Valencia College adjuncts are poised to unionize in a push for non-poverty wages

click to enlarge Valencia College adjuncts are poised to unionize in a push for non-poverty wages
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In a feat that’s at least three years in the making, adjunct faculty at Valencia College in Orlando have secured a union election.

Adjuncts are now in their final week of the election; the deadline for receiving ballots is Wednesday, June 16.

At Valencia, adjunct professors make up about 70 percent of the total faculty at the public college and earn roughly $2,000 for a three-credit course, on average, teaching one to six courses a semester. It’s a part-time position that — at Valencia, and at many other higher education institutions across the country — comes without health benefits, lacks job security, and often requires juggling multiple jobs to compensate for work that is chronically undervalued.

Teresa Greene, a 74-year-old adjunct professor of psychology at Valencia, says she first began talking to her colleagues about organizing back in 2014.

In an interview with Orlando Weekly, Greene says she and her colleagues started out by just sharing complaints about their work over lunch. Not complaints about their students, for whom they may go above and beyond their job description to support, but grievances over ongoing pay inequities, lack of healthcare, and a general lack of respect from the college administration. 

Back then, Greene says, they weren’t necessarily mulling over the idea of forming a union. There was another professor in her department that was interested in the idea, she says, but at that point, they were really more focused on what would need to precede such a move: talking to her colleagues about the changes they’d like to see, and communicating with the college administration to try and secure these changes without a union.

But over time, Greene says it became clearer to her and others that those efforts weren’t going to yield the changes that they wanted and needed. “So we pursued the union,” she says.

Seven years later, adjunct professors at Valencia College have the opportunity to vote on whether they are for or against forming an adjunct faculty union. To be successful, a simple majority of votes — 50 percent plus one of all votes — must be cast in favor of unionization.

For adjuncts like Greene, this election at Valencia is years in the making. Adjuncts first filed to form a union with the Service Employees International Union Faculty Forward, a labor union that represents about 54,000 higher education faculty members nationwide, in 2018. And the last year — which saw both a global health crisis and widespread economic insecurity — only increased the urgency of their organizing efforts, according to multiple adjuncts who spoke with Orlando Weekly

With unexpected course cancellations, a lack of employee-provided healthcare, and no absolute guarantees for work, adjuncts — who play a pivotal role in the success of the college and students’ education — felt the weight of their insecure employment keenly.

Last spring, Valencia fully transitioned their courses to a virtual classroom to avoid spread of the deadly coronavirus, offering a Digital Professor Certification program for faculty to help prepare them for online teaching. Greene says this transition was the right decision at the time. Nonetheless, not everyone found it to be seamless. While some professors, like Greene, were able to adapt to a fully virtual teaching environment, others — like Tony Anaya, a former adjunct professor at Valencia who retired last year — were left behind and ultimately lost their workload.

Late last year, Anaya told Orlando Weekly that he’d lacked the technological requirements needed to transition to virtual teaching last spring — namely, a functioning laptop. After a frustrating back-and-forth process with his supervisor and the college’s tech department, the 84-year-old says his request for a laptop loan from the college led nowhere. 

As a result, he lost his courses. In September, he made the difficult decision to submit his letter of resignation, after teaching for nearly two decades in Valencia’s Global Languages department.

“I didn't feel like it was the right way to do it,” Anaya said, when asked about his retirement. “I would have liked to go out the front door, instead of the back.”

After going through his savings, Anaya — who had been actively involved in faculty organizing — struggled to pay the bills. Since the passing of his wife a decade prior, Anaya had lived alone, utilizing his income from Valencia — which he estimated at about $25,000 a year — and social security payments to help pay for an apartment and other basic living expenses. 

Without his income from teaching, Anaya left his apartment, unable to afford the home he’d lived in comfortably for a decade. He moved into an apartment with his son, who also lives in Orlando. Together, they split the costs, but “that, still, is expensive,” Anaya said. 

