Last night, Elmhurst College non-tenure track faculty decided to launch their campaign to form a union through a non-governmental process in order to make improvements despite legal roadblocks from the administration. The administration of College President VanAken has claimed a religious objection to the jurisdiction of US labor law despite teaching of the United Church of Christ that is supportive of their efforts. In the face of this objection, faculty seeking to unionize have withdrawn a petition for election with the National Labor Relations Board and are calling for an election administered by a non-governmental party such as The League of Women Voters, a call that the administration has rejected. World Languages adjunct Janette K. Bayles said, “We are moving forward because we are committed to the outcome, not the process.”
Non-tenure track faculty filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) with SEIU Local 73 on November 17 with the support of the Elmhurst College community including students, alumni, community leaders, and local UCC clergy. Faculty will launch a public campaign with community support based on the teaching and traditions of the United Church of Christ to win an alternative path to their union. Religious Studies adjunct and UCC clergy member David McCurdy said, “We were betrayed, not beaten.”
Elmhurst College’s administration has made a dramatic shift away from investment in educators and affordable, accessible college education. The priorities of the institution have been moving away from its teaching mission. The overall faculty decreased by 6% from 2012 to 2015, while the number of administrators increased by 52% during that time. Almost 60% of the teaching staff at Elmhurst College are non-tenure track, part-time faculty. The College’s core values state, “We will act on our social responsibilities and call others to do the same.” Now faculty at Elmhurst College are calling on the administration to act on their social responsibilities.
Dianne Selden, Urban Studies adjunct, said: “Elmhurst College is my teaching home; its students have been my main mission since I started adjuncting here two years ago. I work 35 hours per week per class, but make substantially less than minimum wage, even with advanced degrees. I am deeply saddened by the college’s lack of support of my right to unionize – which I am seeking because I believe unionization will create a better educational experience for my students, my main priority. The Elmhurst College I came to teach at is supposed to champion social justice, but the way it pays and treats its non-tenure track faculty is creating more barriers towards our shared goals: great education and fostering a vibrant, fair community for all our students and staff.”
Since 2013, faculty at more than a dozen religiously affiliated colleges and universities have formed unions with SEIU. Many institutions have remained neutral in union elections and successfully bargained with faculty. Instead of following established principles of the United Church of Christ (UCC), with which Elmhurst College is affiliated, college officials have taken an approach similar to that of schools like Seattle University that inevitably pits the university community against administration efforts to undermine the faculty’s right to a union.
Yesterday, on the Elmhurst College campus in the western suburbs of Chicago, a delegation of UCC clergy gathered at the statue of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who supported workers’ rights. They highlighted the hypocrisy of a UCC affiliated institution fighting its own workers’ attempt to unionize. They also delivered a letter to the administration, signed by over 100 UCC clergy from 24 states around the US denouncing the hypocrisy of a UCC affiliated institution that fights its workers’ right to unionize.The delegation marched to Elmhurst College President VanAken’s office where they left the letter with a representative.
The United Church of Christ has long endorsed the rights of workers including workers in “church organizations and related organizations,” as stated in a 1995 UCC General Synod resolution. A member of the UCC delegation, Rev. Dan Dale, stated, “Supporting workers’ right to organize is not only supported by UCC teachings, it’s an obligation of UCC institutions.”
Rev. John Thomas, board member of Arise Chicago, and former President of the United Church of Christ, agreed: “To fight the faculty’s efforts to organize is hypocritical of UCC teaching on worker rights and organizing. This is not a matter of opinion of individual clergy, this is very clear institutional UCC teaching.”
Matilda Stubbs, adjunct professor of Sociology, shared her reasons for joining the organizing campaign, including job stability, low pay for the field, and lack of resources such as office space. “I’m not required to hold office hours. I try to have set hours to have time for meeting with my students. But as an EC adjunct I’m not required to hold those hours. What does that say, as an institution, to my students?”
David McCurdy echoed the need for job stability. “Contingent faculty really is the word to describe us. Many of us don’t know semester to semester if we’ll have a class to teach, or if our class will be dropped. We don’t have our own office space. There’s collective space for some of us in some departments. Our department chair in Religious Studies is very supportive. But there isn’t guaranteed private space for individual meetings with students. And each department is different–including for pay. Pay for adjuncts is not really standardized. It seems to vary by department.”
Rev. Jason Coulter of Ravenswood UCC reiterated UCC clergy support for the faculty and frustration with the current administration: “Elmhurst College has hired an anti-union law firm to resist faculty efforts. This goes directly against our denomination’s principles and teachings, and is an affront to our values.”
Despite the administration’s imposition of sudden roadblocks, the Elmhurst College faculty are moving forward, and toward a free and fair election to form a union. Girija Gullapalli said, “I am very proud and feel privileged to teach the students at Elmhurst College. I feel that as a person supporting students in this critical juncture in their lives, I am not provided with the respect and tools. This is why I support forming a non-tenure track faculty union at Elmhurst College. I feel that Elmhurst College, in claiming religious objections to forming a union, is not representing the interests of the faculty or the mission of the college. In fact, the UCC, as well as prominent alumnus Reinhold Niebuhr, believed in the right for people to acquire economic and social justice through organizing labor unions.”