Non-Tenure Track Faculty at University of Illinois Strike to Stabilize Positions, Picket on Campus to End Precarious Employment
April 25, 2016
By James Anderson
In between late-night alcohol binges at Kam’s, visits to Papa Del’s for indelible slices of blended Sicilian and Chicago-style pizza, flâneur-like walks down the bustling semi-urban atmosphere of Green Street, and journeys east of campus to the Independent Media Center fashioned years ago out of an old post office for the purpose of empowering community members to communicate their own counter-power, undergraduates at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign might have encountered something a little out of the ordinary in April.
Students likely saw a strike.
Hundreds of non-tenure track faculty at UIUC walked out of their classrooms, vacated their labs and otherwise withheld their labor power on Tuesday, April 19, and Wednesday, April 20.
Members of the Non-Tenure Faculty Coalition Local #6546 at U of I organized the two-day strike to put pressure on the university administration, which has thus far refused to negotiate key bargaining items the union considers essential. The NTFC Local #6546 – affiliate of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors – has been bargaining a contract, or trying to anyway, since October 2014, three months after the union was officially certified.
Histories of shared struggle
Their two-day strike strategy to force the issue had precedent.
Tenure track and non-tenure track faculty at the University of Illinois Chicago hit the picket lines together for a two-day strike in February 2014. Graduate student workers affiliated with UAW Local 2865 staged a two-day strike across the University of California system shortly thereafter.
“I think the fighting has just begun,” Caroline McKusick, spokesperson for Local 2865 at the time, said in early April 2014. She said her local rejected the attempts to use a real funding shortfall from the state “to justify,” as the UC administration aimed to do, “redirecting funds to people who already have enough away from people who don’t have enough.”
The NTFC Local #6546 at UIUC continues the struggle under similar conditions of fiscal austerity now ravaging Illinois, but the Midwest adjunct union is pushing slightly different points of emphasis than did their fellow academic workers on the West Coast.
Local #6546 members and supporters picked up the fight this April by picketing the English building facing the Quad, the main quadrangle serving as the locus of UIUC campus, as well as a prominent bus line, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days of their strike.
Shawn Gilmore, president of the union and a non-tenure track faculty member in the English department since 2010, said they held two rallies each day, one at noon and the other at 5 p.m., to reach as many people as possible.
Union members and allies utilized both megaphones and chant leaders, and they deployed a circle picket around the English building, recombining every once in a while to switch out.
“The biggest sort of emphasis was not on disruption but on education and presence,” said Gilmore, who first came to UIUC in 2002 to work on his master’s degree in English after receiving a B.A. in both English and physics from Truman State University in Missouri.
Gilmore, who received his M.A. in 2004 and his PhD from UIUC in 2013, said his union passed out some 6,000 fliers to undergrads over the course of the two days the non-tenure track faculty were on strike.
“We were trying to make sure everybody sort of knew why we were striking but also educate on what a strike looks like because on this campus strikes are actually fairly rare, or fairly small, and we wanted to have a fairly big impact,” he said.
The last strike on campus took place in 2009, when the Graduate Employees Organization, the union representing graduate student workers on UIUC campus, launched a successful one-day action that ended with a guarantee from the administration that the university would not mess with students’ tuition waivers.
Graduate students at the university are currently on contract with an obligatory no-strike clause in effect until 2017, so they could not engage in an actual, unfettered solidarity strike with the NTFC.
“We have a lot of solidarity with them, obviously,” Gilmore, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on how the graphic novel evolved into a publication format and is currently working on a piece about the experimental, early career of “Maus”-creator Art Spiegelman, said in an interview a few days after the picketing. “What we did ahead of time was we worked with the secretarial pool here to get room switch requests for class days that would be affected. We got almost all of them processed a week ahead of time, actually, and then we had a few people who had to move on the day. But everybody was very sympathetic about it.”
A lot of graduate students walked the picket lines with faculty when they could.
Gilmore, who was also a graduate student at the university during the GEO strike, said he remembered there being a little more heckling in 2009.
“Almost everyone was very respectful” of the picket this time around, he said. Few students crossed the picket line the first, and on the second day the only people crossing were service personnel, in the main.
A number of undergraduate students also joined in the picketing or otherwise congregated around the English building to ask the NTFC questions.
“One of the ways we decided to do this particular strike was to basically pre-announce our plan, and then show that we were actually sticking to that plan,” which Gilmore said helped spread word of the strike, adding: “We wanted to sort of demonstrate that we are the ones actually trying to follow through on things and the administration is not – that was sort of the underlying message.”
