CFAC members see balance in new contract, staff feels left out

By Alexandra Yetter, News Editor

Shane Tolentino


After nearly two years without a labor contract, the new contract for part-time faculty is described by some as “balanced” for the college and union, but by others as “discriminatory” toward staff and graduate student instructors.

The contract, which extends until Aug. 31, 2023, was signed by the college and ratified by 95% of union members May 15, as reported by The Chronicle.

“It has been a somewhat adversarial relationship in this negotiating process, so it’ll be great to return to a more productive relationship,” said President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim during a May 21 interview. “Now that the technical negotiations are done, I think we can get back to asking those questions: How do we maximize the faculty’s value to students? How do we maximize the faculty’s experience, both practical and theoretical?”

CFAC Vice President and part-time faculty member in the Theatre Department Andrea J. Dymond said although the contract is not perfect, it is strong and maintains gains from the previous contract.

“No one gets everything they want,” Dymond said.

Key changes in the contract include: increased representation in college committees; a mandated tiering process to protect seniority; signing bonuses for CFAC members but no retroactive pay; restrictions on growth of graduate instructors; and restrictions on teaching opportunities for staff.

Even after years of negotiations, Jason Betke, part-time faculty member in the Cinema and Television Arts Department and union member since 2007, said the contract was not much better than the previous one, with only “a few extra perks.”

“We got the raise that we should have gotten and we got some additional job securities,” Betke said. “Healthcare or assistance with a retirement plan [would have been nice] but those are very difficult in 2019 to try to win.”

For example, under the new contract, the standard compensation rate for a three-credit course taught by an adjunct who has taught 45 hours or less will go up to $4,600 in Fall 2019 up from $3,907.35-$4,105.80 under the previous contract. That compensation will increase to $4,700 in Fall 2021. Increases were based on length of service, with adjuncts who have taught 140 hours or more to receive $5,500 under the new contract in 2019, up from $4,962.15. Compensation for those at and beyond 140 hours will increase to $5,600  in 2021.

Bob Bruno—professor and director of the Labor Education Program at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who sat in on a few of the negotiation meetings on behalf of CFAC—said it can take six months to a year to accurately evaluate whether the contract works.

He said the contract strikes balance because there was not a “great concession” on the college or the union’s part.

Bruno emphasized the gains in representation the union now has through the contractual union representative on a range of college committees, including the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Executive Committee and a joint committee to analyze the part-time faculty evaluation system. 

“Maintaining that voice is always important to a worker organization because they feel that’s the best way to protect the worker interest and it’s a way to insert the voices of the … professionals,” Bruno said.

CFAC was also able to secure a tiering process, which outlines a course assignment process based on seniority and other factors.

Part-time faculty member in the Theatre Department Joe Janes, who has been a CFAC member since 2005, said the biggest gain in the contract was language protecting longtime, qualified professors.

“There’s not any leeway for shenanigans where a teacher, like myself who’s been here for a long time, could easily get replaced by someone they just hired who’s less expensive,” Janes said.

While Janes acknowledged some professors may use their seniority protections to grow lax in the classroom and may restrict some departments from bringing in new employees with fresh ideas, he said faculty still have an obligation to stay relevant and up-to-date in their industry for the benefit of their students.

Janes appreciated the pay increase, although having a signing bonus instead of retroactive pay was a downside for him. However, it is a “hit” he was willing to take for the contract to be signed.

Robert Perkovich—labor arbitrator and senior professorial lecturer in the Department of Management and Entrepreneurship at DePaul University—said signing bonuses instead of retroactive pay are not unusual in labor contracts. 

“The union is attempting to maximize the economic wellbeing of the people that it represents,” Perkovich said. “But as is true in any negotiation … if you’re unsuccessful in achieving [one thing], you take whatever might be the next best thing.”

The contract also included caps on graduate student instructors, or GSIs, to only allow them to teach 64 course sections in an academic year, and also capped the number of teaching-track faculty at 65, effectively limiting the growth of both groups’ teaching opportunities.

Perkovich said the caps may be indicative of a trend among higher education institutions who use graduate students and staff to instruct courses because it is more affordable for the institution, but the practice could be seen as “problematic” by unions. 

Dymond said the contract does not aim to limit GSIs, merely to guarantee a conversation with the union on any future growth.

In December, 11 GSIs in the English and Creative Writing Department sent an official letter of retraction to union leadership stating they were no longer interested in becoming union members, largely because of a lack of communication between CFAC and the GSIs.

Second-year nonfiction graduate student and GSI Rebecca Khera said in a May 22 email statement to The Chronicle, she was not surprised by the union’s desire to limit the GSI program because it may cause part-time faculty to lose course sections or teaching positions altogether. Khera is still concerned about the graduate program losing its competitive edge for prospective students who are drawn to opportunities to teach while attending school.

“With more and more MFA programs popping up across the country, Columbia could become less competitive by limiting the opportunities to teach,” Khera said.

Craig Sigele—academic manager and part-time faculty member in the Communication Department and United Staff of Columbia College union president—said the union contract blocks some current and potentially future staff from teaching and that union leadership has “staff targeted for extinction.”

Sigele said any communication staff had with part-time union leadership has been “insincere” and the union wants to bar staff from teaching.

“It’s a great loss for the student body and for the culture of Columbia because the thing about Columbia is that it uses professionals from Chicago, and these staff are professionals in [their] field,” Sigele said. “It’s a big cultural shift for the college to agree to such a draconian rule that is discriminating against a section of people who have a lot to offer.”