Students Organizing United With Labor (SOUL), an undergraduate student labor activism group on campus, published a petition on Tuesday in support of the University’s SEIU Faculty Forward union, a bargaining unit for non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty.
Faculty Forward, which won its unionization vote in 2015, represents both full-time lecturers, who are hired off the tenure track as instructors, and part-time adjunct instructors, who generally lack long-term contracts and are paid per course.
SOUL proposed the petition to Faculty Forward as part of a larger campaign expressing community support for the union, which included a teach-in with NTT faculty panelists and a recent letter in The Maroon by SOUL leadership.
The petition calls on the University to negotiate an appropriate contract by March 2018, saying that the University has dragged out the process. Negotiations began in early 2016.
It restates Faculty Forward’s three basic requests: a living wage, benefits including parental leave and tuition reimbursement, and improved working conditions including predictable contract lengths, a path to promotion, and the possibility for green card sponsorship.
The petition also states that a job action could be on the table, as a last resort, if a contract with the University has not been reached by the end of March.
At the time of this article’s publication, the petition has 465 signatures, including 303 from undergraduates and 55 from faculty.
The union has expanded its outreach, reactivating its Twitter and collaborating with SOUL, to raise awareness. Both Graduate Students United (GSU) and the UChicago chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) expressed solidarity with the union.
“We need students to know that 40 percent of the instructors on this campus aren’t getting equal benefits,” said Darcy Lear, a part-time Romance languages lecturer and member of the bargaining committee. “We want them to understand what our circumstances are, where we’re coming from, and what we’re fighting for.”
SOUL co-president and second-year undergraduate Grace Croley told The Maroon that the petition aims to bring the effort to the attention of the University community.
“The University isn’t going to concede anything if there isn’t anyone forcing them to do so,” Croley said. “So we wanted to build awareness among undergraduates about what’s going on, and show the University that we’re aware of the situation, and support our teachers.”
Bargaining committee member Dmitry Kondrashov, an applied mathematician and senior lecturer in the Biological Sciences Division, told The Maroon that the SOUL petition fits into Faculty Forward’s larger push to bring public attention to the negotiations.
“Our goal is to get visibility and take this conversation into the public square, because we believe we’re in the right, frankly speaking, and that our position can withstand public scrutiny,” Kondrashov said.
Kondrashov said that student awareness of the disparate treatment of NTT faculty is important, although in an ideal world in which all faculty were treated with respect, it wouldn’t be important for students to know their professors’ tenure status.
“If the University treated all faculty with some sort of baseline consideration as valued professionals, which a lot of the members don’t feel is the case, then I think it wouldn’t matter so much for the students to know the exact status, title, or position of the professors. I don’t think it should be necessary, yet I think it is, because ultimately it does impact the students,” he said.
Discussing the delays in negotiations, Kondrashov said that although the University has been bargaining in good faith, “they haven’t demonstrated a lot of urgency.”
“We are not accusing the administration of not trying to reach an agreement, but it often seems, for example, that they’re not in a hurry, when we give them a proposal, to give us a counter-proposal back,” he said.
Kondrashov said that the petition isn’t the only way to support Faculty Forward, suggesting that beyond signing the petition, students could e-mail administrators and discuss the issue with their parents. He stressed that students have tremendous power on campus, especially due to the amount of money undergraduates bring in.
Demands and Other Issues
Beyond concrete considerations like pay raises, SOUL’s petition calls on the University to treat faculty with respect.
“The University refuses to call NTT faculty ‘faculty,’ instead opting for ‘other academic appointees,’” it reads. “This language points to larger issues of lack of respect on the University’s behalf, which has led many NTT faculty to feel ‘invisible’ and ‘disposable.’”
Another key disagreement between Faculty Forward and the University is how many courses full-time faculty should be expected to teach.
Faculty Forward claims that six courses per year has been the norm at the University, while the administration claims that three per quarter, and eight or nine per year, is more in line with peer institutions.
In particular, Faculty Forward argues that the University doesn’t recognize important work that their members engage in outside the classroom, which would be squeezed by increasing the required course load.
Until the most recent bargaining session on February 19, the University had not proposed specific compensation numbers in response to Faculty Forward’s position. According to Faculty Forward, the numbers that did arrive weren’t good enough.
“Many full-timers, including some who’ve been here more than a decade, make less than $50,000, which is below the median income for [the Chicago area],” Lear said. “The raises in the University's proposal are between 0 percent and 2 percent a year, which doesn't even match cost of living [increases]. Our union dues are going to be 2 percent, so to break even on having a union we need to get more than a 2 percent raise.”
