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Adjunct professors at MICA became the first at a four-year college in Maryland to unionize. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Will vote by MICA’s adjuncts spur other union drives?

Part-time faculty at the Maryland Institute College of Art have no problem blazing the trail, be it with fashion, fine arts, photography — or unionization.

Adjunct professors at the Baltimore art school voted this week to join SEIU Local 500, becoming the first group of adjuncts at a four-year college in Maryland to unionize. Several people said now that MICA’s part-time faculty have taken the leap, it might be easier for adjuncts at other schools — both in Maryland and across the country — to follow suit.

“A lot of people are looking at this first contract that we’ll be preparing for in the coming months as perhaps setting a precedent for what part-time faculty in the area can expect if they do this,” said Joshua Smith, an adjunct at MICA and a leader of the unionization effort. “So if we play our cards right, we can establish MICA’s leadership in the Baltimore/D.C. area and hopefully motivate others to pursue similar benefits and gains.”

The movement has been picking up steam nationwide. Adjuncts at several private universities have also recently exercised their right to unionize, including a handful in this region: George Washington University, Georgetown University, American University and, as of this week, Howard University.

With MICA now on that list, momentum will likely continue to build in Maryland, said Bill Primosch, an adjunct political science professor and president of the part-time faculty union at Montgomery College.

Montgomery, a community college with three campuses in that county, is an exception to state law, which otherwise prohibits faculty unions at public colleges. Adjuncts at Montgomery ratified their first union contract, also with Local 500, in January 2010 after the General Assembly voted to explicitly allow collective bargaining there.

Primosch said he’s spoken with many adjuncts at various schools who hesitate to ask questions about unionization because “they’re frankly afraid of being seen as troublemakers and are worried they won’t get course assignments” for the next semester.

“At colleges that don’t have unions, even talking about starting a union might be concerning to part-time faculty,” Primosch said. “So I think the more they see that other colleges are allowing this and that those faculty members haven’t been adversely affected, it will give them more confidence and more courage to press for organized representation.”

Additionally, as organized labor makes more inroads in the higher education arena, legislators in Annapolis are likely to take notice, Primosch said.

During this past General Assembly session, a bill was proposed that would have established processes for part-time faculty at community colleges to unionize. It went nowhere, but Primosch said the action at MICA “should strengthen the call for passing that legislation.”

At MICA, the unionization process began several years ago, when Smith got together with a dozen peers to discuss how to work with administrators about their concerns — namely, job security and compensation. After a frosty reception from the administration, however, Smith said the group turned its attention to the possibility of forming a union.

On March 7, SEIU Local 500 submitted a petition to the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of the part-time faculty. The NLRB sent out secret ballots at the end of last month, and votes were tallied this week.

Of about 330 employees who were eligible to vote, about 70 percent cast a ballot. Smith said the tally was 163 votes in favor, 75 opposed.

“It’s been a resounding victory,” he said. “It’s been a challenging semester, but now we can prepare to go to the table and have the conversation about what’s important to us.”

On March 19, MICA’s outgoing president, Fred Lazarus IV, sent a letter to the campus community urging adjuncts to vote against the union until they’ve had more time to ponder the decision.

MICA officials have repeatedly turned down interview requests.

Spokeswoman Jessica Weglein offered a written statement saying the school looks forward to working with the new union and that officials “are confident that our adjuncts will continue to join us in making their highest priority the academic and campus experiences of our students.”