Emerson LA Faculty AAUP

By Kelly Hand

Emerson LA Faculty AAUP is a collective bargaining chapter representing part-time faculty at Emerson LA, a program of Boston’s Emerson College that brings students to Los Angeles for a semester of coursework and internships in entertainment, communications, publishing, and marketing. Part-time faculty teaching at the main campus in Boston formed a union, Affiliated Faculty of Emerson College (AFEC), in 2001 and ratified their most recent contract in April 2015. In September 2015, Emerson LA requested recognition to become a part of the existing union of AFEC. Although the request was denied, Emerson faculty were able to form an independent unit by a unanimous vote in December 2015 and to negotiate a contract based on AFEC’s contract.

Emerson College invested in Emerson LA with a costly new facility on Sunset Boulevard, yet the program relies almost exclusively on part-time faculty, many of whom have taught in the program for over a decade. Part-time faculty take the lead in curriculum development, participate in long-term institutional planning, and use their professional connections in the entertainment industry to cultivate internship opportunities for students. In approaching the Emerson College administration, faculty at Emerson LA argued that because they are teaching the same students as their part-time colleagues in Boston and doing the same work (with many taking on additional responsibilities), they deserve comparable compensation and benefits.

Emerson LA’s demands resulted in a contract ratified on September 12, 2016, and in effect from September 2016 to June 2020. Key provisions of the contract include the establishment of a seniority system with a four-step pay scale based on the number of credits taught, annual 2 to 4 percent salary increases tied to the Los Angeles consumer price index, medical and dental benefits, and two-semester contracts and rights to grieve nonreappointment decisions for faculty at pay-scale steps 3 and 4. The contract also includes language about academic freedom, payment for attendance at mandatory meetings and trainings, and eligibility for professional development funds and teaching awards.

We asked interim union president Jennifer Vandever and interim vice president Julian Higgins to answer some questions, and they provided responses in consultation with other chapter leaders.

What led Emerson LA to request to join the Boston part-time union so many years after it formed?

Some of us had discussed it among ourselves, but moving into a new building in spring 2014 was the tipping point. We were working in a building that cost more than $110 million while none of the part-time faculty—some of whom were essentially teaching full time—had benefits or job security. At the same time, there was a lot of turnover within the administration after a long period of stability. Faculty who had worked at Emerson for many years realized how vulnerable and insecure their jobs were. We also saw a need for better communication and greater transparency with regard to pay. As an Emerson College alumnus who had been aware of the faculty unions back at the Boston campus, Julian was surprised to learn that there wasn’t an existing union structure in place at the Los Angeles campus. Since we’re all adjuncts employed by the same college, that didn’t seem fair at all.

What were the advantages and disadvantages of forming a separate collective bargaining unit? How did you benefit from AFEC’s experience and guidance as well as from your program’s uniqueness?

Obviously, we’re a much smaller unit. There are currently only twenty of us, whereas AFEC’s Boston chapter represents more than two hundred faculty members. However, adjuncts are 95 percent of the faculty here (ELA has one senior scholar in residence and typically has two faculty members visiting from the Boston campus each semester). The program relies on us; ELA doesn’t have a full-time faculty to draw from. This situation creates opportunities for us but also creates some blurred lines. In 2015, we reached out to AFEC’s then president, David Kociemba, and he was enormously helpful. He put us in touch with our local AAUP organizer, Jason Elias. AFEC members had a much more difficult path to a contract, so we really benefited from their many years of hard work and dedication to improving part-time faculty working conditions. We also benefited from working with a college used to negotiating faculty contracts; even though we often disagreed, the process was collegial.

What challenges did you face bringing together a small group of part-time faculty in an ancillary program? How did you convince the administration that improving working conditions would benefit the program?

The fact that the program depends almost entirely on part-time faculty provided some leverage. Also, although students come here for just one semester, they often build strong relationships with the faculty. During the move to a new building, we experienced growing pains: a doubling of the student population and a shuffling of administrators. The one positive constant that students cited over and over, even when they were critical of the program as a whole, was the faculty. The students are key allies, and they get it: faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. We reminded the administration that we were a big part of Emerson’s successful expansion.

A significant number of your members are entertainment-industry professionals with prior or current union memberships. How has their experience influenced the organizing process?

Many of our faculty belong to at least one union already. Julian is a member of the Directors Guild of America, Jennifer is a member of the Writers Guild of America, and other faculty are members of the Screen Actors Guild and other unions. This was extremely helpful for organizing, since almost everyone was already familiar with the advantages and protections a good union can offer.

Many Emerson LA faculty bring unique professional experience to the program. How were you able to leverage these assets, and what can other part-time faculty in programs on satellite campuses learn from your experience?

Many of us work in media or entertainment in addition to our roles at Emerson, so we have experience and connections to the Los Angeles creative community. Being a satellite campus has unique challenges— in our case, we’ve flown under the radar for decades. We had to educate administrators in Boston about who we are and how the program operates. ELA faculty are remarkably accomplished both as teachers and in other fields, and we emphasized that expertise during negotiations with administrators. We do a lot of high-level work, including developing new courses.

As you celebrate the successful negotiation of your first contract, what work lies ahead? How will you build on this success to improve conditions for faculty at Emerson LA and lay a foundation for future contract negotiations?

We’d love to see wages come up so that they’re competitive with peer institutions in Los Angeles. The sticking point in negotiations was job security and a path to full-time status. The administration wouldn’t allow us the same multi-term contracts offered to senior faculty in Boston and was firmly against a path to full-time status (or increased course caps), even for senior faculty who have demonstrated a long-term value to the institution. Our longest-serving faculty member has been here for twenty-one years, teaching—until recently—four courses a semester. That’s more than anyone else at Emerson College, full-time or otherwise. Most faculty are now limited to four courses per year. It doesn’t have to be like that. The college made a short-sighted decision to avoid setting a precedent, and it will have a serious effect on morale in the long term. There’s a desire among the core faculty for full-time work at ELA. Unfortunately, the program is likely to lose talent to other institutions before the college realizes that so-called flexibility may come at the cost of experience and institutional memory. This is one of our biggest ideological differences: flexibility versus stability. And it’s one you see reflected on other campuses across the country.

Emerson LA reflects a trend toward satellite campus programs run largely by contingent faculty. How can the national AAUP make a powerful case against this trend while also supporting part-time faculty in such programs and honoring their commitment?

 It’s a worrying trend. Schools are moving more and more to a corporate model and see labor as disposable. Forming a union was a good first step for our chapter, but we’re a long way from a truly equitable system. Students are a valuable resource for faculty, and the AAUP could do more to educate them about our working conditions. Our students often are unaware, for example, that ELA courses are taught mostly by adjuncts. Students (and their parents) should know that as their tuitions rise they’re often being taught by instructors who are scrambling from one campus to another, working multiple jobs, or worried about how they’ll pay rent over the summer. Teaching is a valuable profession; good teachers are not a dime a dozen.

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