To help Anaya in a time of need, a former student of Valencia College set up a GoFundMe campaign last fall to help Anaya pay for rent and food. Over the winter holidays, his former colleagues delivered a holiday meal to his doorstep, for which he expressed sincere gratitude.

But underlying this show of care has been a resounding message from adjuncts that it shouldn’t have to be this way.

“You can’t really survive on an adjunct salary,” says Dr. Joseph Angley, 62, an adjunct professor in Valencia’s Biological Sciences department. Angley, who has a doctorate degree in Environmental Engineering Sciences, told Orlando Weekly that he makes about $2,500 a course, which for him comes out to roughly $150 a week. 

Priscila Noe Lapuente, an adjunct professor of social sciences at Valencia College’s West Campus, told Orlando Weekly she earns approximately $2,274 for a three-credit course — lower than the national average, but higher than what an adjunct might make at a community college.

Both professors have other sources of income — Lapuente, a first-generation immigrant, also works in hospitality, and Angley teaches at another private institution. But this comes on top of the tens of hours each week that they might put into teaching, grading, class preparation and communicating with students about their coursework.

“We’re very committed to our students,” Angley says, adding that students at Valencia aren’t explicitly made aware of whether their professors are full-time or part-time faculty. As a result, they may be just as likely to assume all professors are in a secure position — with adequate office space, stable work and fair compensation for the time and effort they put into fostering a supportive learning environment. 

Angley says he’s not allowed to hold office hours as part-time faculty, yet the thought of how he can better support his students is never far from his mind. And, still, many adjuncts, himself included, do make time to talk with students who catch them before or after class, regardless of the fact that it’s uncompensated.

A recent survey from the American Federation of Teachers showed that nearly one-third of respondentswhich included over 3,000 adjuncts; graduate student workers; and non-tenured, full-time faculty nationwidereported earning less than $25,000 annually. Nearly 25 percent said they relied on public assistance, and less than half had access to employer-provided healthcare.

Adjunct positions are described as part-time, despite the fact that adjuncts — some of whom might take on hefty courseloads, given the opportunity — put in what one might consider full-time hours. Yet it’s because of their status as part-time employees that higher-ed institutions can, and often will, justify denying benefits like healthcare, which employers aren’t legally obligated to provide.

“We are the union”

Adjuncts told Orlando Weekly it’s important to them to feel respected by Valencia, to feel heard, and to have an opportunity to bargain in good faith with the college administration, which has been very strongly opposed to adjuncts’ organizing efforts.

As first reported by Orlando Weekly in January, Valencia College has spent tens of thousands of dollars on “union avoidance” legal services through the law firm Allen Norton & Blue, which has a reputation for being called upon to bust union activity at Florida colleges and universities.

Valencia has built out a full section of its website dedicated to explaining its anti-union stance. Stoking fear about the purported drawbacks of union representation, the college alleges that forming a union would trample on the freedoms of adjuncts and take away — rather than empower — the ability of adjuncts to collectively advocate for themselves and their colleagues.

“Where is your voice if others speak for you?” an inquiry on one of these pages reads, displayed in large print, accompanied by a black-and-white image of a person of color. 

“This [union] election isn’t about us,” says outgoing Valencia College president, Sandy Shugart — who himself earned a base salary of $352,574 a year, prior to his move to retire — in a video explainer of adjuncts’ ongoing organizing efforts. “It’s about them,” Shugart continued, referring to SEIU, which has worked closely with faculty like Greene since adjuncts first filed for a union in 2018.

Greene, who’s been one of the leaders in the adjunct organizing, says Valencia has conveniently neglected the central role adjuncts have played in the unionization process and the ongoing role they’d continue to have in determining aspects of their employment, should the majority vote in favor of unionization.

“It's always about the union,” says Greene, sardonically, referring to the administration’s fear-mongering rhetoric. “Not addressing the issues that have gotten adjuncts to this point, [and] not acknowledging also, that we are the union.”

