Demonstrator at a November 7 rally in support of UIC's faculty union, which after 15 months is still without a contract.
Demonstrator at a November 7 rally in support of UIC's faculty union, which after 15 months is still without a contract. Credit: Courtesy Illinois Federation of Teachers

In the spring of 2011, the faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago took a bold step. Bucking historical precedent and a national trend, the esteemed professors and their teaching colleagues voted to unionize.

This was cause for celebration at the American Association of University Professors, which happened to be holding a national meeting here that week. The AAUP, along with the American Federation of Teachers, had supported the union campaign, and hoped it would be the wave of the future.

But two and a half years later, UIC United Faculty (UICUF) is still without a contract. After 15 months of negotiations and more than 50 meetings, the union says the UIC administration (and this is a surprise?) is dragging its feet.

So the UICUF is taking its case to the public. Last week, in the campus’s historic Hull-House Residents’ Dining Hall, where the spirit of Jane Addams is as palpable as the wood-paneled walls, the union held a half-day teach-in. The standing-room-only crowd got a crash course on labor activism, along with a free lunch of homemade soup and bread.

“Stand up, sit down, Chicago is a union town” was the refrain.

The backdrop for this is the transformation American higher education has undergone over the last couple of decades. While tuition (and student debt) has skyrocketed, the percentage of teaching done by tenured or tenure-track faculty—ostensibly what tuition is paying for—has taken a nosedive. Nationally, more than 75 percent of those teaching at the college level are now nontenured. These instructors, adjuncts, and lecturers, with six to eight years or more of higher education themselves, are typically part-time contract workers making less than a living wage, with no job security, no chance to move up, and no benefits. Exploited and expendable, they’re the migrant labor of the increasingly corporate higher-education industry.

You don’t need a graduate degree to do the math: At a school like UIC, where in-state tuition, including fees, is about $15,000 per year (modest by current standards), students are paying around $1,500 for each three-credit course. So a class of 20 students generates $30,000 in revenue. But the instructor is likely to be getting $5,000 (or less) for teaching it. Even allowing for physical-plant expenses (often just a room and a blackboard) and ever fatter administrative costs, that’s a pretty sweet profit margin. So sweet that the UIC’s chancellor, Paula Allen-Meares, whose salary is $422,000 annually (not counting her university-owned residence), will take home a $375,000 bonus next year.

On paper, UIC isn’t the worst offender. Many All of its non-tenure-track faculty are full-time, with benefits. But there’s a problem with that full- time status: it doesn’t come with a full-time salary. As English department head Walter Benn Michaels noted at the teach-in, they’re not being paid enough to keep them from having to moonlight.

“NTT faculty make, basically, $30,000 a year,” Michaels said. “It’s not a living wage in Chicago. And it’s not a wage that makes any sense for this university.”

At a school searching for ways to retain first-year students, Michaels said, “you’d think the first thing they would have thought of would be to pay the teachers who teach those first-year students a living wage.”

Michaels was the closer for a roster of faculty members who stepped up for 20-minute stints at the lectern. Among them: history professor Leon Fink, who said that Allen-Meares, her contract up in January 2015, is a lame duck and that provost Lon S. Kaufman has “gone silent”; political science professor (and former alderman) Dick Simpson, who observed that the state, which used to pay 50 percent of the costs for UIC, now pays only 14 percent, and that even this is subject to cuts; and historian Barbara Ransby, who recalled that her parents valued a union card over tenure.

Steven Ashby of the University of Illinois’s School of Labor & Employment Relations cited the Chicago Teachers Union as a worthy example. The CTU overthrew leadership that was tamping things down, invigorated its membership, and pumped up public support, Ashby said, adding, “The bosses want you to be passive, they want you to be quiet, they hate demonstrations. But you must go to the streets. Every successful union is built with street heat.”

And the faculty union’s president, economics professor Joseph Persky, who moderated, pulled out the big gun: “If things don’t change,” he said, “the first week in December, we’ll have a strike vote.”

According to the administration, however, things are perking along nicely. Reached by phone last week, UIC spokesman Bill Burton had this to say: “We’ve reached a number of tentative agreements. We’re just beginning federal mediation now. The remaining issues are mainly economic. And it is the first contract, which is always a challenge.”

But Persky maintains that major issues haven’t been addressed. Most pressing is the situation of those non-tenure-track lecturers. The union wants multiple-year contracts for them (instead of the last-minute, single-year contracts they get now), a career track that would allow for promotion (some 20-year employees are still making $30,000), and a bump up to a living wage in their base pay.

Also still on the table: pay for longtime tenured faculty, whose salaries haven’t kept up with the market, and issues around governance. The union isn’t asking for outrageous powers, Persky says; members just think it would be nice if the administration stood behind its faculty handbook. As it is, he says, “they don’t want to be held to their own policies.”

The fact is, he notes, “UIC’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has lost almost one-third of its tenure-track faculty over the last decade. Meanwhile, enrollment has gone up, tuition has more than doubled, and the university has accumulated a reserve of almost $1 billion in unrestricted funds.

“It’s almost as though the university has been running a profit-making business,” Persky says.

The two sides are in meetings with a federal mediator this week.