Adjuncts at school's the Moon Township campus have begun circulating union cards to their colleagues, and plan to step up the campaign in the days ahead.
Teaching as an adjunct is "a hopeless situation," says James Talerico, a Robert Morris adjunct and member of the union organizing committee. "And that's why we're hoping the union can help."
Talerico teaches communication skills -- like public speaking and professional communications -- in the English Department. Between his work at Robert Morris and a teaching gig at CCAC, he says, he teaches roughly a dozen courses a year. "As an adjunct, you have to teach as much as you can," he says.
Yet despite the workload, he says, "This is one of the loneliest jobs in the world. I'm just so demoralized by what I call the agony of the adjunct: deplorable pay, no benefits, no retirement plan. No job security or respect for seniority, no recognition for a job well done." Talerico, who previously worked in PR and journalism, says that at age 54, "I don't have a dime in a retirement fund."
Talerico says he spent a decade of teaching at Robert Morris without getting a raise. This summer, the school upped his pay by $50 a credit hour -- a $150 increase for an average course. Talerico surmises that the school was seeking to head off a union bid, but calls the increase "almost even more demoralizing. They're throwing crumbs. So now I'm getting $2,400 a course instead of $2,250." Talerico says that once he factored in the time spent grading papers and doing other work outside the classroom, he's earning less than $2 an hour. "My wife's always saying, 'Why don't you quit and get a job at Costco or Starbucks?'"
Robert Morris was founded in 1921 as the "Pittsburgh School of Accountancy", and USW organizer Randa Ruge says she originally thought its business-school roots would complicate unionization efforts. "But a lot of professors have expressed that this goes beyond politics. They felt education is in crisis, and that adjuncts have the least to lose and the most to gain."
Robert Morris' full-time instructors are already unionized, under the American Federation of Teachers. Accordingly, says Ruge, "They should be used to having a labor-management relationship. Hopefully they will be somewhat amiable to this campaign. But who knows how they will react?"
The university largely declined comment on this story; a spokesman said the school had not yet received formal notification of any unionization bid. The school did say that adjuncts can earn between $2,100 and $2,700 for the average three-credit course, with the amount based on the instructor's experience and qualifications. Adjuncts teach 42 percent of RMU courses, the school says, generally in classes that fulfill general education requirements, like math and communications.
Talerico says his committee has already garnered roughly 45 adjunct signatures -- roughly one-third of what Ruge says they'll need to garner majority support. Ruge predicts that the union will file for recognition with the National Labor Relations Board by early October. She says the success at Point Park -- where Ruge says contract talks should begin next month -- should accelerate efforts at RMU.
"We have a campaign in Pittsburgh to get all the adjuncts unionized, in order to raise all the boats," she says. If that happens, she says, the USW would be able to exert leverage on behalf of adjuncts all over town, and negotiate decent terms for them all. "It'd be nice to have a master contract a decade down the road."