uchicago sign

The University of Chicago's sign at Blackstone Avenue and the Midway Plaisance.

Three years after achieving their first contract with the University of Chicago, unionized non-tenure track faculty are in negotiations with the school's administration for the second, and the bargaining team says pay remains an outstanding issue.

The union, Faculty Forward, formed in 2015. Jason Grunebaum, who teaches Hindi and literary translation in the university's Creative Writing Program, said colleagues were dealing with low and stagnant wages with no pathway to promotion. Employees voted to affiliate with SEIU 73 by a nearly 5-to-1 margin.

There are currently around 300 members; Grunebaum estimated around half of them live in Hyde Park.

He said the first contract's goals were to get lowest paid workers paid more, a pathway to promotion, a parental leave policy and a part-time benefits-eligible position. Most of those goals were achieved: the entry-level full-time position is now paid $58,000 a year instead of $40,000. There is a means to promotion as well as regularized performance reviews. The per-course pay went up. A parental leave policy came into existence.

Current negotiations involve three points:

  • Lower rates of pay for per-course instructors at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice,
  • That the university's proposed pay increases are below the rate of inflation, and
  • Recognition of overtime for full-time workers

Grunebaum said per-course part-time instructors at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice are paid 25% less than anyone else in the university.

"Social work is a profession that is 89% women, a disproportionate number of women of color, and we just don't think it's very fair or just to pay these people less than everybody else," he said. "They're paying the same course at the University of Chicago. So one of our big pushes is pay parity for the social work instructors."

Dr. Stephen Haswell Todd, another member of the bargaining team, said "a particularly large group" of Faculty Forward's adjunct members teach at the Crown School. Said Grunebaum, "They're just as dedicated as everybody else, they're putting in the same amount of work as everybody else, and they should be paid the same as everybody else."

Todd said the university is offering below a 2% across-the-board pay raise and that Faculty Forward is asking for between 2-4.9%.

Regarding overtime, Todd said the university has asked union instructors to teach more classes on top of their full-time workloads. "We're already putting all of our time and energy into the students we have, and there's no way we can take more students without compromising," he said.

Union-university negotiations began in March; classes begin at the end of this month. Todd said "no one wants negotiations to be dragging on into the academic year." Grunebaum said there are more dates on the calendar — a university spokesman had no comment on the ongoing negotiations — and that Faculty Forward is eager to "share our dedication and expertise" with the university's new president, Paul Alivisatos, "and take him up on his offer to start conversations with different members of the faculty and academic community."

Grunebaum said that Faculty Forward members teach around half the 3,000 classes that undergraduates take "At the end of the day, our teaching conditions are our students' learning conditions. So we're fighting for ourselves and at the same time fighting for our students," he said.

Todd, who teaches the Greece and Rome sequence in the College Humanities Core, said the U. of C.'s advertised low student-to-faculty ratio means that it includes Faculty Forward members as faculty, but he said the administration says union members are not faculty.

His doctorate is in German studies; his thesis was on "a niche topic on the history of psychiatry." When he started graduate school, he said most of his cohort still thought they were in it for a tenure track job. "I would not have imagined ending up in a job where teaching was my primary responsibility, or moving from a specialized, scholarly PhD into a generalist, liberal arts-type of teaching, although I'm very happy with that right now," he said.

But academia, and the tenure track, is in crisis.

"In a completely serendipitous way, I think I found myself on the front lines of higher education," Todd said. "I think that academic unions like ours represent the future of higher ed, insofar as any of us would recognize what we're doing as representing our ideals as scholars and intellectuals and what we really trained for, which is a life dedicated to learning and teaching. In that sense, I think we're trying to put together a model for how institutions like this could have a really viable future and remain focused on the educational mission."

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