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Adjunct professors at area universities seek to organize

Adjunct professors at several Chicago area universities — part-time educators contracted as needed — are organizing around issues of better pay and job security, joining a movement across the country propelled by the Service Employees International Union.

Very public efforts are underway at Loyola and DePaul universities, both Catholic schools. More low-key efforts have been initiated at Northwestern University in Evanston and the University of Chicago, according to organizers.

“Loyola has been the hotbed. It’s the furthest along, with adjunct faculty there very involved and vocal. During the recent Fight for $15 rally on April 15, they marched on the campus and delivered a petition to the administration,” said Adam Rosen, a spokesman for SEIU Local 73.

That Loyola petition for a “Jesuit Just Employment Policy” seeks the higher wages, benefits, job security and enhanced working conditions demanded by adjuncts nationwide in a 2-year-old movement that has seen faculty at 25 private universities unionize.

“We have received the petition, and it will be reviewed,” Loyola director of communications Steven Christensen said Wednesday.

The national Faculty Forward movement by adjuncts has piggybacked the Fast Food Forward/Fight for $15 movement that was born on Nov. 29, 2012, when 200 fast-food workers in New York City walked off their jobs.

Fight for $15 has similarly swept up workers in home and health care, child service, janitorial, retail and other industries, notching $15 minimum wage victories in cities including SeaTac, Washington; Seattle; and San Francisco, and an increase to $13 in Chicago.

According to the American Association of University Professors, adjuncts now comprise 70 percent of the work force at American universities. However, nationally, they earn an average of $3,000 a course, so nearly one in four live below the poverty line or are enrolled in at least one public assistance program — such as food stamps or Medicaid — according to recent studies by the University of California, Berkeley’s Labor Center and the University of Minnesota.

Faculty Forward seeks a national minimum salary of $15,000 per course, including benefits, for this academic majority.

Joy Ellison, 31, who has taught peace studies and community services studies for nearly two years as a DePaul adjunct, recently wrote an editorial on the issue for the student newspaper. Her op-ed followed The DePaulia’s tackling the issue in a front-page story championing adjuncts’ complaints.

“Right now at DePaul, we’re looking for ways to engage in collective action. We are pursuing organizing,” said Ellison, of Andersonville.

“I’m fighting for the priority of this university to be on our students’ education. That means a living wage for the people that are teaching them, and most of those people are adjuncts like me,” she said. “We need to be able to feed ourselves and our families and have health insurance and benefits. We need stability. In higher education, more and more money is going to administrators instead of to the professors who actually teach. There’s a complete disconnect.”

DePaul officials did not respond to a Chicago Sun-Times request for comment. They similarly had declined to comment to The DePaulia.

The adjunct movement as yet has not risen to an issue for their universities, according to officials at Northwestern and U. of C., who thus declined to comment.

Just 17 percent of the academic work force in 2003, adjuncts have seen their numbers rise in proportion to highly paid tenured professors as universities face budget constraints, statistics show. However, while tuition and fees jumped 73 percent between 2003 and 2013, instruction expenses declined over that decade, from 33 percent to 30 percent of university revenues, SEIU notes.

A January 2014 Report from the House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democratic Staff, “The Just-In-Time Professor,”  documented adjuncts’ national median pay per course at $2,700, and extolled how many of them with Ph.D.’s today face the same challenges as their low-wage economy peers — carrying high course loads and teaching at multiple institutions to make a living wage.

A landmark decision in December by the National Labor Relations Board in a case involving faculty organizing efforts at a Lutheran college in Seattle recently unfettered faculty at religious institutions like DePaul and Loyola. The Pacific Lutheran University case found such schools cannot use religious protections to prohibit faculty from organizing if those faculty were not involved in religious roles.

Alyson Paige Warren, 33, an adjunct who has taught literature and composition at Loyola for six years, teaches at Columbia and has taught at other universities over the past 10 years, says adjuncts from Chicago area colleges are seeking change.

“I really want to be giving my time to my students . . . but I spend so much time commuting back and forth between four institutions. I don’t know from semester to semester what I’ll be teaching, when I’ll be teaching, or if I’ll be teaching,” said Warren, of Edgewater.

“I don’t think students and parents know how much of their education is being handled by part-timers who are not being compensated adequately,” she said. ‘Schools are putting the money toward administration, another food court, or another rock-climbing wall, rather than into instructors, which I think is where students and parents would tell you is where they want their money to go.”