Last Winter Quarter, a few hundred faculty members received an email from labor organizers asking a seemingly simple question: would they, as non-tenure-eligible faculty at Northwestern, be interested in joining a labor union?
Then, representatives from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) started dropping by after classes to chat teachers up about the cause. Coffee dates were scheduled. Word spread among faculty that organizing might be a good idea. Small informational meetings convened at the Evanston Public Library. Everything was done in murmurs. After all, no one wanted university administrators to catch wind of what was happening.
Gordon Davis had been a part of those murmurs since SEIU sent that first email. The former environmental policy adjunct professor wanted to support the union and emailed the SEIU recruiters back. One coffee meeting later, he had a grasp of the basics: The organizers were with the Chicago branch of SEIU’s "Faculty Forward” campaign, which had recently unionized non-tenure-eligible faculty at the University of Chicago and Loyola University Chicago. Now, they were gauging interest among Northwestern faculty to see if they wanted to do the same.
Davis started meeting with other faculty, too. He hoped to talk about why he thought having a collective voice would be positive. He thought a union would promote faculty collegiality and even enable non-tenure-eligible faculty to make more of an impact on departmental policy. But the other teachers were thinking beyond collegiality. They were worried about the basics: job security and compensation. Many of the people Davis spoke with, part-time professors in particular, said they had no health insurance, paid leave or assurance that their short-term teaching contracts would be renewed for the following year. They were being paid a few thousand dollars per class – not enough to scrape together a living without teaching multiple classes or having another career, he says.
He says many people he spoke with were hesitant to join the campaign or even speak with him at all, fearing that they could lose their jobs. "The level of fear that people were expressing in just coming to our meetings, in just meeting one-on-one, was staggering to me,” Davis says.
A battle over unionization has been playing out since the end of last school year, almost entirely out of sight from the student body. The debates have taken place behind closed doors, over email and even in a faculty-members-only Facebook group for discussing the vote. Faculty members have been reluctant to go on record or even be interviewed, saying that speaking out openly about the vote would not be in their best interest. Some even said they feared retaliation from their colleagues or possibly jeopardizing their job security.
In the vote that happened this past June via paper ballot mailed to home addresses, non-tenure-eligible faculty members only had two options: unionize with SEIU or not. But this binary obscures the nuances of the debate. “No” ballots were cast for a host of different reasons spanning from mistrust of SEIU to unhappiness with the way the voting process happened. And months later, faculty still don’t have an answer about the final decision.
One thing that every non-tenure-eligible faculty member seems to agree on, though, is that unionizing would somehow fundamentally affect their status at the university. To some, the debate has raised even larger questions. Why are some professors so invested in having this union at Northwestern? What role does tenure play at a university and an academic world that relies more than ever on adjunct faculty to teach its students? And what will the future of teaching at Northwestern look like if the power balance between faculty and administration changes?
Be honest – if you thought back on all the people who have taught you at Northwestern, would you have any clue who had tenure, who didn’t, who taught a full course load, or who only taught part-time?
In all likelihood, the person who lectures you for about three hours a week might not be a professor. That specific title doesn’t actually apply to all faculty. When faculty members sign contracts with the university, their role falls into two categories: tenure-eligible and non-tenure-eligible. Tenure-eligible means faculty are guaranteed a permanent job contract at the university after a probationary period of a few years, typically six to seven. In a nutshell, the university cannot fire these professors without proving that they are incompetent or behave unprofessionally.
However, faculty members often do not fall into that camp. Rather, they remain off the tenure track, meaning that their contracts are up for renewal on a regular, sometimes yearly basis. These faculty members have titles like adjunct instructors, assistant professors, artists-in-residence, professors of instruction and lecturers. The official university definition of non-tenure-eligible faculty, the group that would be unionized, includes 18 different titles.
As the range of titles might suggest, this group of faculty fits under one label rather uncomfortably. They vary from full-time professors of instruction who have taught at the university for decades to an instructor who taught one course last school year to lecturers who teach at multiple institutions.
