08/01/2016

New local moves from certification to successful strike

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The contingent faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign mean business.

Two years ago, the full-time nontenure-track faculty there looked around and saw they needed a union to fight for better working and learning conditions. So they voted "union, yes!" and then dove into contract negotiations, insisting on job security and a voice in their employment, among other things.

Eighteen months later, when negotiations had stalled, they went on strike. For a local certified for less than two years, it was a bold move. And it worked.

Non-Tenure Faculty Coalition members on strikeMembers of the newly minted Non-Tenure Faculty Coalition ratified their first contract in May. It addresses many of the issues contingent faculty across the country face: job security and predictability, academic freedom and faculty governance, provisions enjoyed by their tenured and tenure-track colleagues.

NTFC's new contract provides nontenure-track faculty three months advance notice regarding assigned classes, and entitles long-term faculty to appointments with an additional year of guaranteed employment each time they are reappointed, rather than the one-year contracts that were then available. Faculty can also participate in the compression, market, equity and retention fund, which was formerly available only to tenure-track faculty. The fund enables UIUC to offer a higher salary to faculty members who are being lured away by higher offers from other universities. The contract also protects academic freedom, making clear that the concept applies not just to tenure-track faculty, and institutionalizes nontenure-track participation in faculty governance moving forward.

How did it all move so quickly? "There was some momentum," says NTFC President Shawn Gilmore. "Once you make a decision to join or form a union, there's an inherent feeling that now we have to actually do something."

Support from sister unions was key: They included the graduate students at UIUC, faculty unions at the University of Illinois Chicago and Springfield campuses, the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters, who showed up with materials and picket line support. The AFT and the Illinois Federation of Teachers pitched in with expertise and financial resources, making up for the inexperience of the brand-new NTFC members. Local leaders met with the editor of the daily student newspaper and with student government leaders. Students turned out on the picket line, and tenure-track professors brought classes by to explain what was happening.

The group was careful to keep a calm profile, says Gilmore. "We wanted to demonstrate who we were and why we were on strike as opposed to yelling every day." They positioned themselves as "explainers," describing the inequitable world of contingent faculty. They did not single out individual administrators by name, instead blaming a system that had neglected faculty labor issues. The strike, says Gilmore, was designed to "show the kind of work we do and to display what it looks like when we withhold our labor," not to vent anger and resentment.

But as civil as the actions were, the experience was still "terrifying," he says. "I wasn't worried people wouldn't show up, or that we wouldn't have lunch on the first day," he remembers. "The thing that is terrifying is you aren't sure that the choices you make are actually going to lead to what you want. It's hard to gauge how effective a specific action will be," and when negotiations are ongoing, the prospect of losing ground due to a misstep looms large.

The process was also complicated because it was just one of many firsts for this fledgling local. "We don't have a budget, we don't have dues," says Gilmore. "Our officers don't get compensated or have course release." While he staunchly believes in local autonomy and was able to maintain it, he is also grateful for the support from national and state union offices.

Gilmore credits members' determination for the victory. They stuck to their message and never wavered. "We are very persistent," he says.

[Virginia Myers]