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May 15, 2014

Part-time faculty gathered at a bar in Boston's North End to celebrate their union victory (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH).

In a striking move, part-time faculty at Northeastern University voted to unionize Thursday, making it the third Boston-area college in the past seven months to do so.

A day after the Bruins' season ended, part-time professors at Northeastern streamed across Causeway Street in the shadow of the Boston Garden to celebrate their victory. On this muggy day, they sat together at the end of the bar. They toasted each other and swapped stories after a long, cold winter of campaigning.

Bill Shimer is a part-time business professor who helped lead the campaign. As he tipped back a beer, he couldn't stop smiling.

"It feels wonderful," Shimer said. "It feels like a great advance for Northeastern, for adjuncts, for students, for parents because we hope to raise standards at our university and make it a better place for everybody."

The vote was tight, 323-to-286, making Northeastern the largest school in Boston to unionize its part-time faculty. With more than 960 members, Northeastern follows Tufts and Lesley University.

"To be able to form a union, I think, will be a bellwether in that many other schools in Boston and nationwide will feel free to follow our lead," said Shimer.

Today's vote is part of a popular national movement to give part-time professors collective bargaining rights at a time when colleges and universities are increasingly depending on their work. More than half of Northeastern's faculty is part-time, though the university notes that adjuncts deliver about 27 percent of all instruction.

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Adrianna Kezar teaches education at the University of Southern California and has followed the adjunct movement closely.

"They often feel alone," Kezar said. "They feel like if they go and complain they just won't be hired the next semester, honestly."

Kezar says adjuncts have plenty they could complain about: lack of job security, office space and professional development. 

"They want so badly to perform well and they see unionization as a way that they can get some of these issues on the table," said Kezar.

Kezar predicts the unionization of adjuncts at a well-known university like Northeastern should have ripple effects across the country. The goal, Kezar says, should be to enhance adjunct performance and student learning.

Despite not knowing whether his sections would meet from semester to semester, Bill Shimer says he never thought about quitting.

"You love the job, you love the students you love the teaching. But it's just not working. It's not sustainable," said Shimer, who has made sacrifices to continue his teaching. "It means you don't go out to eat. This is the first time I've been out in four months."  

In a statement, university administrators said "all faculty members teaching at Northeastern are vital to the university's success." 

"Northeastern will now bargain in good faith with SEIU about the terms of employment for part-time faculty members who were eligible to vote in the election," said Stephen Director, Northeastern's provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. 

More than 60 percent of eligible part-time faculty cast votes in this election.

new business models, Northeastern, adjunct faculty, union

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