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January 8, 2016

Non-Tenure Track Faculty Vote to Unionize

In mid-December, UChicago became the first university in the Chicago area associated with Faculty Forward Chicago to establish union representation for some non-tenure track faculty members, ending a months-long effort and continuing a push for faculty unionization that has spread nation-wide. On December 9, a group of 118 non-tenure track faculty members voted 96-22 in favor of forming a bargaining unit comprised of 169 members, represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73. One week later, the University’s Harper-Schmidt Fellows voted 19-13 in favor of forming a separate bargaining unit, also represented by SEIU Local 73.

Thirty-four Harper-Schmidt Fellows teach and assist in teaching core courses in the Humanities. According to the website for the Fellows, Harper-Schmidt Fellows are appointed as Collegiate Assistant Professors for four-year postdoctoral teaching fellowships, during which time they are expected to teach two courses for each of the three quarters in the academic year. For the 2016-17 school year, the annual salary for Harper-Schmidt Fellows is listed as $66,000.

Both the Fellows and the non-tenure track faculty members were part of the bargaining unit originally proposed by the campus organizing committee for Faculty Forward Chicago. Negotiations between the University and SEIU Local 73 in early November resulted in a significantly smaller bargaining unit and excluded the Harper-Schmidt Fellows. The Fellows then filed a separate petition for union election on November 17.

The Fellows and the larger group of non-tenure track faculty members each won their union election and will be represented by SEIU Local 73 as separate bargaining units. They will conduct separate negotiations with the University in the coming months.

Following a mail-in election, which lasted from November 20 to December 8, the National Labor Relations Board counted the ballots at their regional office in Chicago. Out of the 169 members of the bargaining unit, the vote was 96-22 in favor of union representation by SEIU Local 73. After the NLRB announced the results, a group from the unit held a rally at Classics Quad.

Jason Grunebaum, senior lecturer in Hindi and member of the union organizing committee on campus, spoke at the rally, as reported by the Chicago Tribune. “I hope that this is gonna be an inspiration for contingent faculty all around the country. And…if it can happen at the home of Milton Friedman, I think it can happen anywhere,” Grunebaum said.

After the election results were announced, Provost Eric D. Isaacs sent an e-mail to all University faculty. “I greatly value the contributions of every member of our community to our shared mission of intellectual engagement, teaching, and research, and I thank you for your dedication to our students and to the University of Chicago community,” he wrote.

The vote to unionize was pushed by Faculty Forward, a project of SEIU that supports unionization efforts for non-tenure track faculty at colleges and universities. SEIU developed Faculty Forward in 2015 after the success of its Adjunct Action campaign in Boston and Washington, D.C. Over the past two to three years, faculty members at Tufts, American University, Georgetown, and the George Washington University have voted to unionize, with the support of Adjunct Action.

The University of Chicago is the first Chicago-area university participating in Faculty Forward Chicago's campaign where non-tenure track faculty have successfully unionized. Tenured and non-tenure track faculty at the University of Illinois, Chicago, voted to unionize in 2012 and non-tenure track faculty at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, voted to unionize in 2014. Neither was a part of Faculty Forward Chicago.

Approximately one year ago, representatives from Faculty Forward’s Chicago branch began communicating with faculty members who had expressed interest in unionizing, according to several members of the campus organizing committee. Those faculty members began speaking with others on campus to gauge the interest in unionizing non-tenure track faculty members. Interested faculty members formed an organizing committee on campus, through which they have organized rallies, arranged demonstrations, and worked in recent months with Faculty Forward Chicago and SEIU to lead the unionization movement on campus.

Before and after the election, members of Faculty Forward and members of the organizing committee at the University noted the significance of a win at the University of Chicago, due to its prominence.

Following the election, Professor Dmitry Kondrashov, a senior lecturer in the Biological Sciences Division who is a member of the bargaining unit, shared his view on the significance of the election results for the national adjunct unionization movement. “Our success shows other contingent faculty members that it is possible to organize and make your voice heard. The most positive part of the experience for me has been getting to know colleagues across campus and recognizing that we have common concerns and shared goals. I hope that faculty at other schools also form collegial bonds and become stronger as a result,” Kondrashov said in an e-mail.

Since the election, faculty at Loyola University Chicago have filed a petition to unionize, with the help of Faculty Forward Chicago and SEIU Local 73. Adjunct and part-time faculty at Brandeis University voted to unionize on December 18, also with the help of Faculty Forward and SEIU. Non-tenure track faculty members at Duke University and tenured and non-tenure track faculty at both the University of Minnesota and the University of Washington have also been pushing for union representation, with the help of SEIU.

According to the National Education Association, once a bargaining unit elects to join a union, members of the bargaining unit fill out bargaining surveys to indicate the conditions of their contract that they would like to negotiate. After the bargaining surveys are collected, the bargaining unit votes on the agenda that will be presented in negotiations. Members of the unit will also elect a bargaining committee, which represents all members of the bargaining unit in negotiations with the University. The composition of a given bargaining committee is outlined in the union’s constitution and bylaws, and it varies from case to case.

For example, the contract negotiated between American University and SEIU Local 500 allows for the union to designate workplace leaders with whom American University can communicate regarding issues, as well as a joint committee comprised of management and union representatives to make recommendations on issues pertaining to the union.

During collective bargaining, university representatives and the bargaining committee negotiate proposals for either a new contract or changes to their existing contracts. Members of the bargaining unit will subsequently vote to accept or reject the tentative agreement that the two parties reach. Once a proposal is ratified, it becomes a legally binding contract between the university and the members of the bargaining unit. The parties are required by the National Labor Relations Act to confer in “good faith” regarding any proposal, but no party is required to make concessions to the other, and they are not required to reach an agreement, according to NLRB’s website.   

If the parties fail to reach an agreement, the University can offer its final proposal for the union members to ratify or reject. If that proposal is rejected, the University could declare an impasse and implement their final proposal, according to NLRB’s website. If the bargaining unit claims that an impasse did not actually occur, they can file a charge of unfair labor practice that the University did not bargain in good faith, and could potentially choose to strike. The NLRB would then examine the bargaining history and length of negotiations, among other conditions, to determine whether or not an impasse had actually occurred. If NLRB found an impasse did not take place, they could force the University to reopen negotiations. 

According to Grunebaum, the bargaining unit for non-tenure track faculty members has not yet chosen its bargaining committee, but has had an initial meeting to discuss both the potential bargaining committee and the bargaining agenda. “We hope to have a bargaining committee that is as representative of as many parts of the university as possible,” he said in an e-mail.

As of Thursday night, SEIU and the University had not yet set a date for negotiations. According to NLRB’s website, negotiations can last a few months or up to a year.

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