Faculty members at the University of Illinois at Chicago walked off the job this week in an unusual display of unity behind the cause of improving the working conditions of instructors who work on a contingent basis, off the tenure track.
The campus faculty’s labor union, formed in 2012, is seeking as part of its first contract to have the minimum pay of full-time, contingent faculty members increased to $45,000 annually from $30,000, with part-timers to get comparable raises prorated to the share of the day that they work.
The two-day strike that the union called for Tuesday and Wednesday, after 18 months of contract negotiations, was heralded by its leaders as the first faculty-led walkout in the campus’s history.
Although the nation’s labor unions for college faculty members often have struggled to reconcile the demands of contingent faculty members with the demands of those on the tenure track, the Chicago strike sends a clear signal to colleges elsewhere that the two sides are capable of working together to remedy inequities in how they are treated.
"We kind of formed around this whole issue right from the beginning," said Joseph J. Persky, president of the University of Illinois at Chicago United Faculty, which is affiliated with both the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers.
Mr. Persky, an economist, said the cause of securing both better pay and more involvement in the university’s affairs for non-tenure-track faculty members "really has sort of become ideological" for the union, which represents about 720 tenure-track faculty members and 380 non-tenure-track instructors.
Although the university prevailed two years ago in a legal battle to keep the two types of faculty members from being represented in the same collective-bargaining unit, their separate bargaining units nonetheless belong to the same union for the campus and share a negotiating team.
Less Than a Living Wage
University officials this week defended their refusal to agree to the union’s demands, which they characterized as unaffordable for the state institution. In total, they said, meeting all of the demands put forward by the union would require the university to increase spending on tenure-track faculty members by 23 percent and spending on their non-tenure-track colleagues by 27 percent over four years.
"We have to get this first contract right," Lon Kaufman, the provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, said this week in a written statement. "It will affect the university and its students for decades."
The university’s administration has countered with a four-year contract proposal that, it says, would increase its spending on faculty compensation by more than 10 percent over the first two years. The plan would require other spending increases in later years, to cover raises linked to merit and to help the university remain competitive in the academic labor market. Its contract proposal includes a call to increase the minimum annual pay of full-time, non-tenure-track instructors by 20 percent, to $36,000 from $30,000.
About 70 of the university’s full-time, non-tenure-track instructors are now paid the minimum of $30,000 a year. Howard J. Bunsis, chairman of the American Association of University Professors’ Collective Bargaining Congress and an accounting professor at Eastern Michigan University, argued in a statement issued by the AAUP this week that $30,000 represents less than a living wage in Chicago.
Among other areas of disagreement, the university is resisting union demands that grievance procedures in the faculty handbook be enshrined in the new contract and that the university cover increases in faculty health-insurance premiums.
Despite improvements in the financial picture for state governments around the nation, Mr. Bunsis said, "we still find ourselves in a difficult negotiating environment" at public colleges.
Contract negotiations at Chicago were expected to resume on Friday and continue into next week. "We are hoping," Mr. Persky said, "there will be a change in tone."