Credit: Johnny Sampson

“Welcome to the city of collective bargaining” is how American Association of University Professors president Cary Nelson opened his remarks at an AAUP meeting at the Crowne Plaza Chicago Metro last Saturday. The response from the audience was celebratory: the University of Illinois at Chicago faculty had made history the day before by handing the Labor Relations Board enough signed authorization cards to establish a union there. UIC is the first large public research university in the state to unionize its faculty, and the first of its size and stature in the country to do so in the last decade.

The AAUP—part venerable professional association, part “lunch-bucket” union—is seizing upon this victory as a major achievement and a possible turning point in the effort to organize faculty elsewhere. And it happened at a pace that might be the academic world equivalent of warp speed. UIC was one of a number of tier-one research institutions across the country targeted for a combined organizing effort by AAUP and the American Federation of Teachers. AFT organizer Troy Brazell says the campaign was launched two years ago, but the card signatures were gathered in a mere two months. Nelson credited “a little help from Wisconsin and Ohio” with turning “this collective bargaining drive into something that felt like the cause of the century.”

There’s a possible backlash factor here, but the UIC profs may also be thinking that they ought to unionize while they can. After what Nelson characterized as six months of unexpected bad news nationally—including a wave of program and department closures, legislative attempts to end tenure, raids on faculty e-mails, and a multistate assault on collective bargaining rights—came the biggest shock. On March 31 Ohio governor John Kasich signed a law that’s tougher on unions than the much-publicized Wisconsin legislation, and specifically targets faculty at public universities, making it next to impossible for them to unionize.

The Ohio law draws on language from a 1980 Supreme Court decision in a famous (or infamous) Yeshiva University case that’s kept faculty unions out of most private colleges that didn’t already have one. This was accomplished by defining typical duties like participating in a faculty senate or making decisions about curriculum as managerial tasks, therefore moving professors out of the ranks of workers eligible for collective bargaining and into an at least theoretical realm of management. The Ohio version will become law 90 days from the time it was signed unless it’s blocked by a petition demanding a referendum on it. Union supporters need 231,000 signatures to make that happen—and think they’ll get them, since the law in its entirety affects not only faculty but all of Ohio’s 350,000 government employees.

UIC’s nascent union, tentatively named UIC United Faculty, will include any teacher working at least 51 percent of full-time, whether tenured or not. Giamila Fantuzzi, associate professor in the College of Applied Health Sciences and one of the organizers, says there’s not yet any official union agenda, but a primary issue will be job security for non-tenure-track faculty, the contract workers that are replacing tenured faculty at institutions across the country and now make up more than 70 percent of faculty nationally. Fantuzzi says other issues will include salaries and shared governance. In a policy statement on its website, UICUF says it will demand competitive salaries, noting that UIC has lagged behind its peer institutions by about 11 percent over the last four years, not counting what was lost through mandatory furlough days.

In Illinois, a vote to establish a union is optional: all that’s needed is a simple majority of eligible workers signing union authorization cards. The university has up to 14 days to provide a checklist of faculty and to decide whether it’s taking issue with the names on the cards or with, say, the combining of tenure and non-tenure-track faculty in one organization. If not, the union could be up and running in as little as a month. Close to a thousand UIC faculty would be covered: Fantuzzi says that about 55 percent of those who are tenured or on tenure track signed the cards; among those not on tenure track more than 60 percent signed.

At Saturday’s meeting AAUP general secretary Gary Rhoades said the UIC victory, achieved “at a time when we’re seeing public employees attacked, . . . will send shock waves around this region and beyond.”