The labels might seem arbitrary, and to the everyday person, "lecturer” and "professor of instruction” sound as though they might as well be interchangeable. But to faculty, the difference between the two titles is vast. Often, it’s the difference between having clearly defined criteria for promotion or having to navigate murkier paths. It’s the difference between having multi- or single-year contracts. It’s the difference between feeling like the university is investing in them – or not.
English lecturer Nick Valvo is one of those part-time faculty members colloquially known as "adjuncts.” He has taught two classes about British literature every year since he came to Weinberg in 2015, following his tenure-track history professor wife to Evanston. He’s quick to mention how much he loves teaching at Northwestern. He loves the intellectual climate, his colleagues, his students – but he’s wanted to unionize ever since he heard the first murmurs.
"There’s a lot to love about working here,” he says. "But I don’t have my own health insurance.”
Valvo acknowledges that he is generally better-off than professors at other schools. All told, 1 in 4 part-time college faculty nationwide rely on a public assistance program like Medicaid or food stamps, according to one University of California, Berkeley study, and Census data show that 1 in 5 live below the poverty line. But Valvo says that he’s being paid much better than most part-timers at other schools, as much as three times more per class. He hasn’t heard tales of poverty at Northwestern.
In general, the data collected about non-tenure-eligible faculty is inconsistent at best, especially when it comes to the difference between full-timers and part-timers. According to an email sent from one Northwestern faculty member to other faculty, the administration claims to not really know how many non-tenure-eligible faculty they employ. Of the 3,100 full-time faculty on all campuses, about 57 percent are not eligible for tenure, according to a report released by a Faculty Senate committee in June.
But current data are not available for part-time faculty, making it nearly impossible to tell how many adjuncts the university employs. Anecdotally, professors like Davis say that the number has grown over the years, just as it has throughout the rest of academia. About half of all college faculty works part-time, according to 2005 statistics from the American Association of University Professors, up almost 20 percentage points from 1975.
Pro-union faculty say that a union would help solve their problems, especially for part-timers, or at least give them a platform to push for change. According to a survey conducted by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, part-time faculty tend to be compensated better and have greater access to benefits if they’re represented by a union. A pamphlet put out by Faculty Forward claims that SEIU unions have helped faculty gain better compensation and security and have increased "the level of democratic participation.”
This democratic participation is crucial to making sure the faculty in more vulnerable positions are protected to speak up about their experiences, says Michael Kramer, history and American studies visiting assistant professor. While there are institutions like the Faculty Senate that have space for deliberation, he says, faculty who don’t have or qualify for tenure don’t necessarily have the legal protection that tenure provides.
"They fear that, ‘if I say something, I get in trouble.’ That’s not an environment for knowledge and learning and teaching,” he says. "I think we should do everything we can to encourage difficult conversation. And one way we do that is giving people some protection of employment, that liberates them to be able to really be able to speak the truth.”
When you take a step back and consider the entire landscape of non-tenure-eligible faculty, though, the picture gets more complicated. Adjuncts aren’t the only ones who would belong to the union; full-time faculty would be included, too. Many of them remain firmly opposed to joining.
On the other side of the spectrum from adjuncts or visiting professors, there is a group of full-time faculty in a category called "teaching track.” Many of them have worked at Northwestern for years, if not decades. They have many of the working conditions that tenured professors have and that adjuncts are fighting for: multi-year contracts, insurance benefits, retirement plans, clear promotion procedures and funding for professional development. Over the past decade, they’ve gained things like standardized procedures for salary increases and promotion, as well as better titles (from lecturer to assistant/associate professor).
Weinberg associate dean Mónica Russel y Rodriguez has helped usher in some of this change. As the associate dean of teaching-track and visiting faculty in Weinberg, she has worked with faculty who have taught at Northwestern for over three decades – far from temporarily-employed adjuncts. Back in 2009, she set her sights on helping create a new series of titles for promotion that included the word "professor,” instead of the existing "lecturer.” The subtle difference means a lot, she says. Weinberg still has part-time lecturers, she says, but the new titles are an improvement for long-term, teaching-track faculty.
