Faculty Unite to Unionize Via Card Check at University of Illinois at Chicago

Kari Lydersen

CHICAGO — Tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty are often pitted against each other and — if they are unionized — are often in different unions. But last week, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, faculty in both camps successfully launched a joint unionization process, as about 60 percent signed cards declaring their intention.

As John K. Wilson explains on his College Freedom blog, in Illinois, public university faculty can unionize via card check, without having to vote. (The moribund Employee Free Choice Act sought this right for all workers.)

Faculty turned hundreds of cards into the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board. Within months, according to faculty leaders, the union should be officially recognized. It will include faculty working 51 percent of full time and more — both tenure-track professors and non-tenure-track contingent” professors.

The move made UIC the first large public research institution in state history to unionize. The campaign, known as UIC United Faculty, was supported by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

In a press release, IFT quoted Giamila Fantuzzi, associate professor with the UIC College of Applied Health Sciences:

A union of faculty at UIC will make sure the tax and tuition dollars of the people of Illinois are indeed directed towards the central mission of our university, access to an excellent education for everybody. Our victory shows that the trend against labor can be reversed through the passionate involvement of workers who deeply care about their workplace.

The UIC United Faculty website notes that their pay lags signficantly behind that of other doctoral universities nationwide, and also behind other unionized Illinois public universities.

As described on UIC United Faculty’s website, the union will address the issue of contingent, non-tenure track faculty replacing full-time tenure-track faculty — a delicate balancing act given the union will represent faculty in both classes.

The website promises that non-tenure-track faculty will have an equal voice in the union, and the union will make better pay, job security and career advancement of non-tenure-track faculty top priorities. The website also says that in the past four years, the university has grown by 3,650 students and 89 new administrative positions, yet there are eight fewer faculty.

These faculty numbers don’t reflect the decline’s true gravity because many tenure-track lines have been replaced by contingent faculty who are hired on a year-to-year basis at far lower rates of pay. Most are responsible for many more students and often work multiple jobs to earn a living wage. So most have very little time to mentor individual students or develop a commitment to UIC. Many academic programs have been cut back by administrative fiat, and more cuts.

The website also says that class sizes are growing without offering faculty teaching assistants, lighter loads or more compensation to compensate, and many tenure-track faculty are being forced to spend more time raising funds for their research while still carrying the same teaching load.

UIC is known for its strong and progressive departments and professors focusing on labor studies, urban studies, Latin American studies and other realms relevant to its diverse, urban student body. The institution also has sometimes had a schizophrenic identity, with administration policies or practices seeming to contradict the philosophies of its well-known scholars.

For example, the school has long been known as an agent of gentrification, even as its professors publish cutting-edge research on gentrification. And while it is known for labor scholarship, the 1,400-member Graduate Employees Organization grad student union has struggled bitterly with administrators over harsh pay cuts, tuition waiver revisions and other measures that make it harder for them to pursue their studies and put food on the table. They are currently working to enforce the contract they signed last year after contentious negotiations.

Faculty quoted in union press releases described UIC professors’ card check as a win for the school’s professors and students as well as a symbolic victory for organized labor, given the attacks on public-sector workers nationwide — particularly teachers.

Art History Professor Peter Hales said:

One of the most important, and thrilling, aspects of the organizing effort was the way it has brought together faculty across disciplinary, administrative and physical boundaries to reveal a UIC still passionately committed to its mission — to organize, support, and disseminate research within the urban sphere, and to provide the highest level of education to students who might otherwise never have the ability or the opportunity.

We have seen a critical mass of faculty members yearning for a better UIC and ready to see unionization as the tool to forge that vision.

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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