The manicured campus of Northwestern University has been an unlikely incubator of labor activism in recent months. The most notable labor battle has involved a groundbreaking campaign for union rights led by campus football players. But in the background, other labor stirrings were at work this spring. After the football players’ plight ended in a sad defeat at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), others were talking union off the field and in the lecture halls, feeding a labor buzz among several Chicago-area campuses.
Non-tenure-track Northwestern faculty members have just filed a formal election petition with the NLRB, on behalf of potentially more than 500 instructors across the campus, with both full- and part-time positions, including lecturers, postdoctoral researchers, and other lower-ranking instructors, according to Faculty Forward, the union-backed campaign that has been organizing private-university faculties nationwide. In a statement sent in response to a query yesterday afternoon, university spokesperson Alan Cubbage said, “Northwestern has not been served with a representation petition. If that happens, we will comment as appropriate.” But the faculty members involved with the campaign posted celebratory group selfies on Facebook on Thursday announcing that they had formally filed; it appears that the administration is remaining neutral for now.
Northwestern is now poised to join more than 50 campuses that have pushed for unionization since 2013 under Faculty Forward’s umbrella. The campaign is supported by SEIU as part of the same grassroots network as the Fight for 15 movement for low-wage workers in various sectors. While fast-food workers and daycare teachers are gunning for $15 an hour, adjuncts seek wage equity class by class, demanding $15,000 per course.
That’s a fairly distant goal for many adjuncts, who earn just a few thousand per course at many campuses, but it sets a realistic living-wage scale for instructors who currently struggle to meet their basic needs while earning a median fee of about $2700 per course. Even teaching on the equivalent of a full-time schedule, perhaps at multiple campuses, adjuncts often scrape by at about $20,000 a year.
According to Faculty Forward’s data analysis, nearly a third of part-time professors nationwide earn a salary that puts them in the low-wage bracket, at less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level. Illinois has a relatively high portion of poverty-wage professors, with about 16 percent at or below the poverty line.