Kirkwood, MO – Students at St. Louis Community College at Meramec recently gave their fellow students and district administrators a lesson in solidarity.
Prior to an Oct. 19 incident at the Board of Trustees meeting where an adjunct mathematics professor was body slammed and arrested for trying to speak out, the students staged a campus camp-in to draw attention to the plight of adjunct instructors and their nearly two-year fight to negotiate a first contract.
“We’ve just been letting the students here and anybody that walks by know what we’re after, which is to get our adjuncts to the bargaining table,” said Michael Marino, 25, an education major.
Struggling with low wages, lack of benefits, and unpredictable scheduling, 574 eligible faculty members at STLCC’s various campuses voted overwhelmingly to have a voice on the job by joining Service Employees International Union Local 1 in late 2015. In doing so, the adjuncts, who are paid about $10 a credit hour, joined thousands of other part-time, non-tenure track instructors and faculty members around the country who have voted to organize.
In September, frustrated over stalled contract negotiations, adjunct faculty rallied at the school’s Forest Park campus to demand fair wages and predictable work schedules. The college is constructing a new $39 million building to house its allied health, nursing, physical therapist assistant and occupational therapist assistant programs on the Forest Park campus. The college is using a wrap-around structure to finance bonds for the new building, meaning the college will only pay interest on the new bonds until existing bonds are paid off.
Members of the Student Social Action Committee (SSAC) joined faculty at the Sept. 28 Board of Trustees meeting to voice their concerns following Chancellor Jeff Pittman’s summer announcement that the budget cuts will likely result in a reduction of full-time faculty – meaning the community college district will be relying more heavily on adjuncts, with their low wages, lack of benefits and semester-to-semester contracts.
Marino and several other students decided to take their concerns directly to their fellow classmates by setting up tents and banners in front of the campus on Big Bend Blvd. They later moved their encampment to a quadrangle further inside the campus, where they could talk to fellow students between classes.
NO JOB SECURITY
Marino became involved after talking to some of his instructors, most of whom have advanced degrees, and learning about the conditions they work under. Some 60 to 70 percent of college faculty are now adjuncts, who work for low wages, aren’t afforded office space – with regular office hours for students – and have little or no job security.
“What happens is, if they tell you you’re going to teach a class next semester, you pick your books and set your coursework and you might find out a week before the semester starts that you’re not going to teach the class because not enough students enrolled,” Marino said.
One of the things adjuncts are asking for is compensation for cancelled classes.
“I work at Red Lobster three nights a week, and my job is better than the adjuncts,’” Marino said. “That’s messed up.”
WORKING MULTIPLE JOBS
Many adjuncts are forced to take other jobs, teaching at several schools or taking a non-teaching part-time position, just to make ends meet.
Their situation was made worse earlier this year when Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens announced he was withholding more than $80 million in higher education funding to offset a shortfall in state revenue. For the University of Missouri System, that meant more than $38 million in budget cuts. For St. Louis Community College, the cuts came to about $5 million.
Marino said he and his fellow students understand the funding issue, but they also believe the college could make adjustments elsewhere in the budget to maintain full-time faculty and pay their adjuncts more fairly.
“If they would open the books and bargain with us, and show us that we don’t have the money, that’s one thing,” Marino said. “You’re telling someone you can’t have a raise above poverty level or you’re going to lose your job. But they’re building a new building at Forest Park. What good is that going to be for the teachers and the students if they’re afraid for the future? People’s jobs and livelihoods are on the line.”
A COMMUNITY THREATENED
Meramec, like the other campuses in the St. Louis Community College system, is a community. Students admire and develop bonds with their teachers and fellow students. The transient and insecure nature of adjunct positions threatens that, and students get it.
“I have been so impressed by everybody that has come by here, how quickly they understand the problem and that this is just wrong,” Marino said. “As a student body, we very much stand by our teachers and this campus. There’s a lot more invested in this place than I think they realize.”
Katherine Johnson, a 25-year-old general transfer student and another one of the protesters, said the college’s Board of Trustees is looking for quick fixes to budget problems, and students and faculty are paying the price.
“To me, it’s very short-sighted to say, ‘Let’s put all our eggs into this very unhappy basket,’” Johnson said. “I have come across so many amazing professors in my time here. I couldn’t just stand by and let this happen. These professors go above and beyond for their students. They’ve done it for me.”
Johnson noted that many of her teachers hop between Meramec and other schools in the area – Webster University, St. Louis University, the University of Missouri-St. Louis and others – because they don’t have a full-time job at any of the schools and have to teach at multiple campuses just to get by.
“They’re non-stop,” she said. “When you’re a teacher that goes above and beyond for their students and passes on your knowledge, you deserve more than a pat on the back and a paycheck.