"Lecturer denotes, universally, impermanent, not inclusively part of the university. There’s some places where you couldn’t do certain things if you were a lecturer,” she says. "You couldn’t apply to certain grants if you were a lecturer. And we found primarily that many times teaching-track faculty are now writing letters of recommendation for students, and it was helpful to have a title that fit the permanence and significance of that person within the university.”
To many of these faculty, then, the teaching-track model demonstrates that Northwestern is actually a pretty progressive place, with a lot of the resources that SEIU is helping other faculty gain in other schools. They worry that having a union structure in place will slow or stall the rapid gains that have been made. "We believe that the University’s [non-tenure-eligible] faculty members are part of something special, so much so that it is not appropriate to compare our employment conditions to those of contingent faculty at other institutions, or even to those of other non-tenure-track faculty at Northwestern,” read an open letter signed by 71 faculty published on June 12. "We are struggling to understand how unionization would benefit us.”
As the chair of the Faculty Senate’s Non-Tenure-Eligible Committee, Spanish & Portuguese associate professor of instruction Heather Colburn knows that the group she oversees is wildly diverse. In her work on the Senate, she says there’s really no way to take a one-size-fits-all approach to matters. Her committee released a report on June 3 that recommended that each school examine their individual policies and to be more transparent about issues such as contracts, academic freedom or resources. As the report points out, the responsibilities and duties for faculty vary across different schools – and necessarily so. While teaching in schools like Bienen or Medill requires more hands-on instruction, a school like McCormick or Weinberg requires first-rate lecturing skills or some research work. The number of classes that full-time faculty members have to teach per year differs across schools. But transparency about promotion also varies widely; the report illustrates that while Weinberg has clearly outlined procedures for contracts and promotion, schools like Bienen, Medill or McCormick do not.
Colburn says it can be difficult for faculty to understand what working conditions are like in schools within Northwestern other than their own. "Sometimes we just don’t have interactions with people from other units that help provide an understanding of the bigger picture,” she says. ‘That’s not a criticism of our lifestyle or our community at large. I think it’s just the way things are.”
Faculty for and against the union aren’t just thinking about their own paychecks and benefits, either. They bring up over and over again how moving away from the status quo would affect their students – for better or for worse.
As it stands, Valvo says, it’s difficult for him to plan for his future at Northwestern when it is far from guaranteed. He somewhat rushes the process of making his class syllabi because he isn’t sure if he’ll have the chance to use them much in the future. It’s also difficult for him to form relationships with students who are interested in his field and for him to follow along with their intellectual development, he says.
"Not only can I invest less in each individual class, but students have to be sort of careful about which faculty they kind of commit to have relationships with,” he says. "And you guys don’t always know who is who.”
Kramer says this lack of awareness among students has stung for him, too. He has to turn away undergraduates who want to work with him on senior thesis projects; because he’s not tenure-line, he’d be doing a lot of advising work without getting compensated. When students can’t get into his class one year and come to him asking what classes he’ll be teaching in the future, he can’t give them a definitive answer because he doesn’t know if he’ll be teaching at all. This uncertainty limits what he can offer his students, he says, and a union would help establish a necessary sense of permanence.
"It’s a funny kind of work we do. I think the more people feel rooted in the institution, the more they feel like they actually have some control and autonomy and power, the more they’re able to do for the place,” he says. ”And that really allows them to work more with students, to participate in extracurricular activities, to really try to cultivate and improve their teaching and make it better and better in the classroom.”
In a non-union context, Rodriguez points to how gains for teaching-track faculty also help their students. Having things like longer contracts, better compensations and distinguished titles helps Weinberg hire the best teachers they can, so top candidates know that the school takes their teaching seriously, she says. This communication of respect also helps retain current ones and keep morale high. "If [teachers] are thinking about what job they are looking for next, they don’t have time to think about the work they want to do in teaching students,” she says.
It’s this student-teacher aspect, though, that can make the issue of fair compensation seem murky. Some articles, such as one that recently ran in the liberal magazine The Nation, have compared the salaries of adjuncts to those of fast-food workers. But one McCormick professor, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, says that this is not the best comparison to make.
