As pay and benefits stagnate, nontenured faculty and graduate students in Illinois, Chicago look to unions

amaia gabantxo

Amaia Gabantxo has taught at the University of Chicago for seven years, but her job is hardly stable.

Gabantxo is an adjunct instructor, meaning she is paid per course and does not receive any benefits. Her pay has stagnated. She also works on a short-term contract and must hope her appointment is renewed each year — hardly a sure thing.

Gabantxo said she was expecting to teach courses in Spanish and creative writing this year, but those assignments fell through. Now she is scouring for other work in teaching, literary translation or advertising to generate income.

“How do you arrange your life like that? It’s impossible,” Gabantxo said. “Now I’m looking at a career change. I just can’t keep doing this. I feel like I’m giving my brain away for nothing.”

The insecurity and financial strain Gabantxo describes are major factors fueling increasingly active and high-profile union movements at the state’s universities, underscoring a larger debate about the intersection of labor and education.

Along with the University of Chicago, campuses including Loyola University Chicago, the University of Illinois, Northwestern University and Columbia College Chicago have all seen an increase in union activity recently.

Most of the activism has been sparked by graduate students, as well as adjunct and nontenured faculty members who fill larger proportions of university teaching jobs.

University administrators say they have little choice. Finances are tight in the face of declining aid from government sources, they say, and there is mounting pressure to keep the price of college down. As universities seek to rein in spending, they lean more heavily upon highly qualified nontenured workers, experts say.

Eighty percent of university faculty positions 50 years ago were tenured or tenure-track jobs, according to Timothy Reese Cain, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Georgia. Now it is the reverse. About 80 percent of instructional jobs, including graduate students who teach, are nontenured, he said.

With that change has been a profound shift in power within the university, he said.

“For nontenure-line faculty, many of them have very little say in governance, very few job protections for job security and very low salaries,” Cain said. “Those are prime conditions for organizing.”

Those efforts have led to strikes and near-strikes, disputes over union recognition, and long contract negotiations at both public and private universities in recent years, with varying results.

“I think the impetus was just the university creating this model of contingency, using it more to cut corners and seeing how much they could get away with paying,” said Jason Grunebaum, a University of Chicago senior lecturer and part of an organizing committee for the nontenured and adjunct faculty union.

“They were not realizing that they were jeopardizing the livelihoods of faculty but the entire institution of higher education,” he added. “In order to serve our students, we need to be able to make a living wage. Good higher education jobs are really created only when faculty unionizes.”

Unionizing is more thorny in relation to graduate students.

The National Labor Relations Board in 2016 issued a groundbreaking ruling that graduate students at Columbia University in New York indeed fit the requirements for workers who could negotiate with their employer — the university — in collective bargaining. Buoyed by that decision, a wave of graduate students organized on campuses throughout the country, including at U. of C. and at Northwestern University.

Universities have largely fought the characterization of students as workers, saying their primary objectives are to conduct research and obtain a degree. In multiple cases, universities have refused to negotiate with graduate students on that basis.

Moreover, the balance of power of the National Labor Relations Board has shifted to Republican under the Trump administration, raising fears among union organizers that the Columbia ruling could be reviewed and reversed.

To avoid that, the University of Chicago’s graduate student union opted to bypass the labor board altogether in February and go it alone with negotiations with the South Side university.

“In the end, the specter of a reversed decision may end up in even further coordination between graduate student union efforts,” said Zach Angulo, a member of the Northwestern University Graduate Workers union. “The destinies of our peers and their contracts are now ours, too.”

The nontenured and adjunct faculty union at Loyola University Chicago first formed in 2016. The university unsuccessfully challenged the validity of the election with the labor relations board, saying the agency had no jurisdiction over the university because it is a Jesuit institution.

Frustrated with the slow pace of contract talks, the unit staged a one-day walkout in early April to push along negotiations that had lasted more than two years. The two sides reached a tentative agreement this week, and the full membership will vote on the contract Thursday and Friday.

