Faculty organizers express tentative hope for unionization


Photo courtesy Northeastern Full-Time Faculty Union Organizing Committee

Some members of the Northeastern Full-Time Faculty Union Organizing Committee are pictured from left to right: Melissa Pearson, Vaso Lykourinou, Aaron Block, Nick Brown, and Sebastian Stockman

Yunkyo Kim, campus editor

Full-time, non-tenure track faculty organizers announced April 23 that they will continue their unionization effort despite recent petition withdrawal. Advocates say unionization would solve major issues for faculty like those experienced by Rafael Ubal.

When Ubal started teaching at Northeastern in 2010, he was in the United States under a J1 scholar visa, a precarious non-immigrant status that becomes nonrenewable after five years. He applied for an assistant teaching professor position in 2015 but was instead offered the job of designing and teaching two masters computer engineering curricula by himself under a single-course, four-month contract. For this “full-time task” which required an “immense amount of preparation,” Ubal said he was only compensated between six and seven thousand dollars for each course.

“That is an absolute abuse of power and exploitation of cheap immigrant labor, basically, but I had no other choice,” said Ubal. “It was either taking that, or my visa was over and I had to pack my bags and leave the country with a very short notice.”

Ubal accepted the offer but said it put him in a very “emotionally unstable” situation, as he had to be consistently employed to keep the visa. He was hired at the conclusion of the same semester as an assistant teaching professor in the electrical and computer engineering department. However, as a single professor, he was unable to negotiate his salary to the required minimum for an H1B worker visa with a department head who knew his situation, forcing him to take a summer research job just to be able to stay in the country.

Ubal said this motivated him to join the organizing committee for the full-time, non-tenure track faculty’s unionization effort.

“That was basically what made me realize that things were not right at all, that there was something unfair happening,” Ubal said. “I think the union is essential for immigrants in this kind of situation because a union would have been able to bargain.”

The Northeastern Full-Time Faculty Union Organizing Committee announced April 23 that they withdrew their petition for a unionization vote for the second time, a day ahead of a hearing before the National Labor Relations Board.

“We withdrew the petition in order to avoid a legal defeat,” said Sebastian Stockman, an associate teaching professor in the English department. “If the ruling went our way and didn’t go [the university’s] way at first, they would signal their intent to appeal the local decision, which then would upend the precedent and undercut the rights of already established full-time, non-tenure track faculty around the country.”

Stockman noted the university hired Jackson Lewis P.C., a law firm with prior anti-union association with Northeastern and other universities.

“No one here in the committee and the full-time faculty want to be the first person that ruins labor rights,” said Aaron Block, an associate teaching professor in the English department. “But we’ve been pushed into that position by the university — they’ve made it so we have no other choice.”

There may be some hope for the unionization effort, however. On April 24, the Faculty Senate passed a “sense of the senate” vote, establishing senate majority support of the full-time, non-tenure track faculty’s right to a union election and urging the administration to “commit to no longer filing legal objections to their eligibility.”

“I am very disappointed in the university’s response, partly because one of their arguments as to why we don’t need the union is that we have the Faculty Senate,” said Brandon Sichling, an associate teaching professor of game design. “If the Faculty Senate is supporting this right to a vote, then you think that everyone would say ‘okay, in that case, we are on the same page.’”

Some full-time, non-tenure track faculty members like Block expressed hope that the Faculty Senate approval may compound existing pressures from NU students and the Boston community.

“Regardless of the power of the resolution itself, the fact that it happened in the first place is important,” Block said. “To me, it represents another sort of version of pressure to the administration to change their position.”

Even with additional support, the full-time, non-tenure track faculty may still face challenges in earning the right for a unionization vote.

Somy Kim, an associate teaching professor in the English department, said the effort to unionize was not just about “pay and benefits,” but about the well-being of faculty and students overall.

“We are deeply concerned with how our colleagues and students are being treated,” Kim said.

Prior to Northeastern, Kim taught at Boston University, or BU, for three years, where she also helped organize for a union vote. Despite the political agency she enjoyed at her previous institution through unionization, Kim said she chose to come to Northeastern because it had better options for her field. She said the process of obtaining a union election was more difficult at Northeastern than at BU.

“I really love teaching and so I will bend over backward for the department and for the students to do what I love, but unfortunately, the department and the institution will exploit that kind of passion and love, and that’s what we found is the case,” Kim said.

Kim said the unionization organizing committee recently became part of NU for the Common Good, a “coalition of faculty, students, community leaders and other groups” working to make Northeastern “a more socially responsible institution.”

“I see that there are people really wanting another version of what Northeastern is and that we’re not just throwing up our hands and saying ‘Well, Northeastern’s a corporate beast, what can we do,’” Kim said. “Northeastern is able to function because we are part of it. We are saying this is how we want to define what Northeastern is.”

Going forward, some full-time, non-tenure track faculty members said the committee will continue to push for unionization through community pressures.

“As we move into the fall, [the unionization effort] is an ongoing conversation, and what I would love to see is for the university to acknowledge that we have met our requirements,” Sichling said. “I would hope that the higher profile that we’ve worked to garner around this issue would resonate with them and that they would be willing to have a more open and honest conversation with us — as opposed to this contentiousness and obfuscation.”

Kim said she felt encouraged by support from surrounding communities.

“I am hopeful because this is a really people-powered campaign, and I think the political moment nationally also is feeling a lot like us right now,” Kim said. “People are seeing their political power and that possibility.”