University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Non-Tenure Faculty Coalition

By Kelly Hand

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Non-Tenure Faculty Coalition Local #6546 is a collective bargaining chapter affiliated with the AAUP, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Illinois Federation of Teachers. The unit was recognized as the sole representative for non-tenure-track faculty members by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board in spring 2014 and began bargaining that fall.

After eighteen months of negotiations with the University of Illinois, the Non-Tenure Faculty Coalition held a two-day strike on April 19 and 20, 2016, when faculty and their allies, including students, shut down buildings with all-day picket lines. The chapter began another strike on April 29 that was initially planned to last as long as five days but was called off two days later after a tentative contract agreement with the university was reached. Under the contract, which covers the approximately five hundred full-time non-tenure-track faculty members (defined as those with appointments of 51 percent or greater) on the UIUC campus, non-tenure-track faculty gained the right to participate in a salary adjustment program formerly limited to tenure-track faculty, basic academic freedom protections, and improved job security. The contract also included provisions regularizing non-tenure-track faculty participation in shared governance in the coming years.

The union’s success was all the more impressive for being won by faculty with minimal job security in the midst of a budget impasse involving higher education funding in Illinois. It provides a model for organizing in a political climate that makes faculty more vulnerable than ever.

We asked union president Shawn Gilmore, chief negotiator Kay Emmert, and grievance chair Christina De Angelo, who also served as action chair during the strike, to answer some questions, and they provided responses in consultation with other chapter leaders.

Your organizing work grew out of an initial attempt in 2011 to organize both tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty. What lessons did you learn from that campaign, and how did you incorporate those lessons in building a successful coalition of non-tenure-track faculty?

We have found that the key is faculty-to-faculty engagement, which is sometimes inhibited by the structures of a university. There often aren’t a lot of opportunities for faculty to talk across tenure or departmental lines. It isn’t just about understanding the varied perspectives of our fellow faculty but about dealing with practical complexities as well. Our beginnings in a tenure-track and non-tenure-track campaign gave us many allies when it came to finding a unified and realistic way forward.

How did the statewide budget crisis influence your campaign?

It didn’t affect us as we thought it would. When we wrote our initial proposals, the state budget was fine. Our proposals primarily focused on security, respect, and recognition. When it came to the campaign concerning economic issues, we focused on the impact that even small shifts in the budget for non-tenure-track faculty would make. We occasionally heard that the budget impasse was a concern, but the university’s actions spoke louder. We had to push back against the narrative that some budget uncertainty meant nothing could be done on our economic items—our signed collective bargaining agreement shows that wasn’t the case.

How did you build your coalition of teaching, research, and clinical faculty?

It took a lot of legwork. We came together because of the hours searching for hard-to-find offices in labyrinthine basements and hours talking, colleague to colleague. So many had never been asked, by anyone, how they thought their work was going, how they felt about their role in their department, or how the campus structure worked. A union gave us the opportunity to empower ourselves. A potential weakness— our members separated in their different corners, doing every kind of work—became our greatest strength, as that diversity of talent serves only to make our union stronger.

What sort of resistance did you encounter in convincing your members that a strike was the right response to the lack of progress you experienced at the bargaining table? How did you overcome that resistance?

Some of our members were reluctant to strike, for a couple of reasons: a concern about the efficacy of a strike and a concern over the impact on students. This first issue is complex, not just because we are a new union that can’t point to past successful strikes but also because many of our members feel lucky to have the jobs they do and have an allegiance to a system that they see doing many things right. Many of our members also entered their careers as academics without ever considering that they might someday be union members, and even if they understood some aspects of their working conditions to be unjust, they had never been part of successful collective action. After much discussion in long membership meetings, our members made forceful arguments about what to do, and ultimately a wide majority realized that our concerns wouldn’t be fully addressed unless we demonstrated what removing our labor from our classrooms and labs really looked like. This of course had an impact on our students, which our members took to heart—one of the themes of our strike became “education first,” which in our case meant settling a fair contract with faculty to best support their ability to teach and train students.

Your two walkouts in April gained widespread support among students, and many joined the picket lines. What did your members do to educate students about the strikes and to involve them in advocating for better working conditions for faculty?

We handed out a lot of flyers, literature focused on the student perspective. We also made presentations and collaborated with student organizations, canvassed and tabled on the main quad, and worked with student journalists to get the word out. Many students didn’t even know what “non-tenure-track” meant or how many of their faculty were on nontenured appointments. Most students were shocked when they found out the realities of what it means to be a non-tenure-track faculty member.

Your contract includes a provision regarding the academic freedom of bargaining unit members. To what extent did the AAUP’s 2015 censure of UIUC for violations of academic freedom—and the fallout from Steven Salaita’s “unhiring” following his controversial anti-Israel statements—influence this item of negotiation for the board of trustees and for the Non-Tenure Faculty Coalition?

The unhiring of Salaita and the nonreappointment of James Kilgore were both troublesome precedents. Even more troubling, it was not clear whether non-tenure-track faculty had academic freedom protections. Much of the uncertainty has to do with how ill-defined the actual roles of non-tenure-track faculty can be; though we make up an increasingly large proportion of the faculty, the support structures around us (including academic freedom provisions) have not grown as they should. Our contract will hopefully start to correct these discrepancies.

As you celebrate a successful contract effective through August 15, 2019, what work is ahead for your union? How will you build upon this success to improve conditions for faculty and students at UIUC and establish a foundation for future contract negotiations?

First, we will see how the implementation of this contract works out, as it will require changes in various corners of the university. We also recognize that it will be a full-time endeavor to make sure that the contract we won is upheld. We hope to work with our administrative partners in a more coordinated way, since every unit that employs non-tenure-track faculty will have to do some work to change its policies and bylaws, as well as hiring and reappointment processes, to better recognize and support non-tenure-track faculty. We also were not able to get provisions for all of our interest groups, so we will now work on the concerns of faculty like those who are employed long-term but have “visiting” in their title and our international faculty. Further, we hope the newfound visibility we have earned will encourage more collaboration and solutions through shared governance, not just through collective bargaining.

How do you envision your collective bargaining unit’s work in the larger context of nationwide, decades-long declines in the percentage of faculty who hold tenure-track positions?

At many institutions, tenure-stream jobs are disappearing or not increasing while enrollment increases. If faculty don’t have a voice in creating the structures for non-tenure-track jobs, then either the conditions under which a growing demographic of faculty are working will occur haphazardly or they’ll be created with corporate interests in mind instead of academic ideals. Unions guarantee faculty a voice in the conversations about how those shifts occur and carry with them the ability to negotiate collective bargaining agreements that enshrine commitments in a legal document.

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