Adjunct faculty members at Macalester College and Hamline University have taken the first formal steps to form a union, joining a national movement to organize the growing number of temporary instructors in college classrooms.

On Thursday, campus organizers at Macalester filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union election for temporary faculty members at the St. Paul college. Adjuncts at nearby Hamline University filed a similar petition on Friday.

They're the first two groups to sign on to an organizing drive, spreading across Twin Cities campuses, aimed at wringing higher pay and better working conditions from colleges under pressure to cut costs.

SooJin Pate, one of the organizers, said that part-time adjuncts are paid as little as $5,000 per course at Macalester, one of the most prestigious private colleges in Minnesota and where tuition alone costs $45,000.

By comparison, tenure-track professors, who typically teach five courses a year, start at $61,000 a year plus benefits, according to the college.

"There's a huge disparity," said Pate, 37, who has been teaching American studies at Macalester for three years. "We want equal pay for equal work."

Most adjuncts, she added, are not disgruntled employees. "We love our jobs," she said, just not the working conditions, which often leave them without benefits or job security. "If we have a union, we can only gain, we can't lose. It can't get worse for us."

Provost expresses surprise

Kathleen Murray, Macalester's provost, said she was "surprised they've taken that step here." She noted that Macalester pays adjunct instructors more than many colleges. "I don't know what all the implications would be for starting a union here," she said. "It is not part of the culture of this place, and I'm curious to know what they think it will actually gain."

This year, Murray said, 44 percent of the college's 274 faculty members are adjuncts, and many of them receive full-time pay and benefits. She said Macalester hires many adjuncts as temporary replacements for professors on sabbatical, and while they're paid less, they don't have the same responsibilities as tenure-track faculty, such as conducting research. "We do it to control costs, but our other option would be just not to replace those courses," she said.

"We're a very small community here … I have to wish that people who are unhappy would maybe walk over and tell me that."

Pate says the unionizing drive has been fueled by the lack of job security as much as anything. "I can't live like this from semester to semester, year to year, not knowing if I have a job," she said. So far, the reaction from fellow adjuncts, she said, "has been good," and even tenured faculty — who would not be included in the union — have been supportive.

Cheers from a former adjunct

At Macalester, more than 100 students, faculty members and others gathered at a misty outdoor rally Thursday afternoon to cheer on the organizing effort, which was started by Adjunct Action, an offshoot of the Service Employees International Union.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison told the rally that he once taught as an adjunct at Macalester some two decades ago. He praised the students for standing up for adjunct professors "to demand that they be given a chance to have a voice." And he challenged college administrators not to stand in their way. "This is a wonderful school," he said. "It would be unfitting for this great institution to interfere with the union drive."

David Weiss, a Hamline religion professor, announced that adjuncts at his school were following in Macalester's footsteps. Their union petition was filed Friday morning. Weiss, who said he's been an adjunct "for a decade," said a vote may be scheduled next fall.

"Having a voice means having respect, and that's what we're looking for," he said.

Hamline issued a statement Friday, saying: "We have not had direct conversations with these instructors, nor heard or had time to consider their concerns, and therefore will not be commenting further on this matter at this time."

Nationally, adjuncts now make up more than half of college instructors, and stories about Ph.D.s teaching college for poverty wages have spread around the country.

Colleges have defended the increased reliance on adjuncts, saying it's a way to fill temporary teaching gaps without making expensive hires. Administrators are also under growing pressure to control costs in the face of soaring tuition and student debt.

But Todd Ricker, campaign director for Adjunct Action Minnesota, said that organizing efforts are underway across the Twin Cities, and that adjuncts have expressed interest at "10 to 12 other schools."

Adjunct Action, which started its Minnesota campaign in January, has launched similar efforts in at least nine other metropolitan areas, including New York, Boston, St. Louis, San Francisco and Washington.