Faculty members at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago at a union rally (all images courtesy Art Institute of Chicago Workers United)

Over 250 non-tenure-track faculty members at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) have announced their intent to unionize. According to a letter published yesterday, May 10, non-tenure-track faculty, which include lecturers and adjuncts, make up three quarters of all SAIC professors.

The letter describes working conditions at the school as “intolerable,” stating that faculty members without tenure do not make enough money to cover the cost of living, lack adequate benefits, and “do the work of full-time professors, but without the corresponding titles, compensation, or job security.”

“Lecturers have recently been pushed into in-person instruction without health insurance during a pandemic; at the same time, they have been denied access to the highly competitive promotions process that is their only route to basic benefits,” the letter reads.

All other staff at SAIC and the Art Institute of Chicago, the museum associated with the school, unionized in January, forming Art Institute of Chicago Workers United (AICWU). Non-tenure-track faculty members now hope to join the union as well. (In the United States, most tenured and tenure-track faculty cannot unionize because a 1980 Supreme Court decision, National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University, labeled them “managerial” workers.)

Non-tenure-track faculty members want to join school and museum staff in the Art Institute of Chicago Workers United union.

The letter adds that part-time workers comprise “the largest number of faculty who hold marginalized identities.”

“The precarity we face is thus inextricably linked to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, classism, and the innumerable extensions and intersections of oppression,” it reads. “SAIC has pledged to dismantle inequity, yet the School’s imbalances in compensation, benefits, security, and support further entrench it.”

An AICWU spokesperson told Hyperallergic that after the letter was published yesterday, the school sent a staff- and faculty-wide email announcing the unionization effort.

There are two ways for the union to become official: The school can voluntarily recognize it, or faculty members can vote for it in a National Labor Relations Board election.

“If a union is voted in, the School will work with the bargaining team on matters relating to pay, benefits, appointment terms, and other working conditions,” a SAIC spokesperson told Hyperallergic.

The museum and school did not voluntarily recognize the staff’s union last year, either. In November, when staff were set to vote, workers accused management of union-busting tactics such as telling people they were ineligible for the union and threatening to take away their benefits. This is against federal law, and the museum and school denied the allegations.

“We urge senior leadership to honor our legal right to organize without intimidation or coercion,” reads the non-tenure-track faculty’s letter. “And to avoid wasting time and resources on expensive lawyers, propaganda campaigns, or mandatory anti-union meetings. SAIC can demonstrate its commitment to equity by respecting our right to organize.”

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.