Nontenure-track faculty at the University of Chicago on Thursday filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to unionize, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.
They are requesting an election for a bargaining unit that would represent not only adjuncts, who work part time, but also full-timers. They would join a national movement that has sought better pay and job security for the nontenured faculty who make up the majority of the nation’s higher education workforce.
“We want a stronger voice in decisions made by the university that affect both us and our students,” said Janet Sedlar, a senior lecturer and Spanish language coordinator at the private, prestigious South Side institution.
“Without a union, the employer is free to cut benefits and pay, increase class sizes and all kinds of things at their whim, and we have no recourse,” said Sedlar, 45, of Humboldt Park, who has taught at U of C eight years.
The instructors seeking a union make up about 40 percent of U of C’s faculty.
If the NLRB approves the elections, a unit vote could come this fall, and would be a huge notch in the 2 1/2-year-old Faculty Forward movement spearheaded by the Service Employees International Union.
University of Chicago officials declined to comment.
Piggybacking on the 3-year-old Fast Food Forward/Fight for $15 movement, Faculty Forward has swept up some 10,000 nontenure-track instructors at 33 colleges nationwide who have banded around issues of work stability, wages and benefits, and enhanced working conditions.
In April, the Sun-Times reported on adjunct organizing efforts at Loyola and DePaul universities, both Catholic institutions; at U of C; and at Northwestern University in Evanston. Six months later, U of C is the first Chicago school to file a petition with the NLRB. Efforts have died at Northwestern, but continue at Loyola and DePaul. Adjunct instructors at Columbia College Chicago and Roosevelt University already are represented by unions.
And faculty at three other area schools — Concordia University Chicago in River Forest, Illinois Institute of Technology and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — have initiated unionizing efforts, the Sun-Times has learned. Last month, a Faculty Forward symposium at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum drew dozens of faculty from 19 Chicago-area colleges.
On Faculty Forward’s agenda is a national minimum salary of $15,000 per course, including benefits, for adjuncts, who are part-time instructors contracted as needed and who now nationally comprise 70 percent of university faculty.
According to recent studies by the University of California, Berkeley’s Labor Center and the University of Minnesota, such part-time faculty earn a national average of $3,000 a course, with nearly one in four living below the poverty line or enrolled in at least one public assistance program.
Extrapolated data finds 20 percent of adjuncts at private universities in Illinois and 30 percent at public ones rely on some government assistance.
The U of C faculty action comes two weeks after the Chicago City Council passed a nonbinding resolution supporting Faculty Forward efforts here.
Introduced in the Education Committee by Aldermen Will Burns (4th) and Scott Waguespack (32nd), the resolution was approved Oct. 14. It asserts “nontenure contingent faculty should be adequately supported by their institutions for their growing presence and role; … the decision of whether to unionize … should not be interfered with.”
In Chicago, universities employed more than 6,500 nontenure track faculty, according to 2013 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
“I’m nontenured, but have a four-year contract and health care benefits. It does not seem right that other people in the college who are doing the same teaching in the core curriculum do not,” said Elizabeth Williamson, a U of C collegiate assistant professor of social science and Harper Schmidt Fellow.
Williamson, who has taught there four years, is among the non-tenure faculty known as post-docs — post-doctoral faculty awarded teaching fellowships. Those fellowships include job security and benefits out of reach for most of their peers.
“As a female faculty member, I’m also concerned with both the presence of women in the college and the overall diversity of the faculty,” added Williamson, 37, who lives in Hyde Park. “I’d like to see a university-wide conversation about that. I see the union as a way to foster those conversations.”
Faculty at more public institutions also are joining the movement. Efforts were initiated at the University of Minnesota last year, and at University of Washington this year.
Still, to date, 30 of the 33 colleges where Faculty Forward has taken hold are private institutions. U of C faculty have joined peers at other prestigious colleges on that list, including Boston, Georgetown, Howard, Tufts and Washington universities; and Mills College. Efforts are currently underway at Duke University and the University of Southern California.
After unionizing in 2013, faculty at Tufts in Medford, Massachusetts, last fall celebrated Faculty Forward’s first successful collective bargaining contract, heralded as a model for the burgeoning movement.
That three-year agreement includes pay bumps of up to 40 percent in some departments, with adjuncts to make at least $7,300 per course by fall 2016; those with eight-plus years of experience will make at least $8,760. Union members are now guaranteed at least one-year contracts; those with four years or more will be eligible for two-year contracts at the end of the agreement term, and those with eight-plus years, eligible for three-year contracts. And adjuncts now will get first notice of and fair consideration for full-time positions.
“We have seen the gains made by contingent faculty at Tufts and other schools that have formed unions,” said Daniel Raeburn, a U of C lecturer in creative nonfiction. “We strongly believe that creating more equitable and predictable employment conditions for non-tenure-track faculty will enhance the quality of our students’ educational experiences.”