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Adjunct professors at 2 Minnesota colleges plan union drive

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Adjunct professors, described as part-time college faculty who typically don't earn tenure or full benefits, are demanding more at two private colleges in Minnesota, and may seek union protection to get it.

MPR News reports that adjuncts at St. Paul's Macalester College and Hamline University will vote on whether to organize. At a rally Thursday on the Macalester campus, representatives from both colleges indicated they are formalizing requests with the National Labor Relations Board to hold votes to unionize. Both groups said they have collected signatures from at least 30 percent of their members, the minimum required for a formal vote. Those votes could take place within several months.

The Star Tribune quoted Macalester organizer SooJin Pate, 37, who has taught American studies at the prestigious St. Paul private college for three years. She said part-time adjuncts are paid as little as $5,000 per course at Macalester. Tenure-track professors start at $61,000 a year plus benefits.

“There’s a huge disparity,” said Pate. “We want equal pay for equal work,” said Pate. "If we have a union, we can only gain, we can’t lose. It can’t get worse for us.”

Nationally, adjuncts now make up more than half of college instructors. Colleges have turned to the part-time instructors as a cost-effective way to supplement teaching ranks. The issue of how they are treated has been the subject of a recent national debate. Earlier this year, the PBS NewsHour was among the media organizations that covered a homeless New York adjunct professor who gained national attention for her protest about pay and working conditions.

The Texas-based Center for Community College Student Engagement surveyed more than 71,000 part-time college teachers and found that they face challenges that interfere with their effectiveness. Earlier this month, the New York Times carried an editorial urging the nation's colleges and universities to address the problem of what it called the "part-time faculty crisis."

Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison lent his support for unionization at the campus rally. The Minneapolis congressman recalled his own career as an adjunct professor; he taught a civil rights class as an at Macalester about 20 years ago.

"What I'd say to the people who lead this great institution is: Don't take this thing personally. Don't. It's not meant that way," Ellison said. "It's just regular people saying, 'Man, I've got to afford some groceries. I've got to have a voice on my job. I've got to have something to say about what happens to me when I'm working."

Macalester Provost Kathleen Murray expressed surprise at the effort and said Macalester pays its 121 adjunct instructors more than many colleges. She added that many earn full-time pay and benefits.

"I'd like to understand better what it is they actually want," she said. "This came as a complete surprise to us. We're a pretty small and close-knit place where we do anticipate that people might walk across the campus and have a conversation about something like this."

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