By Tom Suhrbur
For the past 18 months, East-West University (EWU) in Chicago has fought a vigorous campaign against the efforts of its part-time faculty to organize a union. In November 2009, adjunct (part-time) Professor Curtis Keyes contacted me about organizing a union. In January, I had my first meeting with the group and, by May, their organizing committee obtained enough signatures to petition the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for union representation election.
EWU adjuncts were not breaking new ground. Over the past ten years, many other adjuncts in Chicago and the suburbs successfully organized unions. In fact, Columbia College, Roosevelt University and the City Colleges – all within walking distance from EWU – already had part-time faculty unions. As a result, no one expected the extremes that the EWU administration would go to fight the union.
EWU is a small private not-for-profit university located on Michigan Avenue in Chicago’s South Loop area. It has an open enrollment policy and recruits students from the city’s low-income African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods. According to the Illinois Board of Higher Education, of the 974 students enrolled in the fall of 2010, 63% were African-American and 16% were Hispanic. The next largest group was foreign students chiefly from India and Pakistan.
According to the Illinois Board of Higher Education, the one-year retention rate of first time, full-time students starting in the fall 2010 at EWU was extremely low compared to other Illinois colleges and universities. Only 30% (90 of 305) of the entering freshmen finished the school year. The Illinois average retention rate of not-for-profit colleges and universities was 79%. For Illinois public universities, the retention rate was 81% and, for community colleges, it was 60%. For-profit schools averaged 54% in 2010.
EWU relies heavily on adjunct faculty to teach its classes. Though the number of adjuncts hired in any given school term will vary from academic term to term, generally 75-85% of the faculty are part-time. EWU adjuncts are among the lowest paid part-timers in the Chicago area. EWU adjuncts earn about half of what their counterparts make at neighboring Columbia College and Roosevelt University. EWU did not raise adjunct pay for five years from 2005-06 through 2009-10 even though tuition was increased 38%. Administrators, on the other hand, did receive pay raises during these years.
The low wages that EWU pays its adjuncts, in addition to the poor working conditions, provides little incentive for adjuncts to continue teaching at EWU. Perhaps EWU’s disinterest in maintaining a steady workforce of adjuncts accounts in part for the extremely low student retention rate at EWU – students want to be taught by a stable work force who can oversee their progress throughout the course of their undergraduate degree. Students cannot expect the same counseling and oversight from a transient workforce that they can from seasoned adjuncts who return to teach year after year.
Professor Keyes maintains that “EWU students deserve to have stable educators working with them.” Yet, in an apparent effort to rid itself of the union organizers, in the past year EWU has terminated the employment of some of its most committed, long-term faculty members. EWU’s recent, rapid “revolving door” treatment of adjuncts in response to the union organizing campaign no doubt impacts negatively on the students.
EWU could easily afford to give its adjuncts pay raises. According to EWU’s IRS 990 tax filings from 2005-2009, its revenues exceeded its expenses by more than $24.5 million. Last summer, the University had a groundbreaking ceremony for a $34 million, 17-story tall Student Life Center in the South Loop. Why has EWU raised tuition significantly while paying its part-time faculty so little?
EWU Adjuncts Petition the NLRB For A Union Election
In May 2010, the United Adjunct Faculty Association, IEA-NEA (UAFA) petitioned the NLRB for a union representation election. Since so few adjuncts taught during the summer quarter, the Labor Board was unwilling to conduct an election until the Fall term. UAFA withdrew the petition in early June with the intent of filing again in the Fall. Within a few days of filing our union representation petition, Chancellor Khan sent all adjuncts a letter stating that the University is conducting “a review of all contracts” and that until then “no contract will be renewed.” All adjuncts were required to meet with him prior to any classes being assigned. This was an unprecedented move by EWU. In the past, hiring was left up to the Department chairs.
