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VCU faculty and staff have started their own labor union

VCU faculty and staff have started their own labor union

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As an adjunct instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Rose Szabo makes about $25,000 a year. The job is considered part-time, but it doesn’t feel part-time. Szabo teaches three classes a semester — the same as tenured faculty — plans lectures, grades assignments and meets with students.

Szabo is one of 60 VCU staffers and graduate students who have started a labor union for university employees. They announced their formation Monday as the VCU chapter of United Campus Workers of Virginia, and a group of them marched through campus Monday afternoon wearing red shirts and announcing their presence.

“Our working conditions are students’ learning conditions” Szabo said.

VCU is the second university in the state whose workers have unionized under United Campus Workers. Staffers at the University of Virginia formed a chapter last summer.

At VCU, adjunct faculty members earn a minimum of $1,100 per credit hour. If an adjunct instructor earning the minimum teaches three classes each semester, which is considered a full load, he or she earns less than $20,000 per year. Some adjuncts will teach at multiple universities to increase their income, Szabo said.

The university says her job is a 29-hour-a-week position. But that’s not realistic, Szabo said.

Szabo, who has two master’s degrees, isn't lacking education. Of the 700 or so adjunct faculty at VCU, almost all have master’s degrees, and many have doctorates, she said.

VCU’s administration recommended an increase to the minimum adjunct pay to $1,200 per credit hour, and the rate has increased 20% over four years, a school spokesman said. The upcoming budget, which hasn’t been approved by the school’s board yet, would also include a 5% merit increase for all other adjunct faculty making $1,143 or more.

VCU’s adjuncts are asking for $3,000 per credit hour.

According to a 2020 survey from the American Federation of Teachers, 40% of adjunct faculty members struggle to cover basic household expenses. Respondents claimed they earn between $700 per credit hour and $2,500.

A 2012 study by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce reported that the median annual salary for an adjunct faculty member was $24,000.

Kelsey Huelsman is a graduate teaching assistant at UVA and a member of the union. She’s in the middle of a five-year doctoral program in environmental science, teaching one class and conducting research. She works at least 40 hours a week, she said.

Her partner is in a master’s program to become a high school teacher, and paying the rent in Richmond is difficult.

“At $26,000, I’m the breadwinner,” she said at the demonstration.

Huelsman aspires to teach at the college level. But winning a competitive full-time position is difficult, and some adjunct faculty make less than she does, she said. She’s unsure if she can afford to stay in higher education.

“I want to have a future in academia,” she said. “I really do.”

When Brionna Nomi was a graduate student in VCU’s school of education, she had to buy her own health insurance because the university didn’t offer it. Her child was an infant at the time, and her husband, an artist, didn’t have a job that provided health insurance for the family. It was a challenge taking care of her family, she said.

Joining the union will help define what graduate students do and what they deserve, said Marie Kreck, a graduate teaching assistant in the school’s English department.

The unionization effort has attracted the help of two public officials, former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, and Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, who have voiced support. Rasoul spoke at Monday’s demonstration, and Foy said the effort to unionize is a “giant step forward” for the state.

“United Campus Workers has taken a giant step against the regime of the old Virginia way,” Foy said in a statement. Foy is running for governor, and Rasoul is running for lieutenant governor.

Szabo would like to get a more secure teaching position at VCU, and Szabo interviewed for a position in the Focused Inquiry department last year. Then the pandemic hit, VCU’s revenue was impacted, and the position was frozen. It hasn’t reopened yet.

ekolenich@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6109

Twitter: @EricKolenich

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Eric Kolenich writes about higher education, sports, coronavirus and protests for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He joined the newspaper in 2009 after graduating from the University of Virginia with a degree in English. (804) 649-6109

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