University of the Arts workers at Monday's action (all photos courtesy Zoe Cohen)

Faculty and staff at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts (UArts) came together for a joint action Monday, April 24. Both groups are negotiating their first union contracts.

Faculty voted to join the United Academics of Philadelphia 9608 (part of the larger American Federation of Teachers) in November 2020. They started bargaining in March 2021, but over two years later, healthcare and pay remain unsettled. The union has filed five unfair labor practice charges against the university over the course of the lengthy negotiation process.

The bargaining unit fluctuates from around 150 to 250 teachers, depending on the semester. Some 85% of UArts’s professors are part-time.

These part-time professors earn an average of $1,000 per credit and $3,000 for a three-credit course, but the union says some make as little as $677 per credit. (United Academics of Philadelphia calculates the city average at $1,566 per credit.) Importantly for the union, UArts part-time professors do not receive healthcare.

The 33 full-time faculty members earn an average of $59,000 per year and a minimum of $51,000.

“We’re fighting for a livable wage in line with comparable schools, job security over multiple years rather than hiring semester-by-semester, and for the university to cover the cost of healthcare for its teachers,” said Bradley Philbert, an adjunct associate professor in the School of Critical Studies who serves on the bargaining team.

The administration presented its economic offer in November, which included 5% raises for all professors over the next five years and the restoration of the 2:1 pension match for full-time faculty over the next four years. 

Philbert told Hyperallergic that he takes on courses at other schools in order to earn the same amount as his full-time counterparts. He is currently teaching additional classes at Penn State and New Jersey’s Rowan University.

Philbert sees his predicament as indicative of a larger problem in American universities.

Faculty and staff rallied Monday evening at UArts.

“Long-time adjuncts often joke about the full-time job offers that are always dangled like a carrot by various programs — a full-time lecturer role here, the hint of a multi-year contract there,” he said. “It is all a part of the move in higher education toward a majority part-time workforce, even if well-meaning middle managers think they’ll finally be the one to be able to deliver.”

Laura Frazure, an alumnus who’s now a full-time professor, told Hyperallergic the school’s dependence on part-time faculty feels “untenable.”

“It puts immense pressure and responsibility on the remaining full-timers for governance, curricular development, and student advocacy,” Frazure explained, adding that this pulls faculty out of their studios and away from their research and offloads responsibility on other part-time professors, too. “The students suffer when there are not enough full-time professors to support their efforts.”

While professors navigate the problems of a majority part-time faculty, the UArts staff union says their members face high employee turnover.

The union stands at around 120 members. The workers organized in 2022 with the same United Academics of Philadelphia 9608.

According to the union, these workers sometimes make as little as $15 per hour (Philadelphia’s minimum wage is bound to the state’s $7.25 rate).

A UArts spokesperson told Hyperallergic that the school remains committed to negotiating fair contracts with their faculty and staff unions and is “working diligently towards a contract that meets the needs of all parties” and “agrees that negotiations with the faculty union’s bargaining team have taken an unfortunately long time.”

“We continue to reach tentative agreement on a host of issues, and the university is hopeful these important negotiations can be brought to a successful conclusion soon,” said the spokesperson.

As museum workers nationwide have unionized over the last few years, the ongoing labor movement has heavily impacted higher education, too. Student workers at Philadelphia’s Temple University went on strike for over a month earlier this year; faculty at New Jersey’s Rutgers University went on strike for a week earlier this month; and non-tenured faculty at New York University are in the process of forming a union.

As professors and staff members organize on campuses across the country, UArts workers remarked on how their labor organizing has brought them together.

“We all want job security and sustainable working conditions, and that means we have the precious chance to share ideas, talk through our ideas as union members, and maintain the solidarity essential to building strong unions,” said Philbert. “We can’t have that solidarity without struggling to build it, which means that when we speak as workers, we speak with one voice as a strong, united community of arts educators.”

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.