U. of C. lecturers ratify union contract as grad students’ union hits impasse

Staff Writer

Lecturers at the University of Chicago ratified their union contract with the administration on April 13 following months of organization and bargaining, including threats of strike action.

UChicago Faculty Forward, the non-tenure track U. of C. faculty represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73, voted to ratify their contract on Friday, April 13, after two years of negotiations, becoming the first university lecturers in Illinois to do so.

At the same time, the Graduate Students United union, which withdrew from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) process in February, are strategizing how to get the university administration to the bargaining table.

“We are pleased to have reached an agreement with our lecturers that reflects our commitment to providing outstanding instruction to our students, including a new, lower maximum enrollment in language courses of 15 students per class,” said Jason Merchant, the U. of C. Vice Provost for Academic Affairs. “The contract also includes a full-time promotion track, greater reappointment security, and increased pay, among other provisions.”

“We are grateful for the goodwill that our colleagues demonstrated throughout these talks,” Merchant concluded.

Kay Heikkinen, a U. of C. lecturer and member of the union bargaining team, said, “We are incredibly relieved and happy to have the contract. It was a very long bargaining process, and we think it’s a very fair contract and one that will improve conditions for the lecturers and for the University.”

The contract will ensure that lecturer positions will be good jobs that will attract and retain good applicants and employees, said Heikkinen, who said that better lecturer working conditions make for better learning conditions for students. She described the U. of C. administration at the end of bargaining as “positive” but cautioned that unresolved implementation issues remain.

Heikkinen relayed UChicago Faculty Forward’s past support for GSU but offered no further comment.

Graduate Students United union (GSU), an affiliate of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) became the graduate students’ union after an October vote. It withdrew from the Federal NLRB process in February out of concern that the newly Republican-dominated board would reverse course and refuse to recognize graduate students at private institutions as employees with collective bargaining rights

“Right now, we’re seeking voluntary recognition from the administration,” said Katie Nolan, a doctoral student in English and departmental organizer. She said it was “upsetting” to withdraw from the NLRB process but that the action did not change the bottom line: “It’s not as if the NLRB or Hillary Clinton was going to come in and advocate for us. Engaging with the NLRB was only to give us legal protection as we engaged with the University.”

Nolan said GSU took heart in Georgetown University graduate students’ recent voluntary contract, saying that institution’s administration realized it was “easier and cheaper” to bargain, not fight, with graduate students. She said that GSU will continue holding rallies and engaging with alumni and undergraduates. Nolan refused to go into detail but said the union is planning “an aggressive campaign” to win a negotiated contract and that the union keeps gaining members.

“I don’t know if it’ll be before I graduate, but you can’t ask people to go for months without paychecks,” said Nolan. She said graduate students from the U. of C. Division of the Social Sciences had conducted a poll of graduate students in the bargaining unit—both GSA members and non-members, and no students affiliated with the U. of C.’s professional schools—showing that one third of respondents paid more than half of their university income in housing, that 30 percent claimed less than $20,000 in payment before taxes and that nearly half reported pay problems like wage theft and late paychecks.

When reached for comment, U. of C. spokesman Jeremy Manier said that the University has received “very few” complaints about pay this academic year. In a statement, Manier said that that the U. of C. is committed to improving graduate education through engagement with graduate students, faculty and staff, saying that the administration believes this route “is the best path to improvement.”

Manier said the provost office’s recent seven percent increase in minimum student funding levels represented a 15 percent increase since the 2015 to 2016 academic year, bringing the minimal total funding level for students with summer stipends to $30,000.

Because the GRU’s withdrawal from the NLRB process left it unaffiliated with either the AAUP or AFT, Manier said “the unions have no legal status as the representative of any University bargaining unit” and that the administration rejected the request for voluntary collective bargaining on April 5.