Columbia Faculty Union/Instagram
Columbia College Chicago’s part-time faculty members began striking Monday over the institution’s plan to eliminate 350 course sections across the fall and spring semesters, among other issues, their union president said.
It’s been a restive year for higher education labor organizing and striking: this makes the 18th strike in 2023 by faculty members, postdoctoral workers, graduate student assistants, undergraduate workers or staff members, according to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York. Three faculty strikes occurred in Illinois this spring, at Chicago State, Governors State and Eastern Illinois Universities, and one more happened there in January at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Diana Vallera, president of the Columbia faculty union (CFAC), said the roughly 600 part-timers her organization represents make up two-thirds of the private college’s faculty. Neither she nor the institution provided numbers Monday on how many part-timers were striking and how many classes had been canceled as a result; CBS News Chicago reported there were about 75 to 100 people picketing Monday morning.
The college wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed Monday, “As for the number of part-time faculty, there are 575 union faculty teaching this semester. We are still assessing how many part-time faculty canceled classes today.”
Section eliminations could mean less pay for part-timers, along with more work dealing with increased class sizes. “We have people with no income,” Vallera said, due to cuts already instituted this fall.
Vallera said she only heard about the coming section eliminations two weeks before the fall semester began, at a kind of “welcome back” faculty meeting that only full-timers, but not part-timers, were required to attend. She said she attended anyway and learned about cuts that hadn’t been discussed in the ongoing bargaining for a new union contract.
“I’m sitting here going, ‘What course elimination project?’” she said.
“Some students are seeing courses completely eliminated; others are seeing, you know, courses that are doubling in size,” she said.
Madhurima Chakraborty, president of the Faculty Senate, which represents full-time faculty, said the Senate had no foreknowledge of the section cuts until they were announced near the start of this fall through department meetings. She said it seems full-time faculty members then had more say in some departments than others in where the cuts would be made.
“There are definitely concerns that we share” with part-time faculty, Chakraborty said, “and, you know, decreasing sections only makes sense as a financial argument. That means that the rest of the classes have to increase in class size, and that affects full-time faculty as well.”
Under federal law, private college and university employees can unionize—except, generally, tenured and tenure-track faculty, following a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. While part-time faculty members can organize into unions at Columbia and other private colleges, a part-time workforce can be harder to get on the same page than employees who are consistently working together.
The union, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, has voting members, who pay 2.5 percent of their earnings in union dues, and “fair share” members, who pay 2.4 percent, Vallera said. One fair-share member who is resistant to the pressure to strike forwarded Inside Higher Ed a “frequently asked questions” email the union sent out containing strong language about those who refuse.
“Regardless of your status, you are a member of the union, are bound by the results of the strike authorization vote and must strike,” the email said. Vallera said 88 percent of voting members authorized the strike in the count last week, and 81 percent of voting members participated, but she didn’t provide the full number of voting members.
“Holding classes on Zoom is crossing the picket line,” the email says. “Members who cross the picket line, who refuse to honor the strike, WILL be subject to Union discipline [emphasis in original]. We must honor the union process and the overwhelming vote of support from our members. Staying active on Canvas, replying to your Columbia email—all of it is crossing the picket line.”
The email threatens fines for nonstrikers and, citing a U.S. Supreme Court case, said the National Labor Relations Board “is not to test union fines for reasonableness of amount. Such fines are enforceable in state court, which may and usually will include an award of court costs and attorney fees against any member who refuses to pay the fine. Such judgments are then enforceable as per state law, including wage garnishment, liens and the use of collection agencies.”
“The member need not be given the right to be represented by a lawyer, and this is not normally done by unions … courts cannot examine a union’s constitution to determine if a provision authorizes the imposition of discipline,” the email said.
Vallera said the email “wasn’t a ‘you have to do this’; it was a reminder that we voted.”
“It’s 88 percent—it is not a small margin and the facts speak for themselves … no one’s forcing anyone. They’ve voted, it’s a democratic vote and they gave us overwhelming permission to move forward,” she said.
Inside Higher Ed requested an interview with someone representing the Columbia College administration, but it didn’t provide any interviews. The arts-focused college, which had about 6,640 students last fall, has offered retorts on its own frequently asked questions website, where it says it has "spent $80 million in deficit since 2019" and will add another $20 million in deficit spending this academic year. The college says it has already cut benefits plus, since 2019, 124 staff, administrator and full-time faculty positions. (This paragraph has been updated to accurately reflect the college's deficit spending.)
“While these cuts have avoided a significant worsening of our deficits, they have not led to significant decreases in deficits,” the college’s website says. “Therefore, we have to broaden the scope of measures being taken—by finding efficiencies in the instructional budget and by finding additional efficiencies this year and following years in non-academic budgets. There is no question that part-time faculty will lose sections to teach under the changes to course offerings and class size.”
The college’s written statements, including one it emailed to Inside Higher Ed Monday, portray the course section cuts as meaning students will be increasingly taught by full-time faculty.
“The college is making changes that will result in a larger share of classes being taught by full-time faculty, to which part-time faculty objects,” it says. Gettysburg College, in Pennsylvania, has couched possible adjunct faculty layoffs as a way of increasing students’ exposure to tenure-track faculty.
Columbia College Chicago’s website says its cash reserves “are projected to be depleted” by the end of the next fiscal year, meaning “the college will need to shore up cash reserves with large withdrawals from the endowment. If no corrective action is taken, the endowment—which currently remains healthy at about $190 million, would decrease to $90 million in five years.”
Opposing section cuts will require solidarity. The union will have to maintain that as the strike days roll on. Rob Hart, a part-time faculty member who said he believes his two photography classes will increase in size this spring, is still reluctant to fully strike. His first class this week is Friday.
“I think my plan currently is not to teach but, you know, I am probably going to tell my students if they have questions about their video projects to reach out to me,” Hart said. He said he has a guest speaker lined up for Friday.
“I think that is the way I can both, like, honor my union commitments and help the students with their education at the same time,” he said. “Whether or not the union will see that in a good light, I don’t know, but to me that feels like a good middle ground. But I’ve had a lot of bad ideas in my life; maybe this will be one of them.”
Hart said he was in the Chicago Sun-Times union when he was a photographer there, but he’s “never been in a strike situation that I didn’t have a ton of investment in.” Now he is.
“I’ve complained a lot in other unions and we usually just work it out, so I think it will be fine,” he said. “I just hope Mom and Dad stop fighting before Friday.”