Citing the desire for higher pay and the right to vote to unionize, a group of adjunct instructors and their supporters staged a walkout during a University of South Florida Board of Trustees meeting Thursday.
Adjuncts are non-tenured, part-time teachers who get paid per class. They also make up a growing percentage of teachers at colleges around the country, including at all three USF campuses.
Philosophy Professor Steven Starke teaches six courses at USF St. Petersburg.
"I have over $100,000 in student debt, I'm on the path at the moment to make about $20,000 this year, and that's not just something that I can sustain," Starke said.
Starke and more than 40 fellow adjunct instructors and their supporters took up half the room during the early part of the 8:00 a.m. trustees meeting at the USF Marshall Student Center in Tampa.
They sat in relative silence, listening while the board discussed such matters as a new student residence hall at USF St. Pete and new board members for the Sarasota-Manatee campus.
At 9:20, the group stood up and quietly walked out of the conference room together. With students and others looking on, they marched from the third to first floor, passing underneath homecoming banners, before heading outside.
Once there, a drum beat picked up and chants of "What do we want? Union! When do we want it? Now!" broke out while the group conducted a short march around the plaza outside the center.
But Starke pointed out that the issue isn't that the adjuncts aren't being allowed to unionize - it's that they're not even being allowed the right to hold a vote on the subject.
"By denying us the ability to even vote on a union, USF has said that I don't matter, that we don't matter as a group, and that's not just the case - I matter to USF, adjuncts matter to USF, and we were really hoping that they would affirm that," he said.
"We've done all the proper procedures, jumped through all the hoops to get an election. So far the administration has delayed and delayed and made excuses," said Tara Blackwell, an adjunct professor of cellular and molecular biology. "We're just asking them for some basic democracy."
She added that the walkout was a way to show administrators they're serious.
"We were there to make our presence known and to let them know that we're not going to sit down and shut up and we're not going to go away. We're going to persist until we succeed," she said.
Blackwell also pointed out that adjunct faculty are being denied something other instructors at USF have.
"Tenure track faculty already have a union, the staff and graduate assistants already have unions and have had them for years," she said. "This isn't anything out of left field, we just want the same representation that everyone else already has."
University officials responded by pointing to a letter sent from Senior Vice Provost Dwayne Smith to adjunct faculty earlier this year that stated that USF "will do everything legally permitted to make the case that a union is not in your best interest nor in the interest of any of the separately-accredited institutions in the USF System. Our preference has always been, and continues to be, that we remain able to communicate directly with you rather than through an outside third party."
USF administrators further explained their opposition in a response filing with the state's Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC) that says adjuncts are appointed one semester at a time, making them "temporary employees" who "do not have or earn permanent status or tenure[,] and have no right or expectation to continued employment."
That argument means little to Starke, who said he just wants a chance to vote.
"It's about having a voice. Why are you going to prevent me from having a voice?"
PERC is scheduled to issue a ruling on the adjunct's right to vote on a union sometime Friday.