Liesl Orenic makes roughly $12,000 a year at a job that offers no benefits and no guarantees that the next day won’t be her last.

She’s not an unskilled day laborer lost in a depressed economy. She’s a historian a few dissertation revisions shy of her PhD, and she teaches at Roosevelt University and two other local colleges. Like a lot of her colleagues, she’s had enough. Taking a page from their counterparts at Columbia College, Orenic and other Roosevelt part-timers are doing what was once unthinkable: they’re attempting to join a union.

“We’re stuck in a catch-22,” says Orenic, who coincidentally specializes in labor history. “We’re trained to be professionals, but we’re not being treated with the respect of professionals. What choice do we have but to form a union?”

Part of the problem is that Orenic voluntarily joined a profession with a tradition of exploiting its junior workers. In academia, it’s considered almost a rite of passage for junior faculty to work for next to nothing while they finish their doctorates and search for higher-paying tenure-track positions.

But in the last few years colleges and universities looking to cut back on labor costs have increasingly used part-timers as cheap substitutes for full-time professors.

At Roosevelt, for instance, roughly 60 percent of the classes are taught by part-timers (or adjunct professors, as they’re known in the trade), according to a university report. The percentages vary from a high of 72 percent in the psychology department to 47 percent in mathematics.

The result is that temporary positions once seen as stepping-stones have become permanent. “There have been people teaching part-time at Roosevelt for 11 years,” says Orenic. “At what point do you no longer become an adjunct and become a regular part of the university? At what point do you trade in the part-time existence for the benefits and higher wages of full-time teacher, which is what you are?”

Orenic started teaching at Roosevelt last year. She also teaches a course at the DeVry Institute of Technology and another at Dominican University in River Forest. In the meantime she’s finishing her dissertation on airline workers.

“In terms of course work, I do as much as any full-time professor,” Orenic says. “I design my courses. I might use a general text as well as articles and monographs. I’ll read the literature to see what’s appropriate. I also design projects for the students and write exams and schedule field trips to appropriate places in labor history. The point is that we invest a lot of time even before we start teaching the course.”

For her efforts, she gets at best $2,000 a course, no health benefits, and no pension. A course can be canceled at any time, and if it is she won’t be reimbursed for preparation work. Once she finishes a course, the university is under no obligation to hire her again. The natural question is why anyone who’s not independently wealthy would do it.

“I love teaching, and down the road I want a full-time position, and while I’m finishing my dissertation it’s important to get the experience and cultivate that part of my professional self,” says Orenic. “But you get overwhelmed with a sense of exploitation. Anybody who does this amount of work that requires so much skill and dedication deserves proper compensation. We’re sort of invisible. We’re there but we don’t really exist. We could be gone at any time. It can only hurt the university system. That sense of community is lost. What does it say about a university that it would pay so little to people entrusted with such an important task?

“The students can’t believe it. When they hear about this they say, ‘Why do you even show up?’ The adult students are floored. They make substantially more than I do. We pay lip service to education but we treat our educators with disdain, at least when it comes to money. And let’s face it, it’s money that gives value in our market-driven society.”

There’s irony in the fact that Roosevelt, named for FDR, was founded by academics and activists determined to carry on his New Deal legacy. “Even the term adjunct is a funny play on words,” says “Julie Jones,” a part-timer in liberal arts who asks that her real name not be used. “It implies that we’re incidental. But we’re not incidental. We’re absolutely essential to the teaching life at this university.”

Of course Roosevelt’s not alone. Almost all colleges in the area are heavily dependent on part-timers. Indeed, the organizing efforts at Columbia (where roughly 80 percent of the course load is taught by part-timers) were what triggered the union movement at Roosevelt.

In 1998, Columbia’s part-timers voted to be represented by the Illinois Education Association, which mostly represents public-school teachers. In February, IEA officials negotiated a contract for Columbia’s 450 part-timers. “Some professors got a 100 percent raise as a result of our new contract,” says Tom Suhrbur, an IEA organizer. “Members of our bargaining unit get a minimum of $2,000 a course. The top of the scale there is about $3,000 a course.”

But the IEA wasn’t able to win health benefits for Columbia’s part-time employees. “To win health benefits we need a large number of adjuncts organized,” says Suhrbur. “That’s one reason we’d like to organize adjuncts at other schools. We’re hoping to organize a large enough pool so that together they can have health benefits. I told the folks at Columbia we have to organize as many part-timers as we can or else they [universities and colleges] can play adjuncts against each other. That’s why it was encouraging when Roosevelt called.”

In February, Suhrbur began meeting with Roosevelt part-timers. Within a few weeks they had organized (as the Roosevelt Adjunct Faculty Organization, or RAFO), set up a hot line, sent out flyers, and conducted a survey of part-timers that revealed, to no one’s surprise, that 85 percent were “dissatisfied with their salaries” and 77 percent wanted to unionize.

In the past few weeks RAFO has been circulating union authorization cards. If at least 30 percent of the part-timers sign these cards, the National Labor Relations Board will oversee an election in which part-timers vote on whether they want to be represented by the IEA. A simple majority would be enough to authorize the IEA to negotiate a contract with Roosevelt.

To drum up support, RAFO has waged a spirited campaign linking unionization to higher pay, yearlong contracts, office space, and cancellation fees. Flyers that claim part-timers receive only 11 cents of every tuition dollar even quote FDR: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

It’s by no means certain that RAFO will sign up enough adjuncts to force an election, much less win 50 percent of the vote. Many part-timers are easily intimidated, afraid to take an aggressive public stand that might mark them as “troublemakers” in the eyes of prospective employers. There’s also the status issue: professors, even part-timers, see themselves as members of a professional class of scholars and ill suited for a union.

“There’s a lot of psychological obstacles,” says Jones. “The university would say, ‘Well, you’re getting teaching experience. What are you complaining about?’ That’s how they lure people in. But we have to realize that the university’s not doing us a favor. We’re doing them a favor. The other attitude is that, ‘You love what you’re doing. Why are you complaining about the pay?’ Well, Michael Jordan loves what he does. But no one suggests that he do it for free.”

So far Roosevelt’s been silent on the unionizing effort. “We have no position,” says Tom Karow, Roosevelt’s executive director for public relations. “I don’t have anything to say about that.”

Karow does say that Roosevelt’s “proud” of its “diverse group” of part-time teachers. “We established a task force to look into some of their concerns,” he says. “We’re very committed and concerned about the part-time faculty.”

But Suhrbur says the task force has no part-time faculty members on it. “They set up that task force after Columbia organized–we figured it was a direct reaction,” he says. “This doesn’t have to be a confrontation. There’s no reason to be afraid of a union. We do a form of what’s known as interest-based bargaining, which starts with both sides being trained together. In the long run, it’s best for universities to treat their teachers as best they can.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.