Teaching is hard.
I blundered into teaching a class at Loyola University a decade ago: a pal asked if I’d talk to his journalism students about writing celebrity profiles. Happily! I showed up, leaned on a lectern for an hour, droning on about walking 18 holes with Arnold Palmer, discussing Snoopy with Charles Schulz and watching Dizzy Gillespie play trumpet.
“You’re good at this,” my pal said and, being a fool, I believed him. Everyone dog-paddling in the icy chop of professional journalism has an eye out for a safe harbor, so I stopped by the dean’s office to offer my services. They checked that I had a pulse and waved me aboard.
The next thing I knew I was photocopying readings, drawing up two-hour lesson plans, then gazing at 21 slack 21-year-old faces. When a student plagiarized an assignment, boldly copying off the Internet, I called in the dean. Without going into details, let’s say I naively assumed the dean would apply discipline, and enforce the antique notion that the ability to cut and paste text undetected might not be the kind of excellence that a Loyola degree represents.
All for a fee that I could have earned dashing off one of those celebrity profiles.
So I don’t want to feign impartiality toward the 300 non-tenured track instructors who held a one-day strike at Loyola last Wednesday, trying to spur the university to negotiate more sincerely with Service Employees International Union Local 73.
They earn their money.
“We had been bargaining for almost two years,” said Frank Babbitt, who teaches music there and contacted me to talk about the situation.
“The (pay) scale is very, very low,” he added, noting that Northwestern pays twice as much.
But the sticking point isn’t money.
“What really pushed us away from the table, at the moment of agreeing, is they wanted to insert these provisions that almost invalidate the contract or any sort of voice in job security or work load, as well as the union’s ability to collect dues,” said Babbitt, who also plays viola at the Lyric. “Stuff we weren’t going to accept.”
He said the strike — held April 4 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. King — caught Loyola’s attention.
“Things really improved at the table, the economic proposals were dramatically better,” he said. “They just don’t want to give up the right to tell people what to do. It’s a power issue. For us, it’s not about the money; it’s about respect.”
Money always matters. Over the past decade, Babbitt said, tuition has gone up 53 percent, while adjunct teachers have not received a raise.
Teachers at Loyola are like Uber drivers — summoned as needed, ignored when not.
“Even though some have been teaching for 10 years, they don’t know semester to semester what they’ll be teaching or how many courses,” said Janet Veum, a SEIU spokeswoman.
“For me, the question is: are your high-minded Jesuit social justice values anything more than a marketing ploy?” said Babbitt. “Do you really, truly live them not just in word but in deed.”
I asked Loyola for comment, and they sent a lengthy statement.
“Loyola University Chicago did not want a strike and is eager to continue negotiations to reach a fair and reasonable contract,” it begins, outlining Loyola’s offer of pay increases and greater job security. “Despite significant movement from Loyola, the Union continues to make demands that are not supported by the market and are not standard in most Loyola peer university SEIU contracts.”
I’ve been a union member for decades and value their worth. That said, it should be noted that SEIU, whose 29,000 members are mostly food service employees, prison workers and crossing guards, is new to academe and undergoing its own painful education. Their efforts at unionizing instructors at Northwestern University were not exactly embraced by the people they were supposedly championing. Their NU push was described as “dishonest” and “toxic,” and the narrow pro-union vote ended up in court.
The priests at Loyola take a vow of poverty and are well cared for. The instructors, on the other hand, demand to be well cared for, and are consigned to poverty. That doesn’t seem like justice.