The DePaulia

Adjuncts weigh unionization

Julian Hayda

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As national trends suggest university instructors are teaching more and being paid less, many are mobilizing to address issues of benefits and salaries. In many cases, they are organizing into unions, empowering themselves to negotiate the circumstances of their employment.

Though many within DePaul, like John Culbert, senior advisor to the provost for contingent and part-time faculty, insist that DePaul is ahead of many other universities in terms of adjunct compensation and benefits, issues of instability for instructors who rely on adjunct teaching positions could still spur unionization.

Four other institutions in Chicago operate faculty unions: Columbia College, City Colleges of Chicago, Roosevelt University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Columbia, which relies mostly on part-time faculty to teach, has staged multiple walkouts over the past several years and is planning to vote on a bill of no-confidence with the college’s president and provost next week.

The issues seem to be rather universal from institution to institution, though.

“We had a very, very low base salary, so we wanted to raise the base salary for non-tenure faculty, we wanted an assurance of multi-year contracts for non-tenure faculty, and also wanted a clear ladder of promotion available for non-tenure,” Gerry Gorman, vice president for non-tenure faculty for UIC’s United Faculty Union, said.

Their two-year saga, which succeeded at unionizing last year, included downstate court battles, walkouts, and testifying before the National Labor Relations Board in Washington. According to Gorman, UIC remains only the second research institution in the United States to successfully organize faculty into a union.

Other schools, like Loyola University Chicago, which does not operate a union, have faculty bargaining on behalf of adjunct faculty for better pay and benefits

“The majority of full-time, tenure-track and tenured faculty at Loyola support our efforts to form an adjunct union because they know that the increased use of adjuncts has weakened their bargaining power,” Matthew Hoffman, a sociology adjunct at Loyola University, said. He is part of a group organized by the Service Employers International Union’s (SEIU) Adjunct Action called Faculty Forward, which is demanding an ambitious salary of  $15,000 per course taught by part-time faculty.

“(Salaries) have been stagnant over the last twenty years while their expectations for teaching, service, and research productivity have sky-rocketed,” said Hoffman.

“You’re seeing a very different economy for people across the spectrum, so you’re not just seeing contingent and part-time work in low-wage sectors. So you’re seeing less stability, even as educational demands go up for that contingent and part-time work,” said Kelley, who organized low-wage workers for the SEIU for ten years before coming to DePaul to head the School for New Learning’s Labor Education Center in September.

“There’s a trend toward lower-wage jobs across sectors,” she said. “We haven’t really seen wage gains for the majority of workers for the last forty years, and their purchasing power is less than what it was.”

Kelley said America’s labor landscape has shifted substantially in the last century since its rise, and the perpetuation of professional unions is being met with legal and popular hurdles.

Part of the issue, Kelley suggests, is that adjuncts are contracted by universities, rather than permanent employees like other professors are.

“In some ways, it’s harder to unionize when workers are contracted because people are pulled in a bunch of different directions with a bunch of other jobs … to be able to figure out a schedule that cobles together full-time work, and that is able to pull together some sort of stable benefits like healthcare, or retirement,” said Kelley.

Another issue is that there are few legal bodies contractual workers can go through to organize.

“If you’re a full-time employee, you fall under the National Labor Relations Board. That’s a pretty simple process. … It becomes more complicated when you’re on a contract basis, and that’s where a lot of the challenges come,” said Kelley.

[box]View more in the investigation, Adjunct Agony. [/box]

To remedy this, Gorman said UIC tenured faculty, the full-time employees of the University, organized and negotiated contracts on behalf of the adjuncts working alongside them while forming their union.

“We felt very strongly about keeping the tenure faculty and non-tenure faculty as one bargaining unit. …So, to the credit of the tenure faculty, they made a lot of the issues affecting non-tenured faculty the drive for unionization,” said Gorman.

Kelley said that this is a common strategy to empower contract workers that could be employed by universities to bargain benefits for adjuncts.

“You’ll see in a lot of sectors that one group will organize, and is bargaining, and then uses that contract campaign to get organizing rights for additional groups of workers,” said Kelley.

Gorman notes, though, that unionization would not have been a consideration if more people would qualify for full-time employment by the universities.

“Scholarship by itself, teaching by itself, service, are not considered tenurable activities,” he said. “In the long run, I think many of us would like to see teaching be regarded as a tenurable activity, and that would only benefit the students.”

“For those of us whose primary contribution to the university is teaching, to have the university recognize that as equally valuable as [research]would be of great benefit to the students because it would put the focus back to where some of us believe it belongs, that is, on excellency in the classroom.”

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Adjuncts weigh unionization