WASHINGTON, DC — Howard University made headlines once again as teaching staff and adjunct faculty threatened to walk off of the job on the grounds of inadequate pay and other unfair labor practices.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 500 represents over 150 non-tenure-track professors and 200 adjunct faculty.
They are “among the lowest-paid faculty compared to four-year institutions in [Washington] D.C.” despite teaching over 2000 courses every year. Many non-tenure-track professors have shared their struggles with the red tape they regularly encounter to keep their jobs.
“Despite how much we love working here, the difficult working conditions make it unsustainable,” said Yael Kiken, a full-time non-tenure-track lecturer in the English department, as he addressed the crowd. “Our salary is too low to afford essential costs like child care. Each year, we have to re-apply for our jobs. This means there is no guarantee that we will have employment from one year to the next. This is especially scary now that I have a child.”
On Wednesday, March 16, almost 500 students and faculty gathered on campus for a rally as SEIU members grew impatient, awaiting a response from Provost Anthony Wutoh about their request for a meeting. Negotiations have been going on between both sides for three years. Upon the approach of the administrative building, campus security blocked faculty’s entry, and the crowd erupted into chants, demanding that they be let in.
As the Friday deadline was quickly approaching, union members were left with no other choice but to make plans to go on strike.
“If the leadership of this university does not reach an agreement with us on March 18, this Friday, then on Wednesday, March 23, on Thursday, March 24, and on Friday, March 25, the adjuncts union and the lecturers union in alliance with SEIU Local 500, we will be holding an unfair labor practice strike,” Cyrus Hampton, contingent faculty leader and English professor, announced.
Despite the adjunct faculty’s threats to strike, Howard’s administration remained unfazed and released a statement to students addressing the pending strike.
The statement said, “If a strike were to occur, courses would continue as scheduled by our non-unionized faculty,” and continued to address the contract lengths, stated that the “7-year rule” ensured “the flexibility that the University needs to meet and manage fiscal needs, and protect the integrity of the tenure process.”
The university came under fire in recent months for its hiring decisions.
Last summer, Howard hired Nikole Hannah Jones, New York Times Magazine staff writer and author-curator of the “1619 Project,” as a tenured faculty member. In addition to being given tenure, the journalist was awarded $20 million to found the Institute for Journalism and Democracy on campus, according to the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS).
The news of an adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty strike comes from another scandal that rocked the campus. Five months prior, the university was trending after students who occupied the campus’ Blackburn Center exposed the inhumane living conditions of their dorms. Students said that Howard worked with them to end the occupation but students could not discuss the matter further once the administration met their demands; however, not much has changed.
“Last semester, we had mold, asbestos … in the buildings. But recently another hall flooded,” said Jamari, a Howard student, to WSWS.
With the controversy surrounding the university, some were left wondering what Howard was doing with their historic endowments if the money was not going to the betterment of the school or the faculty and students. Howard received numerous historical donations, such as a landmark donation from Mackenzie Scott earmarked for a STEM Scholars Fund.
Ultimately, Howard administrators and the SEIU reached a tentative three-year agreement that would negotiate fairer working conditions for adjunct faculty and avoid the strike on March 23.
The deal is set to be put to a vote of ratification by union membership, which will take place in the coming weeks. Components of the agreement include the ability to teach enough courses to access Howard’s health insurance and ending a rule under which non-tenure-track faculty are let go after seven years, according to NPR.