"You get compensated on something else, which no other people can get,” she says. "You get your students coming back to see you. If you create a pair of shoes, they’re not going to come back to see you. Your only reward is the salary, is the promotion. Our reward is more than that. Yes, we want to be treated fairly. But how do you define fair?”
When the union petition was filed June 9, faculty members tended to fall in one of three camps. One group felt that unionization was necessary. Another disliked the idea of unionization altogether. And a third liked the idea of unionization in principle, but were unhappy with SEIU.
The anonymous McCormick professor is squarely against unionization in general. She hated being part of a union when she formerly taught at a Midwest public university and says she does not think that many pro-union professors understand the finances of membership dues. For example, she says, if members had to pay 2 percent of their salary, it would take a 2 percent salary increase to break even.
She also questions why SEIU, which has traditionally unionized workers in industries like healthcare or public services, is looking to organize teachers. She points out the fact that their membership has been dwindling over past years, and questions if they’re just trying to rake in more money in union dues. "Their business is not to represent education,” she says. "It’s like if I used to be a carpenter and now I want to be a steelworker. I’m very good at being a carpenter, and now I want to be an engineer.”
One Weinberg faculty member, who also wishes to remain anonymous, is also wary of SEIU even though he’s pro-union in principle. The idea of unionizing had appealed to him early on, but he began to scrutinize SEIU as the voting process went on. He questions if the union has the experience or resources necessary to represent faculty at Northwestern. SEIU’s secretive organizing, which he says left the faculty divided, concerns him. He says their strategy seemed to want just enough support to legally unionize – a simple majority – and not actually bring faculty together.
Faculty have also questioned why the vote took place at the end of the school year into the summer, he says, when others might be travelling or doing research. Since the vote was conducted using paper ballots sent to people’s home addresses, some had worried that people might not be around to send in their ballots, he says. "I don’t think this was actually done cynically,” he says. "But I know some people think it was cynically done to suppress voter turnout.”
The organizing process might have come across as a clandestine operation, Kramer says, because it happened through word of mouth and face-to-face interactions, not mass emails. However, he says he’s troubled by the fact that the union did a poor job of communicating with the hundreds of faculty who hadn’t been part of the filing process. "I think SEIU really sort of disappeared on us once we petitioned,” he says. "I don’t understand why they didn’t have a meeting just to say, ‘This is what SEIU’s position is, this is what we have to offer.’”
Conversations between faculty members in a Facebook group called "Non-Tenured Faculty of NU” mark this confusion and division. The group was created to discuss the merits of unionization, but the posts tended to revolve around concerns about SEIU itself. Multiple teaching-track professors said that they felt blindsided by the suddenness of the vote, had felt excluded from conversations, and had limited knowledge about what good SEIU could do for them. Some posted that SEIU organizers had visited them at their homes. There was an announcement on June 24 about a faculty-only forum in University Hall to discuss the upcoming vote. One professor asked fellow faculty members to share their experiences of working conditions, accompanied by a Youtube link to the "Airing of Grievances” scene from Seinfeld (no one commented on the post).
Reading the conversation chains can be eyebrow-raising; it’s a slightly surreal experience to see name-recognizable professors going at each other in the comments sections of a semi-public Facebook group. At the tensest moments, the anonymous Weinberg faculty member says, these conversations could degenerate into "what you would see between Trump and Clinton supporters,” with some faculty members resorting to personal jabs. In one particular post, a "beyond frustrated” faculty member said she was beginning to feel like her pro-union colleagues were "complicit in trying to pull a fast one” on her and others.
Kramer says that the group became dominated by a small group who claimed that SEIU wasn’t telling the truth and had "almost an obsession” with questions about the vote’s timing. "Not once did I see any of the most cantankerous voices actually say, ‘There’s a whole bunch of you out there who are my colleagues who seem to feel like you need to have a union, even though it’s a total pain in the butt to organize a union,’” he says. "‘Why do you want it? What’s going on? We must’ve missed something here.’”
As questions have arisen – of what a union might look like at NU, or if SEIU can competently represent faculty – pro-union faculty have pointed to how unionization of non-tenure-eligible faculty has played out at universities mere ‘L’-stops away from campus. The entire contentious process of petitioning, voting and unionizing has already happened at the University of Chicago and Loyola.
