It was still dark on Tuesday morning when a half-dozen adjunct professors piled into a big white van in the vacant parking lot of University Mall in Tampa. Ahead of them lay a four-hour drive and the imminent results of their monthlong campaign to unionize the adjuncts of the University of South Florida.
If every adjunct who'd vowed to mail a ballot followed through, then they had it in the bag. They'd even begun planning for celebratory beers at the Independent the next day.
But first, in the nondescript Tallahassee office of the Public Employees Relations Commission, they watched the ballots split into piles: NO. YES.
It became clear, very quickly, that the pro-union pile was only going to grow higher.
Of about 900 eligible adjuncts, 91 voted no, and 326 voted yes.
"I kind of knew it was going to turn out very well, but I didn't know it was going to turn out this well," said English literature adjunct Jarad Fennell. "The university has fought us for so long, and they sent us so many emails trying to undermine the process, and I feel very vindicated with the response from the adjuncts."
USF officials have said a union will add costs and negate adjuncts' flexibility. They've said that working through a third party, the Service Employees International Union, will make negotiations more difficult.
"We are disappointed by these results, as well as the low voter response," USF spokesman Adam Freeman wrote in an email. "It is troubling that only a limited number of voices were heard, and that the desires of a few will affect the future for so many."
Despite a contentious election, he said, the parties should work together to serve students as best they can.
"While we may disagree, we value the many contributions our adjuncts make to the university, and we are committed to bargaining in good faith," he said.
The adjuncts had been worried, briefly, when USF brought in a consultant this winter to host union info sessions. They sat in on each session. But only one adjunct ever came who wasn't already part of the movement, said adjunct Mike Rusó.
"And that person got so infuriated halfway through that she turned to the person next to her and said, 'I want to sign a card,'" Rusó said. "There wasn't anyone on the fence."
For many of the adjuncts, the union effort was more than a path to higher pay. It was a way to force USF to pay attention to the costs of part-time labor. Because even as college has gotten more expensive, universities everywhere have turned increasingly toward inexpensive, flexible professors. Half of the nation's faculty now work as part-time adjuncts, a sea change.
Some may be retired professors, or professionals who teach a class on the side. But a growing number try to scrape together a living with a patchwork of part-time, low-paid classes, even scrambling between colleges to make ends meet. For many, dreams of academia collided with the reality of the unforgiving job market.
Pay ranges, but most make a few thousand dollars per course without benefits or job security. Rusó, for instance, makes $24,000 teaching eight courses per year. Studies and surveys illuminate the dark side of this precarious life for some: skipping meals, sleeping in cars and forgoing medical care.
Tuesday's vote sends a message that USF will have to take adjuncts seriously, said philosophy teacher Steven Starke. And more broadly, he said, it should send a message about the changing tides of academia. Fennell agreed.
"It's become so much like a business being run by administrators," Fennell said. "Tuition keeps going up and up, and they keep eliminating tenure-track lines and replacing full professors with adjuncts, and I think this is our chance to reverse that."
Fennell said he knew it might sound a little grandiose, but he meant it: "I feel like we're at the beginning of a revolution."
USF's new union joins a few others around the state. Adjuncts at Hillsborough Community College were the first to unionize in December 2016, but they have spent much of the time since slogging through contract negotiations. A recent session devolved into shouting, and afterward, the exhausted professors headed to a bar.
Now HCC and its adjuncts have reached a formal impasse, meaning a third party will draw up a contract and send it to the school's board. Should it be rejected, the whole bargaining process will begin again.
Many of the adjuncts leading the union push at USF have been following their peers' negotiations closely, though the schools are much different. Soon they'll form a bargaining committee themselves and start sketching out their goals, such as due process protections or higher wages.
"The university is not broke, it's on a spending spree," Rusó said. "There's definitely going to be a football stadium on campus. The library is being renovated, and it looks like the Apple store merged with a Starbucks. If they want to say that they don't have the money, well, they have the money. Their priorities are in the wrong place."
Other groups, such as graduate students and groundskeepers, already have unions at USF.
"I expect USF administrators to doggedly hold onto a conception of what the status quo is, despite the fact that today, it changed," Starke said. "I'm not convinced they're going to be all that receptive to quickly changing. But you know, persistence."
Late Tuesday afternoon, the adjuncts in the van turned back toward Tampa, hoping to beat rush hour.
It was spring break for USF, but some of them had a backlog of papers to grade or classes, at other schools, to teach in the morning.
Contact Claire McNeill at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8321.