One Big Faculty Union

July 13, 2011

A state judge ruled Tuesday that the University of Illinois at Chicago does not have the right to block a faculty union from representing both those on the tenure track and adjuncts.

While the university plans to appeal, and the case is far from over, the ruling rejected the major arguments put forward by the university and largely accepted those offered by the union. The decision found no ban in Illinois law to common organizing and rejected the university's argument that the interests of the tenured and non-tenure-track faculty members were too different for them to organize together.

The union at Illinois-Chicago, the result of a joint organizing effort by the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers, is viewed as extremely important by academic labor. Organizing wins have been few and far between of late at research universities, and the success there was part of an experiment of enhanced AAUP-AFT collaboration. (Illinois is a "card check" state, in which workers sign authorization cards to form a union -- with no formal election required. Because the union submitted many more authorization cards than required, only a legal challenge such as that made by the university would block the union.)

The university made two main arguments to try to get the state labor board to block the union. One argument was based on a close reading of the state statute authorizing faculty unions. It reads: "The sole appropriate bargaining unit for tenured and tenure-track academy faculty at each campus of the University of Illinois shall be a unit that is comprised of non-supervisory academic faculty employed more than half-time and that includes all tenured and tenure-track faculty of that university campus...."

To the university, that language means that only tenured and tenure-track faculty can be in the bargaining unit, but the union (now with the backing of a state judge) found that nothing in that wording bars the unit from including others.

The other argument made by the university relates to an issue that comes up at many campuses: whether adjuncts and those on the tenure track have enough in common to bargain together appropriately.

Nationally, there are many campuses where adjuncts and tenure-track faculty bargain together, sometimes to everyone's pleasure and other times with disagreements. There are also many campuses where the two faculty groups bargain separately or where only one group is unionized. In its legal filings in the case, the university said it would not oppose two separate unions -- but union organizers said that this was an attempt to minimize faculty power. While the union acknowledged that adjuncts have it much worse than do those on the tenure track, a major theme of the organizing campaign was that both faculty cohorts need to work together to improve the treatment of those off the tenure track.

In her ruling, Judge Ellen Maureen Strizak noted the most obvious difference between the two faculty groups: one can earn tenure and one cannot. While not dismissing the importance of this fact, she noted that Illinois labor board rulings have found that tenure rights are not necessarily the determining factor in such cases. Rather, the state requires "a community of interest factors" to unite various parts of a proposed bargaining unit. These factors include the duties performed, and the qualifications and the interchangeability of employees in the two groups, the judge said.

And this analysis led her to rule in favor of the union, as she cited many commonalities. She noted that the educational backgrounds of tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty members are "similar and in some instances, the same." Both faculty groups "teach the same courses," both teach undergraduate and graduate students, and the responsibilities of the instructor are the same whether a course is taught by a tenure-track or adjunct faculty member. Both types of faculty members are expected to hold office hours, and both types of faculty members serve side-by-side on many university committees, she noted.

To demonstrate the extent to which the two groups are similar, she noted that the university regularly assigns adjuncts to fill in for tenure-track faculty members who are on sabbaticals or other leaves. "The skills and functions ... are similar, and, thus, are functionally integrated," Judge Strizak wrote.

Under Illinois law, the parties can file "exceptions" to the decision, which could then require additional review. University officials indicated late Tuesday that they would do so.

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