University of Illinois at Chicago Faculty Union Goes on Strike: What Are the Stakes?

0 Flares 0 Flares ×
"Faculty working conditions = Student  learning conditions."

“Faculty working conditions = Student learning conditions.”

On February 18-19, 2014 the University of Illinois at Chicago faculty union staged a strike joined by more than 1000 faculty, students, and other supporters, and that received widespread media attention locally and nationally. With no appreciable progress made on a contract, three-quarters of the 800-member faculty union had voted 95% in favor of striking.

The union, a joint affiliate of the AFT, IFT and AAUP, represents about 1,150 full-time tenure track and non-tenure track faculty, organized in two bargaining units. Organized in July 2012, it has been negotiating a first-ever contract over 20 months. More than 60 sessions have been held; recently, a federal mediator was called in. The union says the administration is stalling; the administration says it is negotiating in good faith.

The main sticking point is pay for non-tenure track faculty. For all two- and four-year colleges nationwide, 75% of faculty are full-time and part-time non-tenure track, according to NPR. For universities, hiring non-tenure track faculty, especially those part-time, is simply a way of cutting costs: more courses taught for less money, fewer benefits, and relative lack of job security. The median salary for all faculty at UIC is about $65,000. High-end faculty make salaries pushing $200,000, while upper level administrators make $200,000-$300,000. The union wants non-tenure track salaries increased from $30,000 to $45,000; the university is offering raises to $36,000 over 3 years. For tenure track faculty, the union wants minimum salaries of $60,000. The administration says there isn’t enough money, that meeting union demands would cost 23% more for tenure track and 27% more for non-tenure track faculty. “We have very little left in terms of recurrent unassigned dollars,” says UIC Vice Chancellor and Provost Lon Kaufman. “We don’t know the future of the state and its budget. We can’t raise tuition any higher” (tuition has increased 25% since 2007).

While negotiations drag on, the administration refuses to pay unionized faculty campus-wide raises for the last two years already handed out to non-union faculty. In other respects as well, the administration is not making it easy. This is the second time faculty have formed a union. In 2011 they created one with a single bargaining unit for both tenure track and non-tenure track faculty, but the Springfield Appeals Court, reversing two Labor Board decisions, ruled that one bargaining unit was improper. The union immediately conducted a second card drive and created the present union.

Two things stand out about the union at UIC. Instead of tenure track and non-tenure track faculty pitted against one another, “both are standing together,” as NPR reports. This “provide[s] an example to other colleges of how these… workforces can advocate for each other and how they really do have some mutual goals.” Second, the administration’s divide-and-rule tactics are clear: forcing the faculty to establish a union twice; refusing to pay unionized faculty raises the last two years, even though it would have saved money. Given these facts on the ground, “adversarial” labor relations become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What is going on at UIC is being watched at nearby UIUC, and also nationally. Certainly, there are differences from school to school, yet there are broad structural similarities everywhere. Chicago raises questions about faculty unions, and the broader changes in academe of corporatization, the trend to run the university like a corporation.

Corporatization has been going on over four decades; it entails adopting corporate-like features and behaviors, including management structures and styles. Corporatization is the application to the university of neo-liberal policies and practices. Neo-liberalism aims generally to shrink the government sector and enhance the private sector through deregulation, free trade, privatization, and the like. UI faculty member Robert McChesney terms neo-liberalism “capitalism with the gloves off.”

Especially striking is the growing differential between faculty and administrators, less politely termed “administrative bloat.” While the number and pay of faculty are relatively stagnant, the number of administrators increases, many in more highly paid positions. At UIC between 2007 and 2013 the number of tenure track faculty declined 1%, while that of non-tenure track faculty increased 7.8%, and the number of administrators rose 9.6%. At many schools, administrators “narrow the range of fields in which education is provided, to concentrate resources on a few areas that [management] thinks are going to pay off — either in terms of bringing in research moneys [or] cutting off areas that are not seen to be so valuable in the marketplace for the student,” according to Gary Rhoades, director of the University of Arizona Center for the Study of Higher Education.

Corporatization is also evident in university governance, which increasingly in the last 10-15 years is best characterized as “corporate governance,” under which the administration implements corporate behaviors and managerial structures from the top down. So-called “shared governance,” an older model, theoretically means governance is shared by faculty and administration in what is ideally a collegial setting. As the corporatization of the university proceeds apace, however, corporate governance describes more accurately the reality on the ground. Of course, as a large, complex institution, no university today can avoid some bureaucratic management and organization. Yet in Gaye Tuchman’s Wannabe U (2009), to take only one example, administrators clearly differ fundamentally from faculty, with their own intellectual world (“accountability,” “strategic plans,” “mission statements,” “branding,” “metrics,” “peer institutions”), scholarly literature, associations, and conferences; and their own agendas, career trajectories, perks, rituals, pay differences, and power differentials. Whether faculty and administrators are more alike or different is at the core of the debate over “shared governance” as well as unionization.

Faculty unionization occurs today against this backdrop of corporatization and corporate governance. The still small number of public university faculty unions, especially at research universities (in private universities faculty are legally barred from unionizing), are “professional” unions, like those of musicians, actors, and baseball players. They represent employees in fields where high skill levels, and often professional degrees are required. University faculty take, for example, anywhere from three to over seven years to earn a Ph.D.

Unionization efforts reflect the current landscape of relative union decline in an era of neo-liberalism. The proportion of all unionized workers peaked in 1954 at nearly 35%, but declined to 11.4% by 2010. Private sector unions declined even more, from 20.1% in 1983 to 7% in 2011, but public sector unions grew after 1960 to represent 37% of public employees today. For business owners and conservative union critics, unions mean higher wages and benefits negotiated through “adversarial” business-labor bargaining that allegedly results in a “leveling” of all workers and “mediocrity.” Today, public employee unions, and their defined-benefit pension plans — a vanishing species in the private sector — are under widespread attack. In Detroit, unionized municipal workers will likely end up with only a fraction of the pensions they have already paid into under the terms of Detroit’s bankruptcy settlement. Anti-union efforts are buttressed by business-friendly, worker-unfriendly laws, including employment “at will”; so-called “right to work,” which prevents “fair share” payment of union dues; and outdated minimum wage statutes. These and other anti-union measures are backed by conservatives, such as the Koch brothers, whose various groups spent $412 million during the 2012 election cycle, more than twice the $153 million spent by the top 10 unions combined.

Before retirement, David Prochaska taught colonialism and visual culture in the UI history department.

This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.