Over the course of the last year alone, adjuncts successfully organized for a 2.5% pay increase — added to the standard 2.5% increase faculty are typically afforded — and $500 stipends for completing the Digital Professor Certification program for virtual teaching, although the college disputes that the union had anything to do with the college approving those benefits.

Valencia’s Human Resources Department also recently began hosting town hall discussions to seek feedback about what the college could be doing to better support their faculty. 

But Angley says it’s the timing of these town hall discussions that’s critical to consider. “We start organizing and all of a sudden we start [getting] the requests to engage in these town halls,” he says.

Shortly after one of these town halls, Valencia announced they would be using funding from the American Rescue Plan, which authorized $39.6 billion in Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds for colleges and universities, to create roughly 300 temporary Visiting Professor positions at Valencia, which would offer full benefits and salaries ranging from $34,000 to $43,000 for an eight-month period.

Adjuncts were encouraged to apply for these positions, which would offer benefits like healthcare and provide a steady income. But Lapuente, an adjunct at Valencia who also works full-time in hospitality, pointed out to Orlando Weekly that these jobs are temporary, with no promise of continued full-time work after the emergency relief funds run out. “I would have to quit my full-time job and give up all my benefits for an opportunity that is only temporary,” she said, in an emailed statement. “Again, it comes down to job security.” 

Nationwide, the proportion of faculty hired off the tenure track has risen sharply over the last 50 years, with contingent faculty — who are disproportionately plagued by low pay and job insecurity — now accounting for roughly 75 percent of all faculty at U.S. colleges and universities.

“I’m not anti-Valencia,” Angley stresses. He says he’s talked to other adjuncts about the issues affecting their day-to-day work, some of which don’t affect him personally. “But that’s the benefit, I think, of having a union,” he says. “We can come together and make a push for the things we want, whatever those are.”

Adjuncts also say that their move to form a union isn’t just for themselves, but also their students, whom they ardently wish to see succeed and want to support in the best way they can. “Ultimately, students are the objective,” Greene says.

In an email exchange with Orlando Weekly, former student Evannrue Crisp Cox, who graduated from Valencia with an Associates degree last fall, shared that they “absolutely” support faculty’s move to form a union, “without reservation.” 

Now a student at the University of Central Florida, Cox was involved in a student effort to support adjuncts’ organizing last year as a founding member of Valencia’s unofficial Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter, which vocally supported adjunct unionization, and created a campaign calling on the administration to divest funds from fossil fuels.

“Many of my professors have given me professional advice to help me with my career, aided me in internship searches, and have stayed even hours late after class to finish helping students like myself,” Cox, 23, tells Orlando Weekly

They add that the college should consider the aspirations of their students, some of whom might wish to become professors themselves. “How can you sleep at night knowing that if you were to hire [students] after their graduation, they would likely struggle to afford even rent or food, like many of your current adjuncts?”

Several Florida lawmakers have also voiced support for adjuncts’ move to unionize, including Reps. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville; Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando; and Carlos Guillermo-Smith, D-Orlando. Most recently, U.S. Representative Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg — who’s running to unseat Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2023 — also tweeted in support of Valencia adjuncts, calling collective bargaining an “American right.”

But adjuncts aren’t just taking it for granted that positive words from popular Democratic lawmakers, or even good press, will sway their colleagues. 

Faculty have been going out every weekend since January to knock on doors and speak to their colleagues about why they support forming a union, according to Angley, and what they could advocate for, collectively, through a bargaining process. “Everything out here is pretty positive,” Angley says. “I think we’re going to win.”

The union election is currently being conducted by mail. Mail ballots were distributed on May 19, and adjunct faculty have until June 16 to return their mail ballot to Florida’s Public Employees Relations Commission, which conducts elections for public employees statewide. 

In an emailed statement to Orlando Weekly, a spokesperson for Valencia College confirmed that the college is prepared to meet the organizing committee at the bargaining table, should the union be successful.

“I’m excited,” Greene told Orlando Weekly, the hope in her voice palpable. “There are many adjuncts who have put their heart and soul into this, and there’s many who are really depending on it.”

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