Why a Faculty Union at Howard U. Called Off Its Strike Otesanya David March 24, 2022

Why a Faculty Union at Howard U. Called Off Its Strike

Why a Faculty Union at Howard U. Called Off Its Strike


Howard University’s administration and a union representing adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty members have averted a strike, for now, after a years-long standoff over pay and working conditions at the historically Black college. At roughly 3:30 a.m. on Wednesday the two sides reached a proposed agreement.

Here’s what you need to know about it.

What led to the standoff?

The faculty union, which represents about 200 part-time adjunct instructors and 150 full-time non-tenure-track lecturers, has been pushing Howard officials for better pay and working conditions. The group is represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 500, known as SEIU.

Howard’s adjuncts are among the lowest paid among colleges in the Washington, D.C., region, according to the union.

Full-time lecturers without tenure aren’t paid enough either, according to the union, and they’re stuck on one-year contracts that can be renewed only for seven years. After that span, they’re no longer able to teach at Howard.

University officials have said that the seven-year rule “is in place to ensure that Howard has the correct variety of faculty to meet academic needs.”

The officials have also argued that eliminating the rule would give “de facto tenure” to full-time instructors, even though they wouldn’t have to go through the same rigorous review as tenure-track professors. Dropping the rule could also result in “significant financial harm” to the university, the officials said.

“We remain committed to good-faith efforts to reach an accord that benefits Howard instructors, but also prevents the erosion of tenure and potentially negative impacts to the fundamental research mission of our university,” Wayne A.I. Frederick, Howard’s president, said in a written statement before the tentative agreement was reached.

What finally got the administration and the union on the same page?

Negotiations started in the spring of 2018, but several faculty members said Howard officials had been bargaining in bad faith. University administrators didn’t come to the table until last week, when the union announced a planned strike.

Until this week, the only people speaking on Howard’s behalf to the union were the university’s lawyers, faculty members said. “Every variation of the word ‘no’ they used,” said Ricky Ramón, a fifth-year non-tenure-track lecturer in the department of theater arts. “Howard administrators were not allowed to ever speak.”

But the threat to strike spurred a fundamental shift in the discussions, Ramón said: “It was night and day.”

Anthony K. Wutoh, Howard’s provost, said the university “values its unique cadre of faculty” in an email to the campus on Wednesday. “We successfully doubled down on our promise to bargain in good faith with the SEIU and deliver a fair labor contract for faculty, the university, and our community,” Wutoh wrote.

What’s in the agreement?

Details of the tentative, three-year agreement are not yet public. Union members say they didn’t get everything they wanted.

But the deal would increase salaries for the lowest-paid faculty members, said Larry Alcoff, the union’s chief negotiator. The agreement also would offer faculty members more job security.

The agreement, retroactive to January of this year, would immediately change peoples’ lives, said Oline Eaton, a second-year, non-tenure-track, full-time lecturer in the English department. Eaton couldn’t share the exact amount of the pay raises but said that at least one colleague had already told her she wouldn’t have to juggle as many part-time jobs anymore.

“That’s what it means to people,” Eaton said. “A lot of our colleagues are not here today because they are working their second, third, or fourth jobs, and they couldn’t get off.”

How do adjunct and non-tenured faculty members feel about the agreement?

Faculty members said the tentative deal was a bittersweet victory.

Cyrus Hampton has been teaching English at Howard for five years. He said a lot of “fantastic, dedicated, experienced” colleagues had been forced to leave the university because of the seven-year rule or their need for “jobs with better pay and more stability.”

Jazmin George, a second-year, full-time, non-tenure-track lecturer in the English department, said she was proud of colleagues who had worked throughout the night to hammer out the agreement. George is one of many who teach at another university to get by.

“If everyone was in the same position that I am,” she said, “I don’t think anyone would have the time or energy to make these changes happen.”

Now what?

The tentative agreement will be voted on by union members in the coming weeks.

There is still a lot of work to be done, Ramón said. “I want us to get to a point where a teacher can come here and teach and not have to get a second job,” he said. “We’re not there.”


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