Two weeks before the semester began, the Columbia College Faculty Union had hoped to finally hammer out a contract at Columbia College in Chicago. Instead, without consulting faculty at all, administrators announced they were cutting more than 350 course sections. They would also increase the size of the classes that were left. The changes left many adjunct faculty union members with no classes and students scrambling to get into the classes they needed to graduate.
Faculty were outraged, and they went on strike Oct. 30, protesting poor policy and unfair labor practices.
“Our institution suffers from administrative bloat, has spent excessive funds on consultants and infrastructure, yet refuses to give our students the support they need and the college experience they deserve,” said CFAC President Diana Vallera in a statement. “Instead, we’re left to recover from the administration’s poor, last-minute decisions that limit our work and hinder students’ opportunities. These measures will unavoidably cause harm and reduce the quality of learning in our soon-to-be crowded classrooms.”
“This can’t happen at Columbia College,” Vallera told crowds of students, faculty and union allies at a strike rally Oct. 30. “It’s got to stop.”
Like so many adjunct faculty across the nation, CFAC members teach the majority of the classes at Columbia—about 67 percent—yet work without health insurance or job security. Cutting classes burdens these most vulnerable faculty, as well as students.
“It’s going to harm our students directly,” Vallera said. The students themselves have showed up in force at daily rallies to support their teachers and describe how the cuts are harming them, too. They are angry that the small class sizes and mentoring they were promised when they chose to attend Columbia—an arts-focused college that advertises close work with professors active in fields like film, theater, sound design, dance and art history—will no longer be available. Others described missing the classes they need to graduate, as section after section is shut down.
Administrators claim the cuts are due to a budget deficit. But the union has found the deficit has not kept administrators from increasing their own salaries and giving Columbia College President Kwang-Wu Kim a bonus of more than $200,000.
“This administration’s tactics do not prioritize the best interests of students or the college,” said Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery, who spoke at a rally on Oct. 31, day two of the strike. Montgomery was one of many union supporters who showed up to support CFAC: At one point, a roll call of union affiliations revealed that protesters included members from the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Unite Here, the National Education Association and more.
“You’re experiencing what everyone in higher education is experiencing: the battle for education against the corporate business model,” said Tony Johnston, president of Cook County College Teachers Union, an AFT affiliate. “They see adjuncts and contingent faculty as pawns to be moved around. These corporate administrators don’t have the students’ best interests in mind.”
“Often people think we are fighting for wages,” said Vallera. “Of course we want to make a living wage. Of course we deserve some basic safety nets and healthcare. But what we’re fighting for is much bigger than that.”
“This strike is a recommitment to the craft,” said Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates. “It is a recommitment to your value in this world. It is about our dignity.”