Loyola’s goal from the start of these negotiations was to reach contracts that are consistent with our commitment to social justice and our Jesuit values,” Loyola President Jo Ann Rooney said in a statement. “The tentative agreements reflect not only Loyola’s appreciation for the many contributions of our NTT faculty, but also our core mission of providing high-quality, affordable education to our students.”

Labor strife also hit Columbia College Chicago, where part-time faculty members held a two-day strike in November over contract issues including, wages, job security and seniority in class assignments. University officials said they were seeking the ability to consider more than just seniority in deciding who teaches which courses.

As for the University of Chicago’s union, it had a slightly smoother process en route to its first contract, finalized Friday. The contract will mean increases in per-course rates for adjuncts and raises for full-time lecturers, among other improvements.

“We are grateful for the goodwill that our colleagues have demonstrated throughout these talks,” university Provost Daniel Diermeier and Vice Provost Jason Merchant said in a statement. “This agreement reflects the high aspirations of the university community and our continuing dedication to outstanding education.”

That wasn’t the case at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where graduate and teaching assistants staged a nine-day strike starting in February, leading to a new contract last month.

In many of these organizing efforts, an open question is how well the new agreements translate to improved working conditions, though it has proved a boon for faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

UIC’s union was recognized in 2011, the first major public research university in Illinois to accomplish that. But the road to members’ first contract culminated in a historic strike in 2014. A second strike later that year was averted after the union and administration approved a contract providing a minimum of 7.75 percent in raises and increases in minimum salaries.

The union is preparing to start negotiations on its third contract this year.

“There’s such a purposeful movement to really bring together faculty and to recognize there’s a wide range of people who are involved in teaching, including graduate students,” said Janet Smith, UIC union president. “There’s a lot of solidarity right now.”

The right for graduate students to organize has proved a lengthy, politically partisan tug of war.

The NLRB supported collective bargaining rights under President Bill Clinton in 2000, reversed under President George W. Bush and reversed again under President Barack Obama.

It was under the 2000 ruling that the Graduate Employees’ Organization at U. of I. won recognition. Graduate and teaching assistants signed their first contract in 2004, nearly a decade after they first affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.

A battle over tuition waivers and other benefits in recent contract negotiations culminated in the nine-day strike in February. It ended with a new agreement that gave them raises on minimum pay, more generous healthcare coverage and guaranteed tuition waivers for students working between 10 and 27 hours per week.

There have been no negotiations at Loyola, Northwestern and U. of C. as administrators hold firm that graduate students cannot be legally defined as university employees. In their view, teaching is a critical part of a graduate student’s education and research. School leaders also have touted increases in stipends and benefits in response to concerns raised by graduate students.

To the American Council on Education, an advocacy group representing nearly 1,800 colleges and universities, the issue is one of a student’s development and education.

“It begins with a fundamental perception of who we are talking about,” said Peter McDonough, general counsel for the council. “Are we prepared to cede the position that person is first and foremost a student? If that person isn’t a student first, that seems problematic.”

Julie Schmid, executive director of the American Association of University Professors, disagreed.

“You can be both a student of the institution and an employee of an institution,” Schmid said. “These things are not mutually exclusive.”

Despite the uncertain landscape, graduate students and nontenured faculty maintain that unionizing may be their best avenue toward achieving increased pay, benefits and influence over the decision-making on campus.

“The most fundamental thing is we’re just never given a seat at the bargaining table,” said Claudio Gonzales, a third-year doctoral candidate in math at U. of C. “We can participate in councils and focus groups, but those things don’t have any teeth. Unionization is all centered around contract negotiation. When you sign a contract, the university has to honor it.”

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Dawn Rhodes

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Chicago Tribune

Article Photo: Amaia Gabantxo, an adjunct professor at the University of Chicago, said she works on a short-term contract and must hope her appointment is renewed each year. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)