In a move described as rare, St. Petersburg College is defying the recommendations of a special magistrate who sided with a faculty union in a contract dispute.
The college contends the ruling gives preferential treatment to adjunct professors over full-time faculty, a position the adjunct union disputes.
“It’s extremely, extremely rare where you take a judge’s decision and say, ‘We don’t care what they say,’” said Rick Smith, an organizer and chief negotiator for Service Employees International Union.
He said he has seen it happen once before in his 40 years of dealing with labor issues.
College spokesperson Marilyn Shaw said in an email that SPC’s rejection of the recommendations was “in the best interest of the college and our students.”
At the center of the dispute are two financial issues in a contract reached in November 2020 between SPC administrators and the newly formed union for adjunct faculty.
One is a $150 “kill fee” to be given to adjuncts when a course is cancelled within two weeks of the start date, compensating them for the time it took to prepare the course. The fee impacts 14 faculty members.
The other issue is a one-time $500 bonus per semester for adjuncts who taught during the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters, in the early days of the pandemic.
St. Petersburg College has 666 adjuncts, more than double the 305 faculty members who teach full time. While 94% hold a master’s or doctoral degree, the adjunct group earns about a third in total compensation of what full-time faculty earn.
In January 2021, the college’s board of trustees surprised administrators by not approving the contract. Board member Deveron Gibbons, a developer appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, expressed misgivings about “the whole unionization thing” and said he didn’t see the need for SPC to be spending more money.-
Following that meeting, the college and the union reached an impasse, and the case was turned over to a special magistrate for the state’s Public Employee Relations Commission.
In arguments before magistrate Dennis Campagna, the union said every college in the state with a collective bargaining unit has a kill fee.
But the college said the proposed fee was more than the one for full-time faculty. It also maintained that it can usually find another course for adjunct instructors to teach, and that there are ways to reduce preparation time for courses.
Campagna ruled in the union’s favor, noting that SPC would be the exception in Florida by not offering the $150 kill fee, which he stated was both “affordable” and “reasonable.” The college, however, rejected the recommendation, saying Campagna didn’t properly consider its arguments and that the fee was not reasonable in all cases.
Campagna also recommended that the $500 bonuses be awarded to adjuncts, saying SPC could pay for it using $50 million in federal pandemic relief it received.
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The college rejected that recommendation, too, stating Campagna “totally misunderstood” the evidence in the case. It maintained that, with the bonus money, adjuncts would “be treated better than full-time faculty, which is unfair and unreasonable.”
The union will have a chance to present its case to the SPC board of trustees. But Smith said it appeared to many adjuncts that the college’s direction was coming from the trustees, not administrators.
“It’s a sign of the times,” he said. “It’s pretty bizarre.”