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From One Bargaining Unit to One Faculty

What can one faculty teach us about solidarity?
By Walter Benn Michaels and Scott McFarland

In fall 2009, representatives of the AAUP, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, and the American Federation of Teachers contacted a few faculty members at the University of Illinois at Chicago to set up a meeting about the possibility of organizing a faculty union. Ten or fifteen professors attended, most of them senior, all of them tenured. One of the first questions they asked was who would actually be in the union—was it for tenure-track and tenured faculty only or would it also include non-tenure-track faculty? The answer was that Illinois law made no distinction between the groups. If you were teaching more than 50 percent and had been doing so for two years, you were part of the bargaining unit.

The labor board agreed, finding a “community of interest” between tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty. The board’s administrative law judge posited that the purpose of labor law is to facilitate (not hinder) employees’ attempts to unionize in ways that they (not the employer) see fit and that a single union for tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty not only makes sense but also is legal.

The university could have accepted the decision and begun to bargain with us, but instead the administration appealed the decision to the conservative fourth district appellate court in Springfield, spending more than a hundred thousand dollars on outside lawyers in the process. Three years and three court appearances after our initial meetings, the court ruled that we must form separate bargaining units. But by then—not only despite the University of Illinois’s attempts to separate us but also because of them—we had become one faculty. Within a week of the appellate court’s decision, we submitted new, separate petitions to the labor board with strong majorities in each unit.

Building Solidarity

How did we unify the faculty across ranks? The first steps were structural. When we were thinking of ourselves as one bargaining unit, we needed to organize that unit, and we needed an organizing committee that reflected every part of it. So the tenured and tenure-track faculty who were already involved started recruiting non-tenure-track colleagues. Non-tenure-track and tenure-track faculty immediately found themselves working side by side. We trained together to make office visits to potential members; in role-playing exercises, senior professors of history became instructors of composition, and Spanish language instructors acted the parts of named (and hostile!) department chairs in the College of Engineering. And then we actually made those office visits together. The very act of organizing began to narrow the distances produced by the workplace.

Furthermore, because unions are democratic, the divisions of power that structure the workplace were also affected. From our mission statement to (much later) our contract demands, everybody got to vote on everything. As always, tenured and tenure-track faculty had a say in decisions about non-tenure-track faculty, but now, non-tenure-track faculty had a say in decisions about tenure-track faculty as well, and tenure-track faculty learned to like it. When we were finally certified, it was a victory for all of us.

And, when the administration won its battle to separate us, it was a blow for all of us. From the administration’s standpoint, it was important to have two different bargaining units—two different faculties—competing with each other over everything from teaching assignments to responsibility for shared governance. The goals of administrators were shaped by a neoliberal fantasy of what the faculty should look like: in the university they envision, a few distinguished researchers would attract grant money (or, in the humanities, some prestige), while tuition dollars would be generated by low-cost, contingent instructors. The result would be a reduced tenure-track faculty and a growing non-tenure-track faculty, with the former treated by management as distinguished researchers and the latter as contingent labor. Ultimately, as tenure-track faculty came to see, the administration was trying to create a university in which all but the biggest “stars” would be disempowered and unrewarded, and, as non-tenure-track faculty came to see, the role of contingent faculty would be expanded but not improved.

But the administration’s utopia is not the faculty’s utopia. Our faculty does not now look like, nor do we want to look like, what the administration envisions. All of us have serious intellectual and pedagogical commitments. Almost no one goes to graduate school wanting only to teach or only to do research. We believe in a world where teaching and research are blended, not seen as mutually exclusive.

Furthermore, that’s not the promise a research university like UIC makes to its students. Indeed, as our non-tenure-track faculty have always known (but our tenured and tenure-track faculty needed to learn), a university in which first-year students take as many as half their courses from professors who not only have no job security and no opportunities for promotion but also are massively underpaid is not one that takes its responsibility to its students seriously. And the solution, at UIC as elsewhere, is obvious: pay the instructors better, offer them multiyear contracts, and provide them a path to promotion. Conversely, it became equally obvious to the non-tenure-track faculty that the comparative advantages enjoyed by the tenure-track faculty (better job security, better pay, more autonomy) were themselves increasingly at risk. It’s not just that the size of the tenure-track faculty has been shrinking; it’s that tenure itself is being eroded (see the University of Wisconsin), that the economic privileges of the tenure track are unequally distributed within the tenure track (see salary compression), and that faculty autonomy has been increasingly compromised (see, for example, administration-driven commitments to assessment that have not themselves been convincingly assessed). In other words, although different sections of our faculty were differently affected by issues like these, we all were affected in one way or another. We were all teachers; we were all motivated by intellectual commitments that included but went beyond our teaching; we all wanted a say in how we did our teaching and conducted our research.

