Unionized Faculty Reach Tentative Agreement with the University of Chicago


U of C

The day in December 2015 that non-tenure track faculty at the University of Chicago voted to unionize.

I have been largely absent from this blog for longer than I thought I would be.  But I’m back now and will do lots of catching up (including sharing info on my forthcoming book with Georgetown University Press, “Integrating Career Preparation into Language Courses.”)  

First, here’s some of what I’ve been up to for the past two years:  

In December of 2015, I went to the rally pictured here (I’m near the front on the right) to celebrate that non-tenure track faculty at the University of Chicago had voted to unionized. Then I joined the bargaining team.  Those of us who did the least spent 5-10 hours a week, every week for what turned out to be two full years organizing and planning our first union contract. We didn’t get paid. It was a coalition of the willing.  

During those two years, we negotiated with the university over the issues our members cared about most:

  • pay–a livable wage for Chicago residents,
  • benefits–parity with tenured and tenure-track faculty on our campus,
  • courseload–a fair and stable teaching load.  

Of course, there were a lot of details outside of those three things, campus-specific issues, unique needs of subsets of our memberships, and lots of compromises.  

Yesterday, the bargaining team and the university came to a tentative agreement on our first contract.  Members will participate in a ratification vote in a couple weeks and then lots of details will be available.

While I can’t share details of the tentative agreement, I can share some of my broad observations from the process.  

There is power in transparency.  To get fair pair, benefits, and workload for everyone, you have to know the status quo. What were we each getting paid at the time we unionized? What were the different teaching loads?  Who was getting what kind of benefits? We had to open up to each other. Taboos have to be lifted.  Women make less than men in part because we’re all trained not to talk about money and how much of it we make.  The truth: equality will never be achieved unless we talk about money and how much of it we make.

There is power in collective bargaining.  The idea that as an individual employee, you have the power to negotiate the terms of your employment directly with your employer is largely a joke–at least for non-tenure track faculty in higher education settings.  Absent collective bargaining, almost every offer is a take it or leave it offer.  Through collective bargaining, you can improve conditions for everyone. The past two years have taught me that it can be a wonky process and that there’s lots of capitalism mixed in with collective bargaining, but that the collective will ultimately get more for each individual than any individual would be able to get for themselves.

Employers lie to themselves about the conditions of those they employ. The industry I know the most about is higher education and the adjunctification of higher education is nearly impossible to justify.  Paying highly educated individuals a few thousand dollars per course with no job security and no benefits is the norm on college and university campuses. It’s poverty wages any way you look at it.  

How do universities justify this?

“It’s market driven” is one answer. Supply and demand. If there are a bunch of people with graduate degrees who are willing to accept those terms of employment, then that’s what the market can bear. And if we don’t like it, why don’t we just do something else with our lives?  

What universities don’t tell you in those market-drive answers is that they flood the market with PhD grads.  The bread and butter of tenured and tenure track faculty in university departments is grad students; to stay afloat, they have to keep admitting graduate students and train them almost entirely for faculty positions (some disciplines train for other industries, but not many)–even when they know for a fact that there are only stable, livable-wage paying jobs for a small fraction of the graduates they will churn out.

I suspect another assumption that universities make is that people actually want crappy adjunct work in exchange for the status associated with “teaching college.” I think they tell themselves that bored housewives with PhDs and heiresses choose to do adjunct work “because they want to give back.” To be clear, I have no way to know if this is true or not. And maybe I’m giving too much credit here. Maybe it’s truer that universities don’t even bother making assumptions. But what is true in my own experience is that…

Gender, class and labor issues intersect in university employment practices. Note: assume white privilege; I encountered very few people of color in the entire process–thus no ‘race’ in the subheading. There’s a fairly rigid class system in place on campuses–administrators, tenure-track faculty, non-tenure track full-time faculty, non-tenure track part-time faculty.  Men are the majority at the top of that class system–in administration.  As you move down the ranks, more women enter…until you get to the bottom where the majority of part-time non-tenure track faculty is women (and this is tied to all sorts of other intractable social issues that are beyond the scope of this post).  Who earn the most and have the best benefits packages? Administrators. Technically, income is pegged to the titles, not the individuals and their gender.  But man, oh man did this process show me how once you have power and privilege and wealth, you are in a position to get more of the same.  And, conversely, if you don’t possess much power or privilege or wealth, you are in the fight of your life to gain marginal improvements that leave you at the bottom of the heap. It’s the old, “double zero and you still have zero.” You can increase adjunct pay, but as long as there’s an adjunct system in place, those will still be poverty wages.

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