BREAKING: Unions accuse administration of sending ‘threats’ to part-time instructors over safety concerns

By Kendall Polidori, Co-editor-in-chief

Columbia’s part-time faculty union will host a virtual town hall open to students and faculty after accusing the college of threatening its members. File photo

Two unions have accused President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim’s administration of sending “threatening and reckless” letters to members of Columbia’s part-time faculty union in connection with their refusal to teach in conditions that would “pose a threat to their health and safety.”

In a Sunday, Sept. 27 letter, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Illinois Federation of Teachers President Daniel Montgomery said Columbia’s administration sent letters to members of the CFAC bargaining unit stating “they may be replaced for the rest of the semester if they fail to report to work,” including faculty’s in-person instruction beginning Monday, Sept. 28.

“These threats, in the middle of a pandemic, are reckless and wrong. Your focus should be ensuring the community’s safety—students and staff alike,” the letter to Kim stated.

Diana Vallera, president of CFAC and adjunct faculty member in the Photography Department, said faculty were threatened with being replaced for not showing up to their in-person classes—which she said is within their rights under Occupational Safety and Health Administration protections—when they were not provided the risk assessment for their rooms.

According to the OSHA website, employees who believe they are working under conditions that are “unsafe or unhealthful” are encouraged to bring the situation to their employer’s attention and able to file a complaint with OSHA reporting “a hazardous working condition” and requesting an inspection.

The website further states: “If the condition clearly presents a risk of death or serious physical harm and there is not enough time for OSHA to inspect, the worker may have a legal right to refuse to work.”

Vallera said more than 100 members have been threatened with being replaced for the semester and that faculty are looking at options to teach outside of the assigned room, including outdoors, “so as to not disrupt teaching.” More than 130 classrooms have not been assessed, Vallera said.

On Friday, Sept. 25 the college posted a message to its website with an update on the status of the air assessments and the data retrieved, which stated that “CDC guidance encourages organizations to review standards published by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) in assessing ventilation.”

It was determined that 70 instructional spaces assessed exceed ASHRAE standards, “with the exception of the two rooms at 1014 S. Michigan [Ave].”

The final Air Assessment report can be found here.

Associate Vice President of Strategic Communications and External Relations Lambrini Lukidis emailed the Chronicle in response to an interview request and noted “before the semester began, many courses were shifted to WEB modality based on faculty preferences. The departments did relay that that should a faculty member not come campus to deliver the in-person components of a course, the College would have to explore its options.”

Lukidis also forwarded a letter sent to faculty Friday, Sept. 25 by Senior Vice President and Provost Marcella David that said by Monday, Sept. 28 “all instructional spaces will be ready for their assigned academic use and all hybrid and face-to-face classes with scheduled in-person activities [beginning this week] are expected to transition from online to hybrid or face-to-face class sessions.”

Lukidis’ email also said the college and union are working to arrange a time to meet “as soon as is practicable, this week.”

After demands for the college to allow its faculty to remain remote until “CCC addresses fundamental COVID-19 safety concerns,” CFAC announced an open town hall for any faculty, staff, students and their families to attend.

The town hall, “Our Safety, Our Health, Our School,” will be held over Zoom Tuesday, Sept. 29, from 7-9 p.m. and will feature a panel of experts, who will “discuss health and safety issues related to returning to our colleges and universities during a pandemic.” At the town hall faculty and students will have the opportunity to directly ask experts questions.

Last week, CFAC issued a statement in partnership with the Illinois Federation of Teachers that said although the college conducted some air assessments in specific rooms, the college had “not done enough to address safety concerns,” as reported by the Chronicle.

Since then the union has filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge against the college for its “bad faith actions.”

The letter from the AFT and IFT to Kim stated that the administration has refused to install air purifiers with HEPA filters in rooms in which in-person instruction will take place and has refused to “implement a mandatory, robust testing plan, or perform air quality assessments in classrooms.”

The letter also stated that Columbia is “out of step” with other Chicago-area universities and asked the college to make the safety of the faculty and students a priority.

More updates to come.