At UChicago, senior lecturer Jason Grunebaum has been part of the process from helping with the initial campaign to being at one of about a dozen people on the UChicago bargaining team. (When reached for comment about the SEIU’s role in the union vote, SEIU organizer Elizabeth Towell deferred to faculty like Grunebaum at schools that have recently won unions and "are doing the actual work.”) Right now, they’re building a contract from scratch, sitting across the table from administrators and working out the particulars. Like the union at Northwestern would be, both part-time and full-time faculty are included in UChicago’s 170-person bargaining unit. And also like Northwestern, Grunebaum says that there’s a mix of job titles and duties among faculty members. However, as he and the rest of the bargaining unit have been working on a contract, he says that they have been writing their contract to both find common ground and address the specific needs of the diverse group.
"What we found was that no matter the division, people had the same concerns,” he says. "Part-timers want a little more predictability and security and better pay. Full-timers want a better pathway to promotion and also everybody could use more money, so they don’t have to go running around teaching at a million different places.”
Grunebaum also notes several similarities between how the UChicago and Northwestern administrations responded to the petition. They employed the same "union-busting” law firm, Cozen O’Connor for both cases – the same one that Northwestern employed back when the football team tried to unionize as employees of the university. They put out similar anti-union messages, he says; on its website about the petition, Northwestern posted open letters from faculty opposing the union and articles about the local SEIU chapter’s organizational troubles.
"The playbook is pretty standard,” Grunebaum says. "They always portray the union as this alien creature that crawled out from under a rock on Mars to terrorize the good people of the quad, when really they’re just supporting us. We’re the ones who came together, we’re the ones who both are pushing the process during the organizing stage and, now that I’m on the bargaining team, we’re very much the ones who are leading the process.”
For his part, he says that he has had an entirely positive experience working with SEIU. The union has brought in federal mediators to help train the bargaining team about how to write a contract and how the sessions work. Slowly but surely, he says, they’re making progress.
"We sit in a room together with the management and every single time we have a bargaining session with management, I think to myself, ‘Wow, this is really an accomplishment,’” he says. "‘We’re actually sitting across the table from them, talking about the terms of our employment. This is wonderful.’”
For the moment, the tensions that built up in June have come to a standstill. Everything should have been resolved in July, when the National Labor Relations Board counted the ballots, but the entire process came to a standstill because of a technicality. The original stipulation agreement between Northwestern and SEIU had outlined that faculty who had substantial administrative roles weren’t eligible to vote. But some of these non-tenure-eligible faculty had been mailed and had cast ballots. So the votes were challenged, and the NLRB began a series of hearings in August to settle the issue.
Nothing has budged months later. No one knows when the NLRB will resolve the issue – not even the Board itself. However, signs point to the bureaucratic slog continuing indefinitely. The local NLRB office hearing the case has declined a request for interview because the case is still "open and active.” An officer will issue a recommendation on the eligibility of the contested ballots within the next few months, but the NLRB will review the case further before coming to a final decision, according to Assistant to the Regional Director Daniel Nelson.
Everything union-related at Northwestern has also come to a halt. In an email, Provost Daniel Linzer said that the university has no additional information on the status of the hearings, and is waiting on the NLRB decision on the final results. Weinberg Dean Adrian Randolph declined to publicly comment on the vote.
Colburn says that there will likely be a culture shift for all faculty, she says, non-tenure-eligible or otherwise, especially if unionization. "Regardless of what the outcome is, there will definitely be the need for continuing conversation among non-tenure-eligible faculty to sort of hammer out the new questions that arose during this process,” she says.
In the absence of closure, the debates that arose during the process have left a lot of unanswered questions and unresolved arguments hanging. Kramer says it brought the hard issues to the surface that most people had tried to avoid. But the anonymous Weinberg professor wonders what will happen when the vote is finalized and roughly half the affected faculty is unhappy with the outcome.
"It definitely got ugly at a level where I wondered if these two people have to work together, will they be able to do it?” he says. "It’s a question mark right now.”