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Adjunct professors unionize at St. Petersburg College

The employees are the seventh group in Florida to join Service Employees International Union in recent yeas as it pushes for investment in the state’s higher education institutions.

ST. PETERSBURG — Adjunct faculty at St. Petersburg College voted to unionize Tuesday, joining thousands of educators across Florida in the fight for better pay and working conditions.

About half of the school’s 865 adjuncts voted, with 269 in favor and 187 opposed, according to the Public Employment Relations Commission.

St. Petersburg College employees are the seventh group in Florida to join Service Employees International Union, which is on track to represent about 9,500 adjuncts statewide, including those at the University of South Florida and Hillsborough Community College.

RELATED: USF adjuncts vote overwhelmingly to unionize. One says, “I didn’t know it was going to turn out this well."

“Today, we have taken an important step towards achieving fairness at St. Petersburg College,” adjunct professor of Earth Science Eron Higgins said in a news release after the vote.

Adjuncts teach the majority of classes at the school yet struggle to afford basic expenses, he added. Joining the union will "ensure that adjunct faculty can earn a living, while providing students a great education.”

Talks about unionizing at St. Petersburg College began nearly two years ago, said Angela Edwards-Luckett, an adjunct professor of world religion. She was confident from the start.

“The whole time, I just had this feeling that we could do it,” she said. “That kept me fighting.”

Like adjuncts elsewhere in Florida, those at St. Petersburg College have concerns about low pay and lack of employee benefits, like health insurance, Edwards-Luckett said. One of her colleagues works part-time at Walmart just to make ends meet, she added. Others “take on as many classes as they can."

The group formally filed to unionize in December. Some pushback came in May, when St. Petersburg College president Tonjua Williams sent an email warning faculty of the “consequences” of a union, like dues and new ways of work.

“The ability of the college to be flexible and responsive to the particular needs of adjunct faculty will be hampered by a union,” she wrote, adding: “Learn the facts about faculty unions, both pros and cons, and make an informed choice!"

It was both “exciting and nerve-wracking” to watch votes be tallied Tuesday, Edwards-Luckett said. But relief washed over her when the count was final.

“We came out victorious," she said. “We’re just proud to join the ranks of other institutions in Florida higher education who also voted yes to unions.”