Part-time Columbia College faculty stages walkout amid contract talks

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About 50 members and supporters of PFAC, the union representing the part-time faculty at Columbia College Chicago, picketed outside the main campus building Thursday. | Sam Charles/Sun-Times

Members and supporters of PFAC, the union representing part-time faculty at Columbia College Chicago, picketed outside the college’s South Loop campus on Thursday for the second time in as many days in protest of what they allege to be unfair contract proposals by the administration.

The chief concern, according to those taking part in the scheduled two-day strike, was job stability for union members.

“Job security is the key,” said PFAC President Diana Vallera. “If they come up with some decent offers where it doesn’t remove all our gains from the last contract and they stop trying to degrade the quality of education, then yes, of course we’ll work with them.”

Columbia contends that efforts were made to start the negotiation process in August 2016, but PFAC refused to come to the table until July 2017. The PFAC contract expired on Aug. 31, 2017, and the college asked that it be extended, but the union refused, according to Columbia.

Vallera said that teaching positions long held by members of PFAC are now being delegated to other non-union faculty members. For its part, Columbia has said the union wants to keep a course-assignment system that “is based exclusively on how long a faculty member has been at Columbia.” The college has asked that instructors in 125 of the 1,500 positions sought by PFAC members be chosen by the heads of different college departments.

“While we do value this important aspect of one’s experience, we also want to be able to take other measures of experience into consideration,” the college wrote on its website.

Columbia spokesman Mark Rosati said in a statement that the college had sought the assistance of a federal mediator to help contract negotiations proceed.

“The federal mediator offered twice last week to have mediation sessions,” Rosati said. “The college accepted; the union declined.”

Another bargaining session is set to be held Friday.

Asked if the union was willing to continue holding walkouts if negotiations continue to stall, Vallera said: “I think we’re all prepared to do whatever needs to happen.”

About 50 people marching outside the main campus building at 600 S. Michigan Ave. included democratic gubernatorial candidate State Sen. Dan Biss (D-Evanston), who, while addressing supporters, referenced his time as a math professor at the University of Chicago.

“I have witnessed the corporatization of higher education,” Biss said. “It happens across the board as these institutions have become obsessed, like so much of our society, with the bottom line. And so, we’re here to say ‘no.’”

Lori Klinka, a part-time speech and acting professor who has been at the college for 12 years, said one of the college’s main draws is that most of the professors remain working professionals.

“Our students come here, mostly, because of the teachers — because the teachers here are working professionals,” Klinka said. “[The college is] basically saying that they can just go out and get anyone to teach our classes.”

The union and college have maintained a contentious relationship for several years against the backdrop of a steadily shrinking student body.

In 2012, enrollment at the private arts college reached an all-time high, with 10,783 students taking classes. Last year, 8,120 students were enrolled, according to Columbia.

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