An email from Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson and Interim Provost Edward Feser sent to the entire University of Illinois campus community a little after noon the first day of the strike appears to have aided the union’s educational efforts and piqued undergraduate student interest in the NTFC actions.
In their email, UIUC administrators acknowledged “the right of each specialized faculty member to decide whether or not to participate,” but added that they “continue to believe a strike is not in the best interests of our specialized faculty members.” The estimated 200 to 250 non-tenure track faculty who opted to withhold at least a portion of their labor those two days, Gilmore noted, decided they were probably a better judge of their own interests than their employer.
Rhetorically eliding the power inequities currently sewing the discord driving the NTFC offensive, the interim chancellor and interim provost also stated in their email that the two-day strike “does not help us make progress together.”
Multi-year contracts, (Re-)appointment issues remain major sticking points
A significant majority of Local #6546 members voted two and a half weeks in advance to authorize the limited – meaning no more than three day – work action because the aforementioned “progress together” with the administration remained noticeably absent after 30 negotiation sessions and 18.5 months of back-and-forth at the bargaining table.
Both sides say there are now tentative agreements on several items. The biggest sticking point in bargaining, according to the NTFC, remains the issue of multi-year contracts.
Some 97 percent of the approximately 500 non-tenure track faculty represented by Local #6546 only have one-year contracts. In contrast to other universities where adjuncts have made less progress in certain areas – like across the California State University system where new lecturers frequently are hired on a per-semester basis – the nine-month contract for non-tenure line faculty is standard in Urbana-Champaign.
The contracts for non-tenure track faculty at UIUC pay out over 12 months. Exceptions exist. Some faculty are on 10 month contracts that pay out over 12 months. Others are on 12 month contracts.
Where the money comes from matters and varies by department and college. In the sciences, for example, money to pay faculty might come from a National Science Foundation grant. If that money is delivered to the university on a yearly contract, then the faculty pay schedule will match that 12-month payout.
About half of those the NTFC represents on campus have been at the university 10 years or more. Yet, every year they worry about whether they will be rehired, Gilmore said, especially since the criteria for rehires and promotions are unclear.
“That’s a real source of anxiety,” he said, noting that it is another one of the major points of contention that rendered the administration recalcitrant and brought those in the union’s bargaining unit out to the picket lines this April.
Gilmore added that, thanks to the ostensibly inadvertent largesse of a then-outgoing provost prior to non-tenure track faculty unionization on campus, those represented by Local #6546 at UIUC are subject to less anxiety-generating employment arrangements than are contingent employees at other universities.
The provost at the time stabilized the non-tenure track faculty situation a little by eliminating part-time appointments. If you hire an adjunct at UIUC they have to be offered a full-time appointment, although faculty members can choose to take only a two-thirds or one-half time appointment.
“That one provost trying to shore up his exist helped us out quite a lot,” Gilmore said.
What constitutes one full-time equivalent appointment varies by discipline. It is usually defined by the college. Gilmore teaches in the college of liberal arts and sciences where one FTE translates into teaching three classes, or nine credit hours, per semester. In other colleges and departments it means teaching four courses per semester at two credit hours a piece.
All non-tenure track faculty enjoy the same healthcare benefits as tenured faculty on campus.
Unlike the tenured professors in Urbana, those the NTFC represents do not have the luxury of knowing at a certain date whether or not they will be re-appointed.
“At the moment I can not be rehired and no one even has to tell me about it, which is a real annoyance of mine,” Gilmore said.
The union, he added, continues to push for a basic timeline for when faculty will be notified about reappointment and for a pause when it comes to contract non-renewal.
They are not asking for a large compensation package this time around. They are, however, enjoining an equitable cost of living adjustment, Gilmore said, especially because the university froze wages for non-tenure track faculty when the NTFC officially formed.
Many lecturers across the country have yet to obtain the living wage salaries non-tenure track faculty at U of I enjoy.
Adjuncts in the California State University system average $26,000 in annual salary. They are organized by the California Faculty Association, the union representing both adjuncts and tenured professors. The CFA narrowly avoided a five-day strike planned for mid-April as part of their “Fight for Five” campaign after reaching a tentative agreement with CSU management that provides the desired five percent raise for all faculty – though it will not be retroactive, as many had hoped, including previous CSU lecturers who will not be teaching at the university going forward.
Gilmore said the NTFC benefited from the fact that when the unionized professors, both tenured and non-tenure track, at the University of Illinois Chicago settled their first contract, their bottom salary for faculty was $10,000 more than the bottom salary for the lowest paid professors at UIUC.
