Following unionization, non-tenure track faculty negotiates contract with college administration

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The bargaining team of non-tenure track professors at Occidental College on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020. Photo courtesy of Erica Preston-Roedder
Non-tenure track (NTT) faculty at Occidental voted to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 721 May 14, 2019. According to past coverage in The Occidental, successful unionization means NTT faculty can now collectively bargain for contract negotiations involving areas such as pay, healthcare benefits and job security. NTT philosophy professor Erica Preston-Roedder, one of the members of the faculty bargaining team, said negotiations with the college administration started Summer 2019. Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the College Wendy Sternberg said the two sides have met more than 10 times and have scheduled more meetings this semester.

The NTT faculty body elected the faculty bargaining team Summer 2019. In addition to Preston-Roedder, the team consists of mathematics professor Jeff Miller, kinesiology professor Melinda Houston and Urban & Environmental Policy professor Corey Davis. All four professors are NTT faculty members. According to Sternberg, the administration bargaining team includes Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs Elizabeth Boyd, Chief HR Officer Randy Glazer, Assistant Director of HR Jacalyn Feigelman, Interim General Counsel Jon McNutt, Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Spanish and French studies professor Salvador Fernandez and herself.

SEIU provided the faculty bargaining team with a lawyer, a researcher and an onsite organizer to help schedule meetings, according to Preston-Roedder. During negotiations, the two sides discuss clauses.

“We suggest changes, the lawyer would tell us if the changes are legal or not, if there is a better way to phrase it,” Preston-Roedder said. “She’ll email it to the [administration’s] lawyer. They’ll look at it, and then we’ll sit down at the table and talk about the language, like, ‘Why did they object to this?'”

Sternberg said the administration’s response to any one of the NTT faculty’s proposals depends on the subject and nature of the proposal being discussed.

According to Preston-Roedder, the college administration and the NTT bargaining team have reached tentative agreements on less controversial topics such as following safety regulations and maintaining academic freedom. The two parties are now discussing more controversial issues such as healthcare benefits. Miller said the specifics of the contract cannot be revealed until the negotiation is complete.

Professor of Computer Science Jeff Miller speaks on the sensitive nature of negotiations at Occidental College on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020. Miles Koupal/The Occidental

Sternberg said she is pleased that the negotiations provide a platform to develop an improved structure that honors and respects everyone who teaches Occidental’s students.

According to Preston-Roedder, before the negotiations, the faculty bargaining team used a variety of methods to gather the NTT faculty’s opinions regarding their positions. A NTT committee that predates the bargaining team held office hours in 2019 for NTT faculty to discuss their needs and concerns. Preston-Roedder said surveys and emails were also used to gather feedback.

The bargaining team also looked at NTT union contracts at institutions near Occidental that already have completed their negotiation process, according to Miller. Such institutions included University of Southern California (USC), Whittier College, Otis College of Art and Design and California Institute of the Arts. According to Preston-Roedder, this familiarized the team with what NTT contracts look like. From the NTT faculty feedback, health insurance, job security and wages were considered to be the most important issues to address in the contract, according to Miller.

In terms of health insurance, Preston-Roedder said NTT faculty would teach five, sometimes even 5.5 classes in one academic year — which can happen when professors teach a two-unit class. This is very close to the six classes per year workload for tenured and tenure-track faculty. However, NTT faculty were not given any healthcare benefits.

“The NTT committee worked really hard to get [healthcare] dealt with before unionization,” Preston-Roedder said. “Frustration over that process was part of the impetus to form a union.”

Currently, only full-time NTT faculty receive healthcare benefits, according to the faculty handbook.

Another area the NTT faculty wants to address is job security. According to Preston-Roedder, although the college does try to keep its NTT faculty with every effort, there is nothing written contractually that ensures NTT faculty are guaranteed a job semester-to-semester.

“Right now, the college can fire a non-tenure track person for any reason whatsoever,” Preston-Roedder said. “So if a class is under[enrolled], if someone changes their mind about offering the course, if someone just doesn’t like you, there’s no actual contractual protection.”

According to Preston-Roedder, once a complete contract has been negotiated, it will be sent to the NTT faculty for a vote to decide whether it will be ratified. Preston-Roedder said so far, the administration has been willing to work with the NTT faculty to reach a mutually agreeable path forward. However, she said she is unsure when the negotiations will finish.

Sternberg said while the two sides have made significant progress in several areas, there is still a lot left to do.