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Adjunct faculty at Loyola University Chicago stage walkout over contract dispute

Adjunct faculty at Loyola University Chicago staged a walkout Wednesday over failed contract negotiations. (Courtesy Service Employees International Union.)

A group of faculty at Loyola University Chicago went on strike Wednesday after two years of negotiations with the Jesuit school over job security, wages and benefits failed to produce a contract.

Instructors gathered on campus in the early morning hours for a daylong protest of their employment conditions, according to Janet Venum, a spokeswoman for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73, which represents 360 non-tenure track faculty in Loyola’s College of Arts and Sciences.

This is the first contract the instructors have attempted to negotiate since forming the union in 2016 and becoming the university’s first faculty bargaining unit. Loyola has 4,000 faculty on staff, 12 percent of whom are represented by the union, according to the university.

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Adjunct faculty are part-time or full-time instructors who teach college classes, but often for much lower pay and less job security than their peers on the tenure track. As a result, many cobble together multiple jobs to make ends meet, without any guarantee they will have a class to teach from one year to the next.

“I’ve been with the university now for over a decade. That means that I’ve been let go and rehired 20 times. At what point do you say this is a person who has invested in us and she deserves to have us invest in her in return?” said Alyson Paige Warren, an adjunct instructor in the English department and a member of the bargaining committee.

The length of teaching appointments is one of the issues that brought negotiations to a halt this week, Warren said. Many instructors are employed on a semester-to-semester basis, but want at least a one-year contract for part-time and full-time workers. University leaders say they need more hiring flexibility because of enrollment fluctuations.

“When the numbers drop, like during the 2008 recession, people look at schools that are less expensive,” said the Rev. Tom Regan, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Loyola. “We can’t offer contracts that could result in having to raise tuition. That would be cutting off our nose to spite our face.”

Warren said the union understands the school needs flexibility, but implored administrators to understand that instructors need predictability. If an instructor is let go for poor performance that’s one thing, but creating a system of “disposable faculty” to ensure no one has seniority or can teach enough classes to qualify for health insurance is unacceptable, she said.

“That kind of instability has nothing to do with enrollment numbers. That kind of instability has to do with the university trying to work this kind of gig economy to be able to get out of certain responsibilities,” said Warren, who works four jobs.

Regan said the administration has met many of the union demands, including higher wages. Loyola agreed to a raise for part-time instructors, increasing their per course pay from between $4,000 and $4,500 to $6,000, he said.

Pay is important, but instructors say the nontenured system at Loyola needs to change in a way that reflects the university’s social justice mission, with respect for all employees.

“The respect is nil and the situation is constantly precarious,” Warren said. “I’ve had classes cancelled three days before school started, after I’ve already put in all of the time creating the syllabus and getting the prep work done. I’ve had classes taken away from me and given to other instructors to fulfill their contracts because the university treats us as disposable.”

Wednesday’s strike was supposed to be a one-day action, but Warren said there will be other disruptions if the union is unable to reach an agreement with the administration.

The two sides are scheduled to meet again April 20.

“It’s a fluid discussion at this point,” Regan said. “We’re very pleased with the faculty that we have and we’ll do everything we can to keep them. We’re so close at this point that we are expecting to get a collective bargaining agreement signed within one or two more sessions.”

In 2016, Loyola fought the establishment of the union and appealed the vote on religious grounds, arguing that the National Labor Relations Board had no authority over the Jesuit school. University leaders said they had the right to govern the school in accordance with their Jesuit values and beliefs, free from government interference. The labor board rejected the university’s appeal in March 2017, but agreed to exclude faculty in the theology department from the bargaining unit.

“After two years of negotiations, the toothpaste is out of the tube and we’re willing to accept this as the new normal,” Regan said. “We’ve been working with other unions on campus — the electrical workers and mechanical workers — for some time.”

Other private universities, including Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and Saint Xavier University in Chicago, have objected to adjunct faculty unions on religious grounds. Still, adjuncts have made significant inroads in collective bargaining in recent years, said William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College.

Herbert tracked a 30 percent increase in faculty bargaining units at private universities in 2016 alone, compared to four years earlier. While one of those units involved tenured and tenure-track professors, the rest were constituted of contingent faculty — adjuncts, lecturers and graduate assistants who teach college classes.

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Nontenured positions now account for more than 70 percent of all instructional staff appointments in higher education, according to the American Association of University Professors, a trade group.

Colleges and universities say using these instructors is necessary in the face of budget cuts and volatile enrollment trends. But the university professors organization has documented that the greatest growth in contingent appointments happens during times of economic prosperity. The group worries that the insecure relationship between contingent faculty and their schools can damage student learning, faculty governance and academic freedom.