Adjunct faculty, Elmhurst College at odds over union vote

Adjunct faculty members at Elmhurst College who want to form a union are questioning the administration's opposition to their efforts to organize.

The faculty members, who are hired as contractors to teach courses, say they want higher wages, more job security, their own office space and as much respect as tenure-track professors at the private Christian school.

"Primarily the major issue is we are underpaid," said Matilda Stubbs, an adjunct who teaches cultural anthropology at Elmhurst and at other private colleges in the region. "This is true for most adjuncts around the country. But specifically Elmhurst, being a private school, pays us significantly less than other private schools in the area."

Stubbs and some co-workers want to vote to form a union to bargain on their behalf and address workplace concerns.

But adjuncts say the college is making that difficult by sending emails that oppose unionization and seeking a religious exemption to the union-forming process overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.

Adjuncts say that opposition contradicts the college's affiliation with the United Church of Christ, which is guided by "core values of open engagement and social justice."

"I was just stunned that they would do this," said David McCurdy, an adjunct faculty member in religious studies who is also a United Church of Christ clergy member. "The church has taken pro-labor stances and supports the right to organize as essentially a human right. Then there's the institution using the UCC affiliation in a way that's diametrically opposed to what the church would stand for."

Elmhurst College spokeswoman Desiree Chen, however, said the college never filed to seek a religious exemption because adjuncts withdrew their petition to the labor relations board before a hearing that was scheduled for Nov. 29. She said the college wants to "work with the faculty in the best interests of students."

Adjuncts dispute the order of those actions and say they withdrew their petition because of the college's move to seek a religious exemption.

More than 100 United Church of Christ clergy members, who have signed a petition in favor of an open union vote at the school, support the adjuncts' stance.

"We simply want the adjunct faculty to be able to make up their own minds on this question," said Rev. Jason Coulter, pastor of Ravenswood United Church of Christ in Chicago.

In an email sent Nov. 29, April Edwards, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty, said the withdrawal of the petition to the labor relations board means the administration and the adjuncts now have six months to talk before a request to unionize can be filed again.

Edwards' email said the administration plans to work on hiring more full-time lecturers, improving transparency and creating a process for moving between levels on the pay scale. A pay increase for adjuncts is set to go into effect in January.

Stubbs, who said she is paid $3,178 per course she teaches, said the raise will be 3 percent.

"Any nominal pay increase is just the administration reacting to the threat that they perceive of union organizing," Stubbs said. "Giving me an extra $100 is not going to suffice."

Adjuncts, who are working to organize under SEIU Local 73, say they want to work with the college. But if they continue to perceive opposition, they might pursue another route to forming a bargaining unit - having a civic group such as the League of Women Voters oversee a union vote.

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