Teach Classes in the Morning, Drive Uber at Night: Why Chicago Adjuncts Are Demanding a Union

Lauren Kaori Gurley October 27, 2015

Chicago adjuncts march in the Fight for $15 rally on April 15, 2015.

In 2008, when Wan­da Evans-Brew­er — still in the throes of her grad­u­ate work — was offered an adjunct posi­tion at Con­cor­dia Uni­ver­si­ty in Chica­go, she took it as an aus­pi­cious sign for her future as an aca­d­e­m­ic. She thought she had earned the respect of her pro­fes­sors at Con­cor­dia and was on the fast track to a full-time tenured professorship. 

But now, at 48, Evans-Brew­er is still part of the con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty at Con­cor­dia Uni­ver­si­ty, where she’s lucky if she’s offered two or three cours­es per semes­ter. Con­cor­dia pays a mea­ger $2,700 per course, which pans out to about $2,300 after tax­es — putting Evans-Brew­er, and like­ly many oth­er adjuncts at Con­cor­dia, at the pover­ty line. This fall Evans-Brew­er was allot­ted one class — qual­i­fy­ing her for an Illi­nois LINK card and Med­ic­aid. She says she has had to sup­ple­ment her income as a part-time Uber driver. 

Like the many oth­er adjuncts at Con­cor­dia, Evans-Brew­er receives no ben­e­fits or guar­an­tee that she will be offered any class­es from semes­ter to semes­ter — and she has to wait eight weeks into each class before she receives a pay­check. When Evans-Brew­er gath­ered the nerve to ask the Con­cor­dia pres­i­dent about receiv­ing her pay ear­li­er, she says he told her there was noth­ing he could do about it.”

Fed up, Evans-Brew­er joined the Chica­go chap­ter of Fac­ul­ty For­ward —a union­iza­tion move­ment for non-tenure track fac­ul­ty backed by the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) that has been gain­ing momen­tum in Chica­go col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties since ear­ly 2015. Over the past decade, adjunct union­iza­tion has seen a domi­no effect” through­out major cities — includ­ing Wash­ing­ton D.C., Boston, Los Ange­les and Seat­tle — where con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty have been able to nego­ti­ate for increased pay, year-long con­tracts and increased ben­e­fits. Fac­ul­ty For­ward Chica­go, which orga­niz­ers say is a move­ment against the cor­po­ra­ti­za­tion” of high­er edu­ca­tion in Chica­go, is advanc­ing a num­ber of demands, includ­ing a $15,000 min­i­mum com­pen­sa­tion per course (though orga­niz­ers con­sid­er this an aspi­ra­tion more than an imme­di­ate­ly winnable demand).

There is a grow­ing per­cep­tion that we need to union­ize across Chica­go. I actu­al­ly do feel like there’s lots of sol­i­dar­i­ty across cam­pus­es,” says Janet Sed­lar, a senior lec­tur­er in the Romance Lan­guages Depart­ment at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, where adjuncts are paid $5,096 per class. Though Sed­lar says “[she’s] in the best sit­u­a­tion among lec­tur­ers,” receiv­ing ben­e­fits and full-time pay, she stills sees the appeal of a union. If the uni­ver­si­ty decid­ed to cut a cer­tain ben­e­fit, [adjunct fac­ul­ty have] absolute­ly no recourse since we’re not union­ized,” she said.

There are over 6,500 non-tenured pro­fes­sors work­ing at pri­vate col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties across Chica­go — many of whom have no job sta­bil­i­ty and low pay, despite jug­gling mul­ti­ple jobs. Accord­ing to Fac­ul­ty For­ward, in Illi­nois, 20 per­cent of con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty at pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges — peo­ple with ter­tiary degrees — rely on pub­lic assis­tance. Across the coun­try, the pay­checks of top admin­is­tra­tors have swelled at three times the rate of fac­ul­ty over the past three decades.

Ten years ago, I would walk into a tenure-track posi­tion with my back­ground and the things I’ve accom­plished,” said Matthew Hoff­man who teach­es soci­ol­o­gy part-time at Loy­ola Uni­ver­si­ty Chica­go and Illi­nois Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, and serves on the orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee for Fac­ul­ty For­ward Chica­go. The job mar­ket is so abysmal that there’s very lit­tle hope of land­ing a job that’s actu­al­ly a career. [Union­iz­ing] is actu­al­ly our best hope … to trans­form high­er edu­ca­tion from the bot­tom up, from the peo­ple who are exploited.”

Fac­ul­ty For­ward has put the major­i­ty of its union­iza­tion efforts into Loy­ola and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, with the hope that these wealthy uni­ver­si­ties can cre­ate a stan­dard for the rest of the city, as Tufts Uni­ver­si­ty did in Boston and George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty did in D.C. Between 2002 and 2012, Loy­ola has quadru­pled the num­ber of adjuncts it employs and decreased instruc­tion spend­ing by 11 per­cent. Mean­while, Loyola’s total rev­enues have risen by over a quar­ter of a bil­lion dol­lars. In 2011, Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Pres­i­dent Robert Zim­mer rolled in $3.4 mil­lion, mak­ing him the high­est paid uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tor in the coun­try. As of June 2014, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go endow­ment was appraised at $7.55 bil­lion. It’s lit­tle sur­prise, then, that Fac­ul­ty For­ward has seen fer­vent adjunct sup­port at both schools.

Sed­lar says Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go adjuncts hope to hold an elec­tion for union­iza­tion either this quar­ter or next.

On Octo­ber 14, the Chica­go City Coun­cil vot­ed unan­i­mous­ly to sup­port the union­iza­tion of adjunct fac­ul­ty and called for uni­vier­si­ties to allow adjuncts to union­ize with­out admin­is­tra­tion inter­fer­ence. Yet union­iza­tion will depend on fac­ul­ty, stu­dents, and orga­niz­ers putting pres­sure on those admin­is­tra­tions to nego­ti­ate. Accord­ing to Sed­lar and Hoff­man, the admin­is­tra­tions at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and Loy­ola have not retal­i­at­ed against orga­niz­ing fac­ul­ty, but they also have not made any attempts to respond thus far.

The admin­is­tra­tion has said noth­ing,” Hoff­man said. They’ve said noth­ing to the heads of depart­ments I’ve worked with. … We pre­sent­ed the admin­is­tra­tion with a peti­tion with 500 sig­na­tures from fac­ul­ty, staff and stu­dents, and of course, we heard noth­ing back from them.

Though SEIU is cur­rent­ly run­ning one of its largest adjunct orga­niz­ing cam­paigns in Chica­go, sup­port at small­er Chica­go col­leges like Con­cor­dia, where pay is often the low­est, has been spo­radic at best. At Con­cor­dia, Evans-Brew­er says, she is all by her­self” in the union­iza­tion effort and doesn’t see a res­o­lu­tion in the fore­see­able future.

There’s a large amount of adjuncts [at Con­cor­dia]. But they’re qui­et,” said Evans-Brew­er. I’m one of the few peo­ple who raised hell. They’re not rais­ing hell. At the end of the day, they want their classes.”

But with vic­to­ries at schools like Loy­ola and Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and a suc­ces­sion of adjunct vic­to­ries across the coun­try, Evans-Brew­er may not be alone for long.

Lau­ren Kaori Gur­ley is a staff writer at VICE’s Moth­er­board on the labor beat. She is a for­mer con­tribut­ing writer to Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times and In These Times intern. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @laurenkgurley.
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