Contingent faculty file petition to hold union election

Provost Isaacs: “Your relationship with…your department, school or division will change in ways that cannot be foreseen.”

By Lorentz Hansen

Last Thursday a group of UChicago’s contingent faculty members, in conjunction with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold a union election. The faculty members cited lack of job security and low wages among other factors motivating them to seek collective bargaining rights and representation through the SEIU, Local 73.

The faculty members behind the petition are part of the University’s Faculty Forward chapter. Under the organization of SEIU, which represents nearly two million public employee, health care, and property service union members across North America, Faculty Forward has established chapters on campuses throughout Illinois in recent years to help contingent faculty unionize. The contingent faculty includes adjunct and full-time lecturers, senior lecturers, and postdoctoral researchers.

At the University of Chicago, non-tenure track faculty comprises roughly 45 percent of the teaching faculty, according to 2013 data released by the National Center for Education Statistics. Contingent faculty members are afforded varying benefits and wages according to their job titles. Senior lecturers, for example, are paid more per course and are given health benefits, while adjunct faculty members are paid less, can only teach a certain number of courses per year, and are not given benefits. All contingent faculty members, however, are unable to negotiate their contracts or pay with the University and are not granted seats on the University Senate. According to the Faculty Forward website, these conditions sparked the movement to unionize.

According to Janet Sedlar, senior lecturer and member of UChicago Faculty Forward’s organizing committee, the Faculty Forward chapter started at the University after SEIU representatives contacted UChicago faculty last winter and discovered far-reaching support for unionization among non-tenure faculty.

“We reached out to colleagues to identify common issues of concern: job security, health insurance, class size, lack of raises in wages,” said Andrew Yale, a full-time lecturer in the Humanities core. “But one thing I’ve heard over and over is the lack of respect for the work they do.”

Michael McCarron, a full-time lecturer in the Spanish department, described the repercussions of these conditions for his classes.

“I work three different jobs and I just feel the more I’m stretching myself out, the more I’m sort of watering down the job that I’m doing, and students at UChicago pay top dollar to get their education, and most of their educators are contingent faculty and they’re likely not doing the best they can because they don’t have the kind of job security that McDonald’s employees enjoy,” he said.

Many faculty members have expressed their support for the unionization movement, Sedlar said. The University’s American Association of University Professors (AAUP) advocacy chapter, which represents tenured faculty members, and Graduate Students United (GSU), which represents graduate students, expressed their support for the contingent faculty’s right to unionize in separate letters to President Robert Zimmer, Provost Eric Isaacs, and Chairman of the Board of Trustees Joseph Neubauer. The University’s AAUP chapter and GSU sent these letters on June 19 and October 15 of this year, respectively.

Faculty Forward and SEIU also received a letter of support from U.S. Senator Dick Durbin on October 22, nearly one week after the Chicago City Council passed a nonbinding resolution on October 14 supporting Chicago-area non-tenure track faculty’s right to unionize without university interference.

After filing the petition last Thursday, UChicago Faculty Forward sent a delegation to inform Zimmer of their petition and to request that the University remain neutral during the union election. Zimmer was not in his office, said Sedlar, and the dean-on-call present could not at the time say whether Zimmer and the University would commit to neutrality.

Early Monday evening, Isaacs addressed the petition in an e-mail to non-tenure track faculty. He informed them of the election date and encouraged eligible voters to educate themselves about what collective bargaining and union representation would mean for them.

“Your relationship with the University, your department, school or division will change in ways that cannot be foreseen. In light of this inherent uncertainty, you should educate yourself about what collective bargaining will mean for you and what it would mean to be represented by this Union,” he said in the e-mail.

As of Monday evening, the University news office had no comment on the petition or the request for neutrality.

Since the University has yet to confirm whether or not they will remain neutral during the union election, Faculty Forward is preparing for the possibility of interference from the administration, said Yale and Sedlar. Yale said that although the University is not legally permitted to stop contingent faculty from holding an election to unionize, many universities have deployed so-called “scare tactics” in response to petitions to unionize.

Yale, Sedlar, and McCarron, as well as representatives from SEIU, are confident that they have enough support to win the election and establish a union. According to NLRB union election laws, at least 30 percent of the employees must show support for the petition before it is filed. 

In the petition, the Union requested a mail-in ballot election, held from November 20 to December 5 of this year. Under federal law, a union is certified as the employees’ bargaining representative if it receives a majority of votes cast in the election.

If the contingent faculty votes to unionize, the members of the bargaining unit will then vote on a bargaining agenda to present to the University, and will choose representatives to attend meetings with university representatives.

Beyond the efforts at UChicago, contingent faculty and members of Faculty Forward hope the “international sway” of the University will provide momentum for unionizing efforts on other campuses in the Chicago area, according to Yale.