A little over a year ago, a majority of the non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty on the UIUC campus authorized the formation of a union, the first certified faculty union on our campus. You might not know it, though, as our union, the Non-Tenure Faculty Coalition, has seen quite a bit of push-back since its formation, and our profile has thus far remained fairly low.
The University administration immediately fought the certification of the NTT union, challenging the ruling of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board (IELRB), losing, then appealing the ruling again in Appellate Court. Losing again, they appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, which declined their appeal, leaving the union’s certification unchallenged. These losses, however, haven’t prompted much movement on the University’s part.
Or, you might not know about any of this because the last year or so at the University of Illinois has been dominated by the remaining fallout from the James Kilgore affair, the “unhiring” of Steven Salaita and its aftermath, the rise of the prospective College of Medicine, accusations of discrimination within our athletics program, withheld emails, and now the resignation-firing-resignation of Chancellor Phyllis Wise. Couple all of those events with the standoff between the University and the state over the school’s budget, and it’s been easy to overlook the ways that unions such as ours are treated on the UIUC campus.
Make no mistake, however, the Non-Tenure Faculty Coalition (NTFC) has been fighting to improve and stabilize the working lives of the NTT faculty it represents. We have been in bargaining for nearly a year, and presented our administration counterparts with a full contract proposal in March of this year, including a responsible economic platform. To date, the administration has yet to return a full set of counter-proposals, and has not even begun to address economic issues such as salaries and raises at the bargaining table. This is not unusual, as such delays are typical of bargaining union contracts at the University of Illinois.
This pattern of problematic bargaining isn’t confined to our union. Our brothers and sisters in other unions on campus—including AFSCME and SEIU—face similar problems, including laughable wage programs, regressive plans to change benefits including health insurance, and deliberately slowed bargaining, which occupies the time of union members and is designed to diminish union support and interest.
And settling a fair contract, which should be the goal of both sides in contract negotiations seems to be a challenge at the University of Illinois. Graduate employees on the UIUC campus had to strike in 2009 to finalize a contract, and came close to strike during their next go-around. When the tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty on the Chicago campus unionized, they were forced to strike to win their first contract. And now that the tenure-track faculty on the Springfield campus have unionized, they may face a similar path. This seems to reveal a pattern of bargaining that privileges testing union resolve and challenging the choices of those who have decided to unionize over responsible or fair bargaining.
The Non-Tenure Faculty Coalition exists to help ease these anxieties, to stabilize the positions that our faculty members hold, and to fight for a fair contract for those we represent. The other forces on our campus—the distracting politics, the scandals, the administrative over-reach, the legal teams the school hires—will not get us there. Only fair contract negotiations at the bargaining table can get us there. And those negotiations require respect for the union our NTT faculty have chosen to form, and the issues they believe are worth fighting for. There may be progress for non-tenure-track faculty that comes from other sources, but only the union can fight for the core principle underlying it all, and without which nothing else of substance will occur: respect.
Shawn Gilmore is a Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and President of the Non-Tenure Faculty Coalition (NTFC) Local #6546, a union representing nearly 500 non-tenure-track faculty at the University of Illinois, affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT), and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).