CHICAGO — On Wednesday and Thursday, November 29 and 30, Chicago’s Michigan Avenue-facing Grant Park was taken over by a throng of students, faculty, and supporters of a strike called by Columbia College Chicago’s part-time faculty union. Like any strike, it carried a risk of failure or retaliation, but was also a critical show of support for a union. At least 300 people people filled the street in front of the main building. “Chicago is a union town,” Chicago Teachers Union vice-president Jesse Sharkey said, while pledging support to the Part-Time Faculty At Columbia (P-FAC). Representatives from SAG-AFTRA, Jobs for Justice, other part-time faculty unions, prominent labor lawyers, and student DJs joined in support of the faculty.
The historic first part-time faculty union in the nation at Columbia College voted for and held the two-day strike to show the administration they are serious about unresolved bargaining issues. Columbia College has always advertised itself as a school where students will be taught by “working professionals” in the arts and media. While many dedicated and successful photographers, filmmakers, visual artists, writers, and academics work at the college, anyone in the field knows that these professions are not always lucrative.
Over 20 years ago the part-time faculty pulled together to create the first part-time union in a private school in order to gain bargaining power over salaries. Their pay jumped from $1,400 per course to about $3,000 per course at the time, and a system of seniority and inclusion in governance was instituted. The current administration, whittling away at the programs in the school, according to the strike call, is engaged in “bad faith bargaining” moves that threaten these crucial achievements. “The administration has come to the table with no one with the authority to make decisions; they have refused to answer questions, to offer real proposals or engage in any actual discussion,” claimed the union. The college countered that their attempt to call in a Federal Mediator was denied by the union, which noted that a federal mediator is called in when bargaining comes to an impasse. Union President Diana Vallera, who teaches in the photography department, said in a pre-strike meeting that an impasse can only be reached when both sides are bargaining in good faith.
Contract negotiations are formal and complex, framed by precedents and detailed rules. The overall picture at the college, which started and grew as a place where less economically advantaged students could get an education, has been transformed by fan ever-expanding administration, shifts in focus and a long decline of services and enrollment, accompanied by tuition hikes. Weakening and axing of departments and programs, such as a Freshman Seminar program originally seeded with Carnegie Foundation grants, stripping the nationally-known Black Music Research Center and eliminating Humanities requirement — all are moves which caused many part-time instructors to lose classes. At the peak of an expansion in the earlier years of the millennium, the college employed over 1,000 part-time instructors teaching a stimulating array of classes in their fields.
It is the nature of precarious labor to be brutish and short. And it is the nature of administrations and full-time and tenured faculty to be limited in their ability of imagine what is at stake for disposable labor, not the least because they tend to regard them as “other.” PFAC had provided not only a salary schedule, but some semblance of job security. Many of the faculty, now only 650, who are being let go or having courses cut have served the college for over 25 years.
“Just because we are part-time faculty does not mean we are disposable,” proclaimed Vallera, but it remains to be seen if jobs can be protected. The plight of part-time labor is, whether they know it or not, is the next horizon for unions. Over 50 to 75 percent of academic faculty are part-time. For people in the arts, working part-time can be a good thing, precarity is not, and the success or failure of Columbia’s part-time union in protecting its vulnerable workers has implications not only for the union members whose livelihoods are tied to the outcome, but for arts and cultural workers throughout the country.