So, when the faculty at UIC were confronted with the legal requirement that we understand ourselves as two separate faculties and bargain separately, we responded by accepting the form but refusing the substance. We put together a bargaining team made up of both non-tenure-track and tenure-track faculty and we delegated that team to bargain both contracts. Although the final approval of the two contracts would depend on two separate votes, the contracts themselves would be written by both groups together. And, just as important, all the actions that turned out to be necessary to get a contract—including a two-day walkout—were taken by both groups together. As vividly as we had come to see that our problems were essentially shared ones, we had come to see even more vividly that the power to produce solutions to those problems depended on our solidarity—that none of us would be able to do anything unless we did it together.

The Teaching Mission


The AAUP’s One Faculty Campaign

The One Faculty campaign grows out of the AAUP’s long history as an organization seeking to improve working conditions, shared governanc e, economic security, and academic freedom for all those who teach and do research in our universities and colleges. Visit our One Faculty page for tools that AAUP members can use to improve job security for faculty in contingent appointments, strengthen shared governance at the institutional and departmental levels, and improve compensation for faculty in contingent appointments.

We weren’t able to achieve all of our goals in our first contract. But, in addition to reasonable pay raises, we did make significant progress: minimum salaries for non-tenure-track faculty were raised by 25 percent, and lecturers now have a path to promotion; salary compression among the tenure-track faculty was for the first time acknowledged as a problem, and significant funds were designated to begin resolving it; and grievance procedures were put in place to protect the rights and academic freedom of both tenure-track and non-tenure- track faculty.

We are now in negotiations for our second contract(s), and once again the bargaining team is focused on security of employment for non-tenure-track faculty, on democratizing the way decisions about teaching and distribution of funds are made at the departmental level, and on academic freedom. And, once again, expectations are high—perhaps even higher than before. One reason for this is that non-tenure-track faculty have been provided, as a result of our first contract, new computers, private office space for student conferences, and $1,500 for professional development. Another reason is that they have been provided, not through the union contract but through union organizing, access to “merit pay” and representation in the faculty senate. Suffice it to say that “the faculty” today is significantly different from the faculty that existed five years ago.

One parochial but representative example of the “new” faculty at UIC can be seen in the bylaws of the committee of the whole that governs the English department, in which we both teach. For the first thirty years of our existence, those bylaws began by defining the faculty of the department as consisting of “all tenured and tenure-track” professors; today, the definition of the faculty also includes “non-tenure-track Lecturers, Senior Lecturers, and Visiting Lecturers, and all tenured, tenure-track, or non-tenure-track Clinical Assistant Professors, Clinical Associate Professors, and Clinical Full Professors.” Not long ago, we were a faculty, its adjuncts, and no union; now we’re two bargaining units, one union, and one faculty.

Obviously neither a first union contract nor a restructuring of departmental governance counts as a solution to the neoliberalization of the American university. But there’s a reason why our bosses and the people who appoint them are eager to bust unions when they can and to divide them when they can’t. United, organized faculties have some power. It’s distressingly easy to fire a professor who seems to have gotten out of line or a bunch of lecturers who have forgotten their place; it’s really hard to fire us all. It’s not that we don’t recognize the inequities in the situations of tenure-track and non-tenure-track professors, and it’s not that we’re all in agreement about how to deal with them. Even marching together with each other and for each other on the same picket line doesn’t make significant political differences disappear. What the commitment to one faculty does do is make it possible for us to talk to each other, argue with each other, learn from each other, compromise with each other when necessary, and always work with each other—fighting for our vision of what the university should be. Our vision is one that brings a renewed commitment to the teaching mission of our university, and it is a vision that we hope will inspire other research universities—whether their faculties are represented by unions or by AAUP advocacy chapters—to embrace the tenets of the AAUP’s One Faculty campaign.

Walter Benn Michaels is head of the Department of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a member of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Scott McFarland is a lecturer in the Department of English at UIC and is executive vice president of UIC United Faculty (AFT/IFT/AAUP).


Excellent, clear, and inspiring essay for unity and solidarity -- for this contract and those to come.

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