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Columbia College Protests

Staff and students protested the threat to adequate wages, job security, and benefits, calling attention to the precarious position of part-time workers in higher education.

By News

Illustration by Rohan McDonald.

Columbia College Chicago’s Part Time Faculty Association (P-Fac) — the first union for part-time faculty in the country — went on strike for two days in early December, picketing outside the school’s building at 600 S. Michigan Ave. Eighty-six percent of the union members voted for the strike, calling for good faith negotiations on the next Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).

Protest signs included such phrases as “Is it all about the bottom line?”, “We stand for students NOT profits,” and “Give us job security.” Many signs also displayed “#OurColumbia.” Mark Rosati, Interim Vice President for Communications of Columbia College Chicago, told F Newsmagazine that during the strike, 75% of classes were held.

Speakers at the picket line included Gubernatorial candidate Chris Kennedy, State Senator and Gubernatorial candidate Daniel Biss, Labor attorney and P-Fac counsel Mike Persoon, two Columbia students, Arise Chicago, the Loyola Faculty bargaining team, Screen Actors Guild—American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFRTRA), and University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) faculty union president Janet Smith.

The no-strike clause present in faculty contracts becomes void when the previous contract expires and a new contract remains in negotiation. During the 2013 contract’s proceedings, the threat of strike was successfully used as leverage toward sound negotiations.

Columbia College emphasizes practical learning from experienced professionals. The school describes faculty as “industry leaders” and part-time faculty taught more than 60% of the Fall 2017 courses. P-Fac is the collective bargaining agent for between 650 and 700 faculty members each semester.

“The difference in treatment between full-time and part-time faculty is like the difference between valued citizens with full protections and insurance coverage and migrant workers who are treated as expendable with low wages and no protections,” Rosalind Cummings-Yeates, P-Fac Communications Director, told F Newsmagazine.

According to Cummings-Yeates, the college recently created an online learning community without notifying part-time faculty.

“When we asked about the the teaching positions, we were told that the pay scale was below our set union rate,” said Cummings-Yeates. “They have created an entire teaching community that excludes our members and pays below a livable wage.”

On November 10, the college put forward what P-Fac termed a “union-eliminating contract.” According to P-Fac, instead of good faith negotiations, the school unilaterally presented a contract that removes many of the union’s gains from the previous agreement.

The previous contract expired on August 31 — now more than three months ago. The union claims that the school waited until late in the semester to present their proposed contract, gambling that the union would not resist. The school claims that it tried to start negotiations in August of 2016 but P-Fac refused to engage in discussions until July of 2017.

According to the college, the proposed contract includes a 2% salary increase for part-time faculty. But according to P-Fac it also decreases paid sick days, seeks to remove the tier system, and limits part-time faculty to no more than two courses at a time.

Cummings-Yeates explains the tier system as a structure of assigning classes and salary based on teaching experience.

“The administration has been violating the system and offering courses to newer, lesser experienced (and cheaper) part-time faculty while experienced faculty are offered few or no classes at all,” Cummings-Yeates said.

“Our contract is supposed to give us job security in that we are guaranteed a certain number of courses according to our experience. That has not happened. We don’t know if we will be assigned courses from semester to semester, even with 20 years of experience. Some of our members need government assistance to get by and a few are homeless.”

In early November, P-Fac and Columbia College students formed a coalition called OurColumbia. OurColumbia is based on staff and students’ mutual desire to prioritize students’ quality of education above profits.

In 2012, there were 10,783 students enrolled in the college. By 2016, enrollment had dropped to 8,120. The college is tuition-driven. With the loss of tuition money, the school has cut budgets, merged departments, and increased class sizes—all moves that adversely affect part-time faculty’s working conditions. The college has also promised costly new facilities in the hopes of enticing students, while leaving the part-time faculty without medical insurance and benefits such as the professional development grants and sick day pay promised in the previous contract.

The college attempted to schedule a federal mediator for negotiations. P-Fac denied the offer. A federal mediator solves an impasse in the bargaining process. But, according to P-Fac, an impasse is only possible if the two sides are under discussions in good faith and they currently are not.

The day after the strike, the two parties held another bargaining session. According to Rosati, during this session both sides agreed to continue negotiations and they are currently coordinating their schedules. Cummings-Yeates says the session was hopeful, with the college appearing to apologize for their actions.

“However, they continue to act with the same disregard for part-time faculty and students, they have just found different ways to do it.”

Cummings-Yeates told F Newsmagazine that there is a list of senior faculty that the college has found unqualified and decided to fire, despite decades of teaching experience.

“This violates our contract and we are currently filing charges against the administration for this” she said.

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