When University graduate students made news by voting overwhemingly to unionize with Graduate Students United (GSU) last month, they were only one of multiple new unions on campus.
Faculty Forward, which represents non-tenure track instructors on campus, is currently in collective bargaining talks, and hopes to secure more status, security, and consistent teaching loads for its members.
Meanwhile, the Student Library Employees’ Union (SLEU), which won a vote to represent students in campus libraries last year, is fighting a legal battle with the administration over their ability to organize and the legitimacy of the election’s outcome.
The University is not yet negotiating with either SLEU or GSU.
Non-tenure track faculty at the university first voted to unionize in December 2015, following perceived loss of benefits and status. Their union, Faculty Forward, is part of Service Employees International Union Local 73, and represents about 200 instructors.
Under its broader Faculty Forward campaign, SEIU has pushed for the unionization of instructors at dozens of schools like the University.
“Absent a union, the administration can say ‘full-time is now that, and pay is now this,’” bargaining team member and part-time Spanish lecturer Darcy Lear said. “That’s part of the reason we were able to unionize, [because] some things have been eroding.”
In November, the Harper-Schmidt Fellows, who are postdoctoral core sequence instructors affiliated with SEIU but not Faculty Forward, ratified their contract.
Faculty Forward’s collective bargaining with the University is ongoing.
A key issue in the negotiations is the question of what Faculty Forward’s members should be called. Currently, University statutes identify them as “other academic appointees,” rather than as faculty—a position the union sees as hypocritical.
“When you look at faculty to student ratios, we’re included in that,” Lear said. “[The University] doesn’t have an answer for whether they’re going to change those numbers…when they report them to U.S. News or send them out in admissions brochures.”
The University argued in a statement to The Maroon that “faculty” is used in a more restrictive sense within University statutes than in casual discussion.
“While we recognize that the word ‘faculty’ is applied informally to many individuals who participate in classroom instruction, the University statutes define which individuals are formally designated as ‘faculty,’” University spokesperson Marielle Sainvilus said in a statement. “The non-tenure track instructors who are now represented by SEIU are not statutory faculty.”
Another area of disagreement is teaching loads.
Faculty Forward argues that 6 courses per year has always been a full-time commitment, and wants to prevent instructors from being required to teach more. They argue that overloading teachers worsens the classroom experience for both instructors and students, and prevents students from having access to their instructors.
The University declined to comment on specific numbers, citing the confidentiality of the bargaining process, but argued that course assignments need to be flexible based on circumstance.
“Currently, teaching loads among bargaining unit members are variable across the University,” Sainvilus said. “The University’s proposals seek to acknowledge the variety of factors [relevant to] determining the appropriate course load.”
Additionally, the union is concerned that increasing course loads for some faculty could hurt the job security of others, or lead to the dismissal of already-vulnerable part-timers.
They aim to protect the security of those who currently teach part-time, without encouraging further reliance on instructors without permanent status.
“We don’t want to end up in a situation where part-timers lose out because full-timers are teaching more courses and there’s nothing left for us,” Lear said. “[We also don’t] want to incentivize the university to hire more part-timers, and have more contingent, vulnerable faculty.”
In particular, Faculty Forward hopes that higher wages for part-timers will reduce the long-term incentive to use them as a replacement for full-time faculty.
“If it’s more expensive to pay me per course than to hire me on a salary, then you won’t make that choice,” Lear said. “[The low cost] is a huge incentive behind hiring contingent faculty, and we want to rein in that incentive.”
Over the longer term, the union hopes to create equity of benefits for faculty regardless of status, including health care and the college tuition benefits that children of faculty receive.
“If you’re a human working at the University of Chicago, you should have the same health benefits as every other human working at the University,” Lear said. “And my child doesn’t deserve a college education less than the child of the tenure-track professor across the hallway.”
Faculty Forward expects negotiations for its first contract to finish by its first academic year.
After winning a unionization vote last June, SLEU has been engaged in a legal fight with the University over whether the result should be accepted. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)’s regional director rejected the University’s appeal, which is now under review by the board.
If certified by the NLRB, SLEU would represent approximately 200 undergraduate and graduate students employed in campus libraries. The union is affiliated with Teamsters Local 743.
One of the union’s main priorities is giving students stability in scheduling, so that library work doesn’t interfere with academics.
“There are certain departments where one week you could be working eight hours, and the next week you could be working 14,” Katie McPolin, a library employee and SLEU organizer, said. “That’s not really conducive to being a student.”
Since other library workers are already affiliated with the Teamsters, SLEU believes that unionization is compatible with flexible hours.
However, SLEU also hopes to secure legal representation for students requiring workplace accommodations, such as those under Title IX or the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“We want higher wages, but we also want… someone at the table with us when we have to talk with the University,” McPolin said. “Legal representation from the union is what we had in mind when we started our card drive.”
The University declined to comment on the specifics of future negotiations, citing the ongoing NLRB dispute.
While waiting for the NLRB to rule on the election’s legitimacy, SLEU has focused on strengthening connections with other unions on campus, based on their shared interest in advocating for workers.
“Our focus has primarily been on base-building, and reaching out to other organizers on campus, [such as] GSU and Faculty Forward,” McPolin said. “I don’t think the University realizes how many workers they have on their hands. They spend a lot of money on union lawyers, and not a lot on paying a living wage across campus.”
Over time, organizers hope that their power and that of groups like GSU will transform Chicago.
“This is a really exciting moment for student workers on our campus and across the country,” McPolin said. “We all have to work together to make the university that we want, and we’re getting there.”