Adjunct Faculty in Illinois Win Right to Unionize

It’s been more than two years since adjunct professor Curtis Keyes Jr. and his colleagues at East-West University in Chicago decided they didn’t want to live on peanut-butter sandwiches anymore. They didn’t want to say farewell to two-thirds of their faculty friends at the end of each semester.

They wanted a living wage and respect from administrators. They wanted to reduce teacher turnover, so that their students – almost all of them Black or Latino and poor — could benefit from real relationships with faculty and mentors, and they wanted to participate in decisions that affected the classroom.

“We wanted a union,” Keyes said.

And finally, after two years of struggling against the intimidation and scare tactics of East-West’s administrators, they got it. The ballots have been counted and counted again, and the adjunct faculty of East-West have won affiliation with NEA and its Illinois Education Association. “I think about the possibilities now, and I’m so extremely excited,” said Keyes, who also recently won admission to NEA’s Emerging Leaders Academy.

The journey to fair representation began in earnest on May 26, 2010, when the United Adjunct Faculty Association of East-West University first filed a union representation petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). At that point, the university hadn’t given its contingent faculty, who teach 80 percent of East-West’s classes, a salary raise in more than five years, even as it hiked student tuition and accumulated more than $17.5 million in cash surpluses.

Keyes and his colleagues knew their situation was unfair, but it was hardly unique. These days, many colleges rely overwhelmingly on contingent faculty, which they pay far less and deny benefits. (Fifty years ago, 75 percent of college faculty were tenured, now just 27 percent or less fit that description, says The New York Times.)

NEA strongly believes that part-time faculty members should be treated as professionals, and no different than full-time, tenured or permanent faculty. They should be able to bargain collectively and be involved in campus governance. Also, when it’s clear that adjunct positions are anything but temporary, they should be converted to full-time, tenure-track jobs.

But East-West clearly doesn’t agree…

In a letter that administrators claimed had nothing to do with that initial petition for union representation (but arrived in adjunct mailboxes a week after the petition was filed), East-West administrators told adjuncts that it was reviewing all contingent contracts and considered none of them as current employees. And then, two weeks later, the university effectively fired all of the union’s leaders, taking away the classes that had already been assigned to Keyes and four other union leaders by their department chairs.

Keyes remembers how he felt that day, sitting in his chairman’s office and learning that his assignments had been rescinded. “Being fired like that, I was just really angry… And then I thought to myself, ‘What do I have to lose now?’ We had no rights, no input into governance, and now no job.”

They organized protests on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, which gained notice from local and national media and prompted the university to throw the adjuncts a carrot: a 13 percent raise. “It was clearly an attempt to steal votes,” Keyes said.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel spoke directly to the adjuncts. “We must… resist the intimidation tactics of this institution and build a strong vital union,” he said. “At the same time, consider this: if simply starting the organizing drive can get members this level of a raise, just think what a fully organized unit can do for working conditions at East-West University.”

In the meantime, NLRB ordered East-West to hire back Keyes and his colleagues (with back pay). And still, the adjuncts were determined to win– not just for themselves but also for their students. “If you gain rapport with a professor, you may not see that professor again because this school refuses to pay him what he deserves to get paid. He leaves after one class,” East-West alumni Wilbur Williams said.

It was a revolving door of adjuncts (and students – only 32 percent of East-West’s freshmen finish their first year.) But with this win, consider this: The spin is over.

Now it’s time for East-West to get serious about education.