Union Certified at Illinois-Chicago

State board approves joint bargaining unit for tenure-track and adjunct professors, but administration vows to go to court to block a single chapter.
September 16, 2011

A state labor board on Thursday certified a faculty union at the University of Illinois at Chicago -- potentially a major victory not only for the union members there, but also for academic labor in general, which has staked a lot on this organizing campaign. But the university administration, which urged the state board to reject the union because it combines tenure-track and adjunct faculty members, vowed to go to court to block collective bargaining as the union envisions it.

Thursday's ruling -- a written version of which was released late in the day, several hours after the board's vote -- dealt in part with unique features of Illinois law. But one issue it addressed -- whether adjuncts and tenure-track faculty members can bargain together -- comes up in other union drives.

The labor board found that the two groups of professors have sufficient common interests that a joint union is justified. The board noted that tenured and adjunct professors both teach, do research, sometimes work on the same courses and research projects, and have roles in campus governance. Those commonalities, the board ruled, outweigh differences.

While the union on Thursday called for the administration to accept the state board's ruling, it appears increasingly likely that both sides are preparing for a prolonged legal battle. Indeed, the union is trying to embarrass the university by pointing out how much it is spending on legal fees at a time when the state is facing tight budgets for higher education.

Thursday's ruling by the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board would, if upheld, lead to immediate union recognition for the UIC United Faculty. That is because 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.

UIC United Faculty is affiliated both with the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers. The drive was seen as a model for the two national unions to cooperate and to organize at a research university -- a sector of higher education that has not seen substantial growth in collective bargaining in recent years.

The ruling of the labor board dealt in part with whether adjuncts and tenure-track faculty members have a "community of interest" that makes it logical for them to bargain together with the administration. The university argued that they do not, and cited various differences between the two groups and also a potential conflict of interest (in the administration's view) because adjuncts "support" tenure-track faculty in some teaching and research work.

While this may be true, the labor board decision said that this was also "evidence of functional integration in that tenure system faculty and non-tenure track faculty teach courses jointly and work together in obtaining grants."

And despite obvious differences between adjuncts and tenure-track faculty members with regard to job security and pay, the labor board focused on the commonalities of the duties they performed. "The fact that non-tenure track faculty teach the same courses as tenure system faculty and substitute for tenure system faculty when tenure system faculty go on sabbatical, leave and break is evidence of interchangeability between tenure system and non-tenure-track faculty," the decision said.

Another issue cited by administrators to deny recognition of a joint bargaining unit was the Illinois statute authorizing a faculty union at the University of Illinois. The statute says that "the sole appropriate bargaining unit for tenured and tenure-track academic faculty at each campus of the University of Illinois shall be a unit ... that includes all tenured and tenure track faculty." The university argued that this language means that only tenured and tenure-track faculty members can be in the unit.

The ruling by the board questioned Illinois's reading of the word "includes." Had lawmakers wanted, the board ruled, they could have used "consists of" instead of "includes," and that would have indicated that only the groups cited could be part of the bargaining unit. The decision then cited dictionary definitions to show that "include" can introduce a list that can be "part of a whole" and need not mean the entirety of the whole.

The labor board voted 3 to 1 on the issues, and the dissent filed in the case was focused on the wording issue, with one member of the board accepting the university's interpretation of the statute's wording as defining the case.

University officials have argued that they are not against union rights for faculty members -- only the combination of tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty in the same unit. Lon S. Kaufman, vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost, sent a message to campus officials Wednesday reiterating that view in advance of the ruling.

"It has been our consistent position that the law not only is clear, but correct," he wrote. "A university’s tenured and tenure-track faculty have unique rights, roles and responsibilities, and this is why there must be separate bargaining units. We are not trying to deprive faculty of the right to organize but rather want to see the bargaining units align with the type of faculty they would represent."

Faculty leaders have said repeatedly that if the university truly respected their right to unionize, the administration would respect their right to do so across tenure lines. "We have followed the law, and previous case law clearly shows that we have every legal right to be recognized as one union,” said Lennard Davis, distinguished professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and one of the leaders of the union. (Nationally, there are many examples of colleges with separate units for adjuncts and tenure-track faculty members, or where only one set of faculty members are unionized, but there are also many colleges where adjuncts and tenure-track professors are in the same union.)

The union also released the results of Freedom of Information Act requests it has been making to document spending by the university on legal fees related to labor issues. According to the union, the administration has spent $3,282,414.14 on outside lawyers for labor issues over the last decade. This is on top of two in-house lawyers. "Not only is this a waste of money, but also it is unwise management," said the union statement.

A university spokesman said that, while he could not confirm the sums spent on legal bills, the figures cited by the union are "hardly surprising for a $5 billion organization with more than 30,000 employees and more than 40 bargaining units systemwide." And while the university is spending more on lawyers for this dispute, he said that since "this is an important issue with far-reaching implications for the university and as it involves interpretation of state law, engaging a law firm with expertise in this area is the prudent course of action."


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