Credit: Rod Hunting

Over the last couple weeks, while the eyes of the nation have been on the workers’ rights standoff in Madison, Wisconsin, two normally quiet Chicago colleges have seen their own labor uprisings. At Columbia College and Northeastern Illinois University, faculty and students are protesting what they call dictatorial governance and exploitation. In both cases, the plight of adjunct teachers—the dirt-cheap, dispensable day laborers of academe—is at issue.

Adjuncts now do a major portion of the instruction at both schools, handling more than 50 percent of the classes at NEIU and accounting for nearly 77 percent of the teachers at Columbia, which has 360 full-time faculty and about 1,200 adjuncts.

Those ratios are part of a trend, one sign of the increasingly bottom-line-oriented, corporate attitude behind the tweedy facade at colleges across the country. What’s atypical about Columbia and NEIU is that their adjuncts are represented by unions. And the unions aren’t afraid to make a fuss.

Columbia, which grew from a privately owned broadcasting school, was a groundbreaker in the classroom use of working professionals, building a reputation as a gloves-off place where students learn by doing under the guidance of mentors who can give them a leg up when they enter the job market. It’s taken a couple generations for the rest of academia to catch on to the financial advantages that offers over the traditional tenure system, but now universities are loading up on part-time, contract scholars, who typically work sans benefits and job security, and often for burger-flipper wages.

It’s a situation ripe for the push-back a union can supply—and here again Columbia has been ahead of the curve. The school’s adjuncts have had representation from the Part-time Faculty Association, or P-fac—an Illinois Education Association affiliate—for 13 years. But union president Diana Vallera says that until a new slate of officers was elected in November, it was a sleepy, sweetheart arrangement. Member interest was low and the union was relatively inactive. There wasn’t even a record of any grievances having been pursued.

But then members began to see reductions in their schedules. Vallera says the new slate’s victory “sent a message to the administration” that things had changed. And, she notes, grievances started coming out of the woodwork. The union won its first National Labor Relations Board complaint last fall, in a situation where credit hours and instructor pay for a course had been abruptly reduced though the workload for students and teacher remained the same.

The adjuncts’ contract with Columbia expired August 31. In the ongoing negotiations for a new one, says union treasurer and 20-year Columbia veteran John Stevenson, P-fac is trying to “get some job security for people who’ve invested years of their lives in Columbia.” Adjuncts are currently assigned to teach a single semester at a time; Stevenson says the union is proposing one- or two-year assignments. “The administration’s been very stubborn in not wanting to talk about that” at the bargaining table, he adds, while taking actions that send the message, “‘We intend to grant you no security at all.'”

The actions he means are cuts in spring-term assignments, which Vallera says look like “an attack on our senior members.” Across departments, but in two in particular—Humanities, History, and Social Sciences and Arts, Entertainment, and Media Management—”people who’d been there 20 years and more were suddenly hearing, ‘You’re not going to get this class that you’ve been teaching.'”

Among those affected is Lyn Wolfson, 16-year Columbia adjunct who works in AEMM and says she lost two core curriculum courses this year—including one for which she developed the syllabus used by everyone who teaches it—despite “excellent” evaluations. The single course she retained, a writing class she says was always capped at a dozen students, now has an enrollment of 19.

“A year ago there were about 180 adjunct faculty in my department,” Wolfson says. “This spring there are about half of that. The college reduced the number of sections offered and increased the number of students in each section. I was replaced in both classes by new hires who make less than me.”

As an instructor with seniority, Wolfson earns $4,770 per semester for a three-credit course; in their first semester of teaching at Columbia, new instructors get $2,000 (though they come under the union umbrella in the second semester and their pay jumps to $3,700). “In 2010, my income from Columbia was $29,000,” Wolfson says. “For 2011 it’ll probably be $9,000.”

Photographer Karen Glaser, who’s taught at Columbia since 1980, feels she’s “been treated like hell” and fears retaliation for talking about it. “It’s in my blood to be a teacher,” she says. “I’ve kept doing it . . . but I look at everything that’s happened now and I feel, ‘God, what have I been working for?’ Classes I developed have been cut and my salary this year will be 46 percent less than normal, assuming that I get my fall classes.”

Glaser says she broke down in tears trying to explain all this at two recent union-related meetings. “I didn’t mean to lose it, but I did because I’ve worked so damn hard for that school. And you can’t say to a kid who wants extra help, ‘I can’t do this because they’re slashing my pay and I’ve got to go make a living someplace else.'”

Stevenson says the administration’s spin on events is that a “bunch of crazy people have grabbed control of the union and they’re just out for a fight. In reality, we’re reacting to conditions that were initiated by the administration.”

Louise Love, Columbia’s vice president for academic affairs, denies that the college has shifted assignments from higher- to lower-paid adjuncts. In a phone interview last week, she said, “We looked at that, and the opposite is is actually true.” According to Love, Columbia’s highest-paid adjuncts went from teaching 17 percent of all credits offered in 2008 to 24 percent in 2010, while the lowest-paid dropped from 9 percent to 4 percent. “You can’t generalize from individual cases,” she said, and “we’ve had a hard time getting data from the people making these statements.” Love added that assignments are made “according to the needs of the students, first to full-time faculty and then to part-time faculty based on qualifications and availability, and the regular process was followed.”

The school’s in-house legal counsel, Annice Kelly, says the union is trying “to change the way Columbia assigns classes from being student-based to being seniority-based.” She also claims that Columbia’s part-time faculty “are the highest paid in the city.”

And here’s where things get really murky. The college maintains that P-fac has dropped its NLRB complaint about cuts in senior adjunct hours, and Columbia spokesman Steve Kauffman produced a letter showing that something had, in fact, been withdrawn. But the union’s Vallera calls that a misrepresentation. According to her, the complaint they’re referring to was dropped because it became redundant when a broader complaint was filed. “It’s very clear that we did not drop that charge,” Vallera maintains.

“They do have a charge pending,” Kelly replies, but “none of it says anything about senior adjuncts having their hours cut.” And she’s right. Along with charges of restraint, coercion, and retaliation, the NLRB complaint offers only a general statement that “the Employer has unlawfully unilaterally implemented a series of changes in the terms and conditions of adjuncts’ work. . . .” Columbia’s position is that the complaint contains “broad, conclusory allegations,” Kelly says. “We told the NLRB there aren’t even enough facts here for us to respond.”

Bottom line: The college wants the union to provide specifics that the union says only the college has.

Meanwhile, at Northeastern Illinois University (where adjuncts and regular faculty are members of the same union, University Professionals of Illinois) contract negotiations have dragged on for nearly three years, and last month the faculty issued a vote of no confidence in president Sharon Hahs and provost Lawrence Frank. Concerns there include a lack of “shared governance” as well as heavy teaching loads and low pay for adjuncts—or instructors, as NEIU calls them. Faculty members say the no-confidence vote was intended to get the attention of the board. Contract negotiators were set to meet March 1.

There were two rallies at NEIU in the final week of February, and student support includes a Facebook page. According to Richard Grossman, an adjunct history teacher at both Columbia and NEIU, the problem at both schools is “top-down management.” NEIU faculty are “doing everything we can to avoid going on strike,” he says—they had one in 2004, when the primary issue was pay—but “there’s a lot of angry people at both schools right now.” If worse comes to worst, he notes, “I might be on strike in both places.