Nontenured faculty asks School of the Art Institute to recognize union

Non-tenure track faculty members at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago have asked the school board to voluntarily recognize their union.

A “strong majority” of the faculty’s bargaining unit, which includes about 600 faculty and faculty at the school, have signed union authorization cards, members of the faculty’s organizing committee said in a letter to school president Elissa Tenny on Wednesday.

Associate professors and lecturers from the school rallied outside the museum late Wednesday afternoon, demanding job security, higher wages and health insurance for lecturers teaching without them.

“We’re adding our hard work and strong voices to a whole movement that’s swelled across the country,” said Elena Ailes, an assistant professor at the school who teaches sculpture and foundation courses in the first year.

“We emphasize the idea that teaching is work, cultural work is work, arts educators and cultural workers are workers and our work has value,” Ailes said.

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“There are so many of us that if we took a day off, this school wouldn’t work,” said Anjulie Rao, an associate professor who teaches architecture, interior design and designed objects, and art journalism in the faculty. “Yet they treat us like the most expendable employees they have. We are teacher gig workers.”

Art Institute workers formed the city’s first major museum union when they voted for Union 142-44 in January. The museum school staff soon followed, voting 115 to 48 for the union. If the private lecturer manages to organize itself in a union, it would form a third separate bargaining unit under the umbrella of the union.

If the school does not voluntarily recognize the union, the faculty will file an election with the National Labor Relations Board. Workers would then need a simple majority to organize.

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In a statement, SAIC Communications Director Bree Witt said unionizing is a decision that faculty will make “individually and collectively.”

“If a union is elected, we look forward to working with the negotiating team,” Witt said.

Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza, 10, spoke out in favor of the faculty union on Wednesday, as did Rep. Delia Ramirez, who is running for Congress.

“We know this school has a top notch reputation and that’s because of all of you here,” Ramirez said. “But the administration doesn’t recognize everything you do.”

SAIC non-tenure track faculty members first announced their intention to unionize in May. Nearly 200 school staff and faculty signed an open letter announcing the union campaign and describing their working conditions as “unbearable”. The school’s two-tier pay and benefit system creates a “permanent underclass of conditional teachers,” they wrote.

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In May, school president Tenny and Provost Martin Berger said in an email to part-time faculty that they “do not believe unionization is in the best interests of the faculty or the school” but would negotiate with a union if one were elected.

If non-tenure-track faculty succeeds in forming a union, it will more than double the size of the Art Institute of Chicago Workers United, which currently represents about 500 workers. Members of the union include museum curators, retail employees, librarians and caretakers, as well as academic advisers, administrative assistants and the school’s mailroom clerks.

The workers would be represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents the unionized museum and school workers along with other public sector workers across the country, including the Chicago Public Library. In recent years, museum workers, including the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, have also unionized with the AFSCME.

After gathering on the steps of the Art Institute on Wednesday, faculty members and supporters marched to the Sharp Building, a campus building where President Tenny is said to be hosting a school event.

“What is rude? Poverty wages,” they chanted in front of the building.

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