Unfair Labor Practices:
The University claims that its decision to conduct its “review” had nothing to do with the Union’s petition, but Khan’s letter was received by the adjuncts a week after the Union’s petition was filed. In a further effort to undermine the union’s organizing campaign, during the summer, the administration took away Summer class assignments that it had previously given to union leaders. No reason was given for this decision. UAFA responded by filing an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges against EWU with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Over the summer, the union also held three public protests in front of the University entrance on Michigan Avenue regarding these unlawful terminations. Incredibly, EWU then fired the workers who stood up and protested in support of their colleagues. The Union filed another series of Unfair Labor Charges regarding this conduct. When the case went to trial, after two days of hearing EWU agreed to enter into a settlement.
The settlement was a huge victory the union. It provide for the following:
80% back pay for each of the four UAFA leaders who were denied classes during the summer and fall quarters;
The four adjuncts were guaranteed class assignments for each of the next 3 quarters in the amount of the average number of classes they taught in the past;
Just cause discipline protection for any action to be taken against any of the five adjuncts; just cause protects them from any unfair actions by the EWU administration;
In a case involving non-compliance with the terms of the settlement, EWU “understands and agrees that the allegations of the aforementioned complaint may be deemed true by the [Labor] Board; that it [EWU] will not contest the validity of any such allegations.”
Union Election Victory
In the midst of all of these Unfair Labor Practices, UAFA decided to proceed anyway with its election for a Union. The Union filed to conduct a mail ballot election and, against all odds, it won! Instead of accepting the Union’s victory, EWU filed objections to the election outcome. The NLRB Regional Office flatly rejected the objections. Still determined to drag out the process, EWU appealed the decision to the NLRB in Washington D.C., but the Board readily agreed with the Regional Office’s decision, rejected EWU’s appeal and certified the victory for the union.
More ULPs Against EWU
After the June election, EWU cancelled summer class assignments for several union activists. Again IEA filed an ULP against the University. A trial was held in December 2011; EWU ended up paying 100% restitution to Keyes, the Union’s key leader. Not to be deterred, EWU did not assign classes to Keyes and two other union leaders for the Winter quarter and reduced the number of class assignments for a fourth activist. All of these adjuncts have taught many years at EWU without a problem until they decided to lead a union organizing drive. Keyes taught 9 years; Erma Faire-Doeing taught 18 years for the University. The Union filed ULP charges against EWU to defend each one of its activists.
Support from the National Education Asssociation
UAFA’s organizing efforts have been widely published. Illinois Education Association leaders joined the UAFA adjuncts on the picket line to protest EWU’s conduct. National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel stated: “We must support our brothers and sisters here, resist the intimidation tactics of the institution, and build a strong vital union.” The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) publicly protested EWU’s actions. News articles about our struggle have been published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Education and several other national publications
Meeting with Congressman Danny Davis
Congressman Davis is a member of the EWU Board of Trustees. A delegation from the union met with the Congressman in the summer asking him to urge the EWU administration to accept the Labor Board’s offer to settle our ULP. Congressman Davis has always been a supporter of the labor union movement. He promised to speak to the administration about the issue next week. Despite his assurances that the University would settle the matter, EWU continued to do its best to crush the union.
EWU’s conduct towards its adjunct faculty – raises serious questions about the operation of the school. Given the high student turnover rate, EWU should be seeking to create more stability among its adjunct staff; firing union supporters and replacing them with an ever changing cadre of new adjuncts does not provide the type of stability that students seek. EWU has accumulated huge cash surpluses and is constructing a Student Life Center, but what is it doing to ensure that it is providing its students with a stable work force of faculty? Is EWU administration making sound decisions regarding the education of its students, when it mounts an anti-union campaign that results in termination of its seasoned and dedicated adjunct faculty? UAFA hopes that the administration can work cooperatively with it, to find a means for providing a positive work environment for its adjuncts who, in turn, seek to provide a positive educational experience for EWU students. Unfortunately, EWU does not share this sentiment.
Tom Suhrbur grew up in a union family in Cicero, Illinois. He received a BA and MA in U.S. history at the UIC and a Certificate of Advanced Studies in labor history from NIU. He co-authored a book “Union Brotherhood, Union Town: The History of the Chicago Carpenters’ Union, 1863-1987.” He recently retired after 26 years as a union organizer for the Illinois Education Association. He is currently the Vice-President of the Illinois Labor History Society. This article appeared in the Fox Valley Labor News.