Non-tenured faculty will begin voting on unionization today

Agreement between University and Union substantially reduces size of bargaining unit.

By Lorentz Hansen

Non-tenure-track faculty members at the University will begin voting today to decide whether to elect the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 73, to represent them in collective bargaining negotiations with the University administration.

The faculty members voting in the election are certain full-time and part-time non-tenure track academic appointees at the University, who comprise the bargaining unit that the union would represent should they successfully win the election. The bargaining unit includes nearly 175 academic appointees, reduced from the nearly 400-member bargaining unit that was proposed in the election petition.

SEIU filed the election petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on October 29, which stated their desire to represent UChicago’s non-tenure track faculty in collective bargaining negotiations with the University administration. Before the election petition could be filed, SEIU needed to obtain written declarations of support for unionization from at least 30 percent of the non-tenure track faculty.

Non-tenure track faculty in support of unionization are seeking better compensation, benefits, job security, and access to professional development funds at the University, according to the UChicago Faculty Forward website. 

SEIU currently represents over 2 million workers across North America, and in recent years has been leading a movement to unionize adjunct faculty members at universities across the country.

In response to the petition to unionize, University Provost Eric Isaacs said in an e-mail to faculty this week: “I have shared my concerns about the effect that a unionized teaching staff might have on the broad community of scholars, teachers, and students who, whatever their many differences in discipline, role, or professional ambitions, are held together by the shared values and commitments which have defined the University. The choice is ultimately up to the voters…The University of Chicago respects the lawful right of employees to form a union.”

Isaacs also explained the decision to alter the bargaining unit in an e-mail to tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty.

“The original proposed bargaining unit and hence set of eligible voters was a heterogeneous group with very different roles within the scope of the University’s academic activities. Accordingly, the University and SEIU have agreed to exclude a number of appointees from the election,” he said.

The SEIU confirmed that after being excluded from the bargaining unit, the Harper-Schmidt Fellows filed a separate petition for union election on Tuesday, November 17.

Harper-Schmidt Fellows teach two courses per quarter in humanities, social sciences, and Western Civilizations core at the College during four-year appointments as collegiate assistant professors. Fellows for the 2016–2017 school year will receive an annual salary of $66,000 and will be eligible for one quarter of research sabbatical, according to the Harper-Schmidt Fellows website.

The new bargaining unit includes all full-time and part-time graduate and undergraduate non-tenure-track academic appointees and non-supervisory senior lecturers in the following departments: the Marathi Language Program, the Practicum in the undergraduate Public Policy Program, the Persian Language Program, the applied mathematics component of the undergraduate Biology Program, the Yiddish Language Program, the introductory and intermediate part of the SALC Hindi Language Program, career advising and the coordination of internships in the MAPSS Program, and the Ecology and Evolution Programs for undergraduates not majoring in biology.

Those included in the bargaining unit must currently teach at least one credit-bearing course in a degree-granting program at the University’s main campus, School of Social Service Administration, Divinity School, or the Harris School.

“The University and the union mutually agreed to exclude some individuals and groups, such as those who have supervisory responsibilities or otherwise do not share a ‘community of interest’ with the majority of the proposed unit. (Under long-established labor law, members of a bargaining unit are supposed to form a ‘community of interest,’ which can be established by numerous factors including common work duties.)” News Officer Jeremy Manier said in an e-mail.

Some questioned the decision to change the bargaining unit, as well as the method for selecting members of the new bargaining unit.

“My understanding is that the administration wanted to exclude as many people as possible. I mean we see among different departments there’s really no rhyme or reason, when everybody is full time non-tenure-track faculty, for why some people are in and why some people aren’t in,” said Senior Lecturer in Hindi Jason Grunebaum, who is involved with the organizing committee of UChicago Faculty Forward and a member of the bargaining unit.

Both the Harper Schmidt Fellows and the non-tenure track faculty seek representation with SEIU, Local 73. However, the two would comprise separate bargaining units.

Janet Sedlar, senior lecturer in Spanish and member of UChicago’s Faculty Forward organizing committee, remarked on the solidarity between the two bargaining units.

“A union is more than a legal process or an election, it’s fundamentally about people standing together. As the Harper-Schmidt Fellows showed through their filing this week, UChicago faculty are able to overcome attempts to divide us,” Sedlar said in an e-mail.

Members of the University’s Faculty Forward chapter, which has organized the unionization efforts on campus over the past year, have been encouraging union supporters to discuss the unionization effort with their colleagues. Isaacs has also encouraged faculty members to educate themselves about unionization and discuss the issues with their colleagues.

Both Faculty Forward and Isaacs have created Unionization Information and FAQ pages on their respective websites to provide information on unions, collective bargaining, and the election process.

Martha Roth, Jason Merchant, and Christopher Wild, who are deans in the College’s Humanities Division, hosted an open forum on unionization on Monday. Roth, Merchant, and Wild sent the invitation to non-tenure-track faculty in the humanities, since the majority of those included in the bargaining unit are in the Humanities Division, said Jason Merchant, deputy dean for languages and instruction. 

“Martha [Roth] had the idea for the forum,” Merchant said in an interview. “I think a lot of us had questions about the technicalities of what it means—what the steps are towards unionization and what it would mean afterwards, some of which we can’t answer right now…we weren’t there to make a statement, we were just there to bounce ideas around and hear what people had to say, which for me was very useful.”

Merchant, who is also chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, raised concerns about the possible effects of union representation on the University’s distinct pedagogy and learning environment. He questioned whether the smaller language courses, which can sometimes have as few as two students per class, would be subject to changes under union representation.

Although he agreed that some improvements could be made, Merchant said that compensation and job stability at the University are comparable to or better than many peer institutions.

“Most of our lecturers in the humanities, in the humanities collegiate division, have three-year contracts; and they roll over, so they’re renewable. Some of them have five-year contracts, and some have one-year contracts. Sort of the first step is one-year, and then we evaluate the teaching, and if we can, we try to offer the person a three-year contract then we do…we want that stability.”

Grunebaum, who was one of approximately 40 people to attend the forum, saw the discussion as a good sign for future negotiations.

“It did give me hope that we would be able to work together as allies with common goals of maintaining and even strengthening the first-rate teaching that we offer to students, while also working to secure more equitable conditions of employment,” he said.

Those eligible to vote in the election will receive ballots today, Friday, November 20, to be filled out and returned by the close of business on December 8, 2015. The election is a secret-ballot election, meaning eligible voters will return the ballots in a postage-paid envelope included with the ballot mailed to them by the NLRB.

The election will be decided by a majority of those who vote, not by a majority of those eligible to vote. The NLRB will then count the votes and announce the results on December 9.