As the vote-counting process dragged on, Andrea Parra grew nervous. As one of 240 Dornsife faculty members who voted on whether non-tenure track faculty in the school should unionize and one of the few who stayed to watch the votes being counted on Feb. 2, Parra was waiting to hear that the vote would swing in favor of unionization — but her optimism shrank as time went on.
“To me it was immediately obvious that the vote wasn’t going our way,” Parra said. “It was neck-and-neck the entire time, so we were kind of sitting on pins and needles.”
A strong supporter of unionization, Parra said she was “disappointed” when the vote results came in and Dornsife faculty decided against joining the union, SEIU Local 721, by a vote of 127-113. Parra, an associate professor of Spanish in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, has been teaching at USC for 17 years, and sees unionization as an important step toward righting many of the wrongs adjunct faculty face at the University.
“I think that we should be allowed to participate in determining what’s in our contract,” Parra said. “The administration makes a lot of decisions for us that limit the kind of professional development we can engage in and the kind of research that we can do.”
The vote was a cause for celebration for some adjunct faculty members at the Roski School of Art and Design, however, including Patrick Jackson, one of 31 faculty members who supported the successful unionization vote over the six faculty members who were opposed. For Jackson, a lecturer in Roski’s sculpture department, being part of a labor union is a move towards greater job stability, which he sees as especially important for artists.
“I’ve always had a fear of a class being canceled at the last minute and the possibility of losing health insurance and income with no kind of option to make that up,” Jackson said.
Teaching contracts are decided on a semester-to-semester basis, and as a result, Jackson could never be sure whether he would have a job the next semester, an issue that he hopes will be solved with the new vote to unionize.
That stability is something Parra and other Dornsife non-tenure track faculty are seeking, as well as a greater sense of transparency in the contract negotiation process. According to Parra, issues such as faculty salaries and teaching schedules are currently decided on an individual basis, which deprives faculty members of the bargaining power they would have as a collective unit.
“[Salary decisions are] a unilateral process,” Parra said. “Every year we receive a salary letter that lets us know what we’ll be making the following academic year, and if you are not satisfied there is an appeal process, but many people don’t know that that process exists. Even when you do appeal it, you just send it off and don’t know who’s viewing it or what the process is.”
In an email to USC faculty on Feb. 2, Provost Michael Quick explained that he was “personally disappointed” in the vote at Roski, and that the University plans to appeal the results on the basis that faculty members are managers who cannot unionize. However, the University will not contest the results of a vote at the USC International Academy, which supported unionization 32 to 3.
Quick also expressed a willingness to work together with Dornsife faculty to address some of the issues that spurred the push for unionization.
“I do not take lightly the fact that the Dornsife vote was close and that a substantial number of faculty expressed their dissatisfaction by their votes,” Quick wrote in the email. “The decision of the Dornsife faculty to reject unionization leaves us free to continue to work collaboratively within the university community on the issues that are important to faculty, building on what we already have achieved.”
Dornsife faculty, however, contested the results of the vote, alleging that USC officials had interfered with the process by promising to meet some of the faculty members’ demands and threatening that unionization would prevent them from participating in university governance. The complaint, which will be investigated by the National Labor Relations Board, named several emails sent out by Quick as the vote approached, which urged faculty members to reconsider their stance on unionization.
These emails may have contributed at least in part to the vote results, according to Parra, who said that 26 to 28 percent of eligible faculty members — defined as those who had taught in Dornsife the previous semester, were not tenured or on a tenure track, and were not teaching online classes only — did not vote, despite the guarantee of anonymity.
“Even though it was an anonymous vote, I think people are very fearful of being identified as having voted for the union,” Parra said. “I think that some people were still on the fence, and I spoke to some people who were happy that the threat of the union was already provoking change.”
Although Parra sees the voting results as a setback, she remains hopeful that it can be reversed in the future, as Dornsife faculty can file for another vote as early as November.
In the meantime, promises from administrators to address faculty concerns may make some changes — but Parra remains skeptical that these will hold any substance.
“I think we have to be vigilant that they make significant changes, so that people don’t forget about the injustice and lack of transparency that we’ve suffered over the years,” Parra said. “I’ve been here 17 years, and I’m not going to forget.”