The low-end of the salary range for lecturers at UIUC is now about $40,000 for full-time faculty, which Gilmore said is about what he makes each year. The median is around $50,000, which he said is partly because the business and administration departments on campus seem “to have an unlimited budget” and pay some of their lecturers as much as $200,000. Those departments receive some of their money from the Deloitte accounting firm in Chicago, which just paid for a new multi-million dollar auditorium in the Business Instructional Facility on campus.
Wages might not be a major sticking point this time around, despite most in the NTFC bargaining unit being paid appreciably less than the faculty in business, but the negotiations turned to federal mediation because movement on other matters has been lacking or non-existent.
“Where we differ with the NTFC is in our belief that robust shared governance – something we greatly wish to protect – is not served by bypassing our governance processes and legislating it through a labor contract,” administrators asserted in their mass email on Tuesday, April 19. “Labor contracts are intended to address wages, hours and terms and conditions of employment.”
Adjunct professors consider the hitherto forestalled capacity to formally exercise some say in the major university decisions affecting them to actually have a lot to do with “conditions of employment.”
At present, many departments at UIUC have clauses stating tenured faculty are entitled to participate in certain academic affairs, be it the academic senate or various committees, but those clauses do not exist for their tenure-lacking counterparts. Gilmore said many departments do not offer committee chairs, senate seats and the like to his fellow non-tenure track professors, although his department does. The administration appears OK with the status quo.
“There’s a real reticence to tell departments what they should do about their own management,” Gilmore observed, “which I think is silly in some real sense because that’s what these offices do all the time. They literally tell people what to do with their staff and their pay all the time.”
Even if the union does not get a provision to address those issues in their contract, Gilmore said there is support from at least some department heads to clarify for the non-tenure track faculty what their options are in terms of travel cost allotments, availability of professional development funds and other conditions related to employment currently ambiguous or simply denied.
“We don’t have settled versions of some very basic provisions,” Gilmore said, “some of which are just because their university bargaining team here is just terrible and doesn’t do its job. They don’t even bring proposals some days. They’re a train wreck to deal with.”
Post-strike plans, providing solidarious input
Even though the lead negotiators on the administration’s team occasionally show up for bargaining sessions irresponsibly unsure of what they had agreed to discuss, Gilmore said he is confident the leftover issues can be settled easily after the major issues regarding multi-year contracts and re-appointments are decided.
The next session is scheduled for Wednesday, April 27.
If there is not serious movement on the top-level issues, Gilmore said his team will go back to their members that night and suggest a course of action that is likely to include an open-ended strike.
“We are not going to budge on that,” he said, adding that the union is of course ready to consider adjusting its plans if there is interim movement in a positive direction. Everyone is likely to know what is going to happen within the next week or two, he added.
Meanwhile, the University of Illinois administration has said they welcome input from people on how they should handle ongoing negotiations with the NTFC.
“I will take that literally on their behalf,” Gilmore said.
The union has been encouraging those who want to show solidarity with Local #6546 to call and email both Interim Chancellor Wilson and Interim Chancellor Feser. Allies can help with phone or email blasts stressing to the higher-ups that the university should support its “specialized faculty” by agreeing to a clear and consistent contract that stabilizes lecturer positions.
The administrators evidently have this idea that it is only three or four people on a single campus that want what the NTFC has been proposing, Gilmore said, adding messages from outside that reinforce the importance of a fair settlement for faculty could really make an impact.
“I can say that until I’m blue in the face, but they’ve heard me say it so much that I’m not sure they actually can hear me anymore,” he lamented.
Interested parties can reach Wilson at (217) 333-1350, or they can contact the chancellor via email at email@example.com. Concerned individuals can call Feser at (217) 333-6677 or send the provost an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
James Anderson is a doctoral candidate in the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He successfully defended his PhD dissertation in early April and will be graduating in May 2016. He taught two media studies classes in the Department of Communication at California State University San Marcos during the fall 2015 semester. He has been a member of several unions, including Graduate Assistants United, the California Faculty Association, UFCW Local 135, and the Industrial Workers of the World. While a Graduate Assistant at SIUC, he served as steward for his college and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. He was a long-time member of the GAU Communications Committee. He regularly contributed to the GAU website and newsletter. His academic writing has appeared in journals like Critical Studies in Media Communication and the International Review of Information Ethics. His journalistic work and editorials have been featured in news outlets including Truthout, In These Times, Toward Freedom, ROAR Magazine, ZNet and Counterpunch.