Letter: ELA faculty call for fair wages, benefits in contract negotiations

By Jennifer Vandever, President of ELAF-AAUP

Every semester Emerson College students move from Boston to Los Angeles to take part in the Emerson LA program. As graduating seniors, most are understandably anxious about finding work in a landscape increasingly marked by the contingencies of the gig economy. They will find their Los Angeles professors nodding in understanding, because the fight for basic workers’ rights is one we understand all too well. 

ELA faculty have been negotiating a second union contract since June 2021 but are still far apart from the college’s administration on core issues. For a college that loudly proclaims its commitment to social justice, it has shown very little in negotiating with its lowest-paid educators who are beginning a fifth semester of pandemic teaching. At the end of this month, we return to the bargaining table and have engaged a federal mediator to hopefully advance the process.

What are we asking for? 

A Living Wage

ELA faculty, almost all of whom are part-time, represent the lowest-paid educators at Emerson. Our rates used to be competitive with that of Boston’s part-time faculty, but have fallen significantly behind, even though we teach the same students paying the same tuition for the same credits and for the same degrees in one of the most expensive cities in the world. But that isn’t enough. Emerson’s administration has proposed reducing cost of living adjustments that would effectively CUT pay to senior faculty during record inflation. The college says this is simple economics and yet ELA can afford two VPs and two deans. Our Executive Director/VP makes over $300,000 a year while the annual budget for ALL part-time faculty is $640,000.

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No More Free Work

Currently, ELA part-time faculty comprise 97% of the resident faculty. Students may not distinguish between part-time and full-time faculty but these two groups work under very different conditions. Even though they often have the same credentials and comparable experience,  part-time faculty can expect to make a fraction of what their full-time peers earn. Because we lack full-time resident faculty at ELA, the needs of students fall to part-timers who volunteer their time to write recommendations, advise alumni, or mentor students–work that is paid for with full-time faculty but not for part-time. Faculty are asking to be compensated for this time. 

Contracts Commensurate with Longevity

Five of our faculty have been with the college for over twenty years. Another four have been with the college for over ten. That speaks to a high level of dedication to the college and in particular, its students. While ELA’s $110 million dollar building sat empty for a year during the pandemic, professors turned their living rooms into classrooms, created online versions of their courses, and tended to the increased academic and emotional needs of students. The dedication of part-time faculty is clear and yet they are among the most vulnerable and precarious at the institution. Faculty are asking for multi-year contracts for senior faculty that our peers in Boston receive rather than the one-year contracts we currently have. 

Retirement Match Benefit with Peers

Our peers on the Boston campus receive three percent matching funds to a retirement fund, a benefit that has been categorically denied to ELA faculty. Our longest serving member, an Emerson alumnus no less, has taught for 27 years at ELA, currently helming six courses a year, and mentoring countless students and alums. He has never received any matching funds from the college. We believe he and our other faculty deserve a retirement match that our peers in Boston have. 

Equitable Health Benefits

Only three of our ELA faculty use the health coverage available to eligible senior faculty in large part because it is so expensive. Currently eligible faculty only receive a 50 percent contribution from the college. We’ve asked for expanded coverage given the rising cost of healthcare. 

Social Justice

Emerson made a huge investment in its state of the art building on Sunset Boulevard with the goal of creating a center for communion amongst all the many disparate elements of ELA: students, staff, faculty, trustees, alumni, and future students. ELA faculty are on the front line of that intention, performing the core mission of the institution: educating and building relationships with students that begin in the classroom and often continue outside it for many years beyond. The building isn’t ELA’s only attraction. Its faculty is composed of accomplished industry professionals and academics who every semester invest in their students’ transition from academic to professional life. Among the core values the school strives to teach, in addition to equity and social justice, is Corporate Social Responsibility, which demands an ethical framework by which institutions conduct their business. We would respectfully remind the administration that our students are watching, and no doubt learning, from this moment.  

For more information, follow ELA Faculty on Instagram and Twitter 

Jennifer Vandever is the President of ELAF-AAUP, the union representing part-time faculty at Emerson Los Angeles and is lead negotiator on its bargaining team. She has taught screenwriting and film studies at ELA since 2001.