through a central employer with a central hiring database; a push for compensation and working conditions that are equivalent to those of full-time faculty; job security; portability of benefits between institutions; and an academic worker’s center where adjuncts can meet with students and prepare for classes.

Anne McLeer, director of research and strategic planning for SEIU Local 500, called the plan a strategic market solution to a “market problem” – namely too many adjuncts competing for the same jobs. Organizing into a regional union is a way to combat that, she said.

If the Washington union model succeeds, Rodich said, it’s one that could be adapted to different areas of the country.

Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, which represents the interests of adjuncts nationwide, said SEIU Local 500 isn’t the first body to attempt to organize adjuncts across a geographical area, but that Washington, D.C. has a good chance of success because there are so many institutions – and so many adjuncts – here.

According to SEIU Local 500 estimates, the union already represents up to 600 adjuncts each semester at American University, George Washington University and Montgomery College in Maryland. Efforts to organize at Georgetown University also are under way.

Rodich said that although Virginia is a right-to-work state, there are ways that adjuncts teaching there still can be included in the plan.

Lynn White, an adjunct professor of math at Montgomery College, where she helped start a contingent faculty union, said she believed organizing on a metropolitan level was possible. But adjuncts have to first overcome their own fears and sense of isolation. “It has to start at the grassroots level,” White said. “You have to get part-time faculty aware that change is possible – because they all know they want change, but don’t think change is possible.”

Gary Rhoades, director of the University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, expressed similar sentiments. “We have authority; we simply need to exercise it,” he said, adding that success will mean partnering with other campus service workers and student groups.

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