Duke Teaching First, a non-tenure track organization, is asking for a vote on joining the Service Employees International Union — a two million member union that includes airport workers, security officers and full and part-time college faculty.
Faculty Forward, the union’s higher education campaign, asks for a national standard payment of $15,000 per course and greater access to higher education for students.
At Duke, 40 percent of faculty are fixed-term or non-tenure track employees, while at UNC, 48 percent of the university’s nearly 3,700 employees are on fixed-term contracts.
MJ Sharp, a visiting lecturer at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies and a member of the Organizing Committee of Duke Teaching First, said fixed-term faculty at Duke want to gain a stronger collective voice in campaigning for better job security and better access to employee benefits like health insurance.
“Everyone outside of academia who’s not affected by this has this very romantic view of how instructors are treated and how much they get paid and things like that and it’s a very, very antiquated view at this point,” she said.
Non-tenure track faculty at UNC, while facing many of the same issues as their Duke counterparts, cannot unionize under state law.
Jeffrey Hirsch, a professor at the UNC School of Law, said Duke faculty are organizing under the National Labor Relations Act, which does not apply to state employees.
“State employers are only covered under any relevant state labor laws, and North Carolina has none whatsoever,” Hirsch said. “In fact, North Carolina is one of two states that basically outlaws any collective bargaining with state agencies.”
Nancy Fisher, chairperson of the Fixed-Term Faculty Committee at UNC, said the main strategy for fixed-term faculty at UNC has been dialogue between faculty members and administrators.
“We’ve been making some progress, and that’s the preferred way to go,” she said.
Fisher said non-tenure track faculty at UNC fall into three categories: clinical faculty, research faculty and teaching faculty. Of the teaching faculty, the most vulnerable are those that work on a contract and get paid by the course.
“There are still some departments at the university where these faculty could be better supported,” Fisher said.
The national trend of hiring more non-tenure track faculty is bringing the issue to a wider audience and Duke faculty are not the first to take action, Hirsch said.
“I do think this is may be the start of a broader trend where we see non-tenure track faculty organizing more,” he said.
Sharp said she and other faculty members at Duke are determined to see this process through until conditions for fixed-term faculty change.
“I don’t see any compelling reason that we can’t fix it. We need to fix it. We have the resources and the time and the passion and the energy.”