Faculty Forward says that lecturers provide important support, mentoring students by involving them in the campus community.
“The University is basically saying we don't want to pay you for [work outside the classroom anymore] —that's what became clear at the February 19 meeting,” Lear said. “We thought we were making a good case for ‘here are all the extra duties we're doing,’ and instead it seems like the University saw those extra duties and said, ‘We don't want you to do that when we could force you to teach more instead.’”
In addition, disagreements remain over benefits. Faculty Forward says that its members deserve parity in benefits with tenure-track faculty, including tuition support and health care. Negotiations on the issue are ongoing.
Both sides have largely agreed on a new path to promotion for full-time faculty, which would create three tiers of increasing pay, benefits, and job security. In previous years, lecturers had the possibility of promotion to senior lecturer, a position with higher pay and more security—but that avenue has largely been closed off.
“Full-time faculty were told that if you do XYZ, you’ll become a senior lecturer,” Lear said. “Then that possibility of promotion just went away.”
There are four more bargaining sessions scheduled this quarter, on March 7, 8, 14, and 15.
If negotiations fail, Faculty Forward has raised the possibility of a strike, most likely during spring quarter. The first step is to hold a strike authorization vote, which doesn’t begin the strike but does lay the groundwork for one.
“Someday, and it might have to be before March 15, you have a strike authorization vote,” Lear said. “That says, ‘As a member, I'm authorizing my bargaining team to take an action that will disrupt business as usual on this campus, if they decide they need to.’”
If a strike does happen, it wouldn’t necessarily involve canceling class. Faculty Forward representatives say classes might be hosted off campus, to send a message without overly disrupting learning.
“If it’s a small class, you agree to meet in a café or restaurant,” Lear said. “If you have a unit member who lives close by, you have your class meet you there.”
It wasn’t clear which issues could trigger a strike, but Faculty Forward suggested that agreement seems hard to reach on many key questions.
“If a student’s professor is having to worry about where to get another part-time job to pay the rent—which, I should point out, is not the case for me or for all of our members, but is the case for some—I think that’s not right, and it does bleed over into the students’ education,” he said.
Both sides are aiming to agree to a contract by the end of the quarter, though disagreements about pay and job requirements have threatened that timeline.
In a statement to The Maroon, Jason Merchant, a linguistics professor and Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, said that the University considers keeping up with their fields a part of lecturers’ responsibilities as UChicago instructors.
“All lecturers are expected to maintain current subject-matter expertise in their respective instruction areas and in best practices, and we have proposed that that every full-time lecturer be compensated for time spent doing that,” Merchant said.
“Some members of the bargaining group also participate in a range of activities [beyond teaching], including supervising student papers, advising student organizations, designing new courses, mentoring, providing career counseling, serving on committees, and many others,” Merchant said. “These are important duties that are essential to providing a high-quality education for our students.”
Because Faculty Forward represents lecturers with divergent responsibilities across many departments, negotiating a contract that covers all of them could prove difficult.
"Even within programs, there are many different ways that this University operates,” Lear said. “How do you piece together a single contract that covers everyone?... We need to be able to go to our members and say, ‘Your job will look like this.’ We can't leave it vague.”
The University, however, argues that its pay proposals match payments for full-time lecturers at similar institutions.
“The University’s initial compensation offer for full-time lecturers, which was only introduced at the beginning of this week, includes initial salary levels that are on a par or better than our peers,” Merchant said. “This represents a substantial increase over current starting salary levels, including salary increases as high as $15,000 or more.”
“I don't know what the University will give us, but they have to make a case for non-tenure-track families literally having less value than tenure-track families,” Lear said.
Merchant’s statement highlighted a series of proposed improvements for lecturers, including a cap on the size of language classes, more notice for reappointments, and immigration support such as sponsorship for green cards.
“[The University] is insisting in fixing what isn't broken, and pushing us toward engaging in actions that will disrupt business as usual on campus,” Lear said.
Merchant does not agree that the University has dragged out negotiations.
“By mutual agreement, the two sides committed at the outset to saving some issues until the end of negotiations, including compensation, workload, and benefits. As a result, these issues have not been the subject of bargaining until very recently,” Merchant said. “Although reaching a first contract has taken considerable time, neither the University nor the SEIU has purposely slowed down the process, and it is our mutual interest to reach agreement as soon as possible.”
Merchant also said that SEIU replaced its chief negotiator and another bargaining team staff member in the middle of negotiations, producing “unexpected delays.”
“We are very optimistic that we can reach agreement soon on the remaining topics,” he said.