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labor ‘If This Was About Money, We’d Still Be Teaching’: Inside the Longest Adjunct Strike in US History

Academics at Columbia College in Chicago are in a fierce dispute over cuts to courses and poor working conditions

People picketing with signs reading "on strike" in front of Columbia College in Chicago.
Adjunct professors and Columbia College faculty union members walk the picket line outside Columbia College Chicago. ,Michael Jarecki via Columbia College Faculty Union

The longest strike of adjuncts in US labor history is still ongoing, with academics at Columbia College in Chicago remaining in a fierce dispute over cuts to college courses and a host of complaints over poor working conditions.

The fierce dispute began when Columbia College leadership suddenly announced plans to implement significant cuts to courses and course sections, and consolidating classes which have ballooned class sizes, citing a $20m budget shortfall.

The strike has thrown a spotlight on how higher education in the US has increasingly relied on adjunct faculty, professors who often work with little to no job security and low pay.

Diana Vallera, who has taught at the school for 15 years as an adjunct professor in photography and currently serves as president of the Columbia College faculty union, said the union immediately began pushing for more information while still trying to bargain over a new union contract for the school’s adjunct faculty.

“You can’t make unilateral changes to mandatory subjects to bargaining. The employer just doesn’t care. They kept referring to management rights. They don’t want to work with the union, but there is one, and they don’t want to be accountable to anyone,” she said.

Vallera said 53 course sections were cut from the fall 2023 semester and 317 for the spring 2024 semester.

The union filed an unfair labor practice charge against Columbia College with the National Labor Relations Board, one of seven they have filed since August 2023, along with voting to start striking on 30 October as contract bargaining has seen little movement toward an agreement.

The strike is now the longest by adjuncts in US history, according to the union.

The union has criticized the cuts while executives at Columbia College continued to receive large bonuses to their salaries despite the school’s financial deficit woes as reasons behind the cuts.

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Dr Kwang Wu-Kim, president and CEO of Columbia College, received a bonus of $300,000 in 2021, on top of a salary of over $799,000, and over $600,000 in additional compensation were given to 14 other executive positions, according to 2021 tax documents.

Kim said in a video message in November that “basically the college is financially sound”, when downplaying concerns about the college’s finances amid the cuts.

“The administrators who are in that room making decisions, all their salaries were increasing over the pandemic, it was disgusting,” added Vallera. “The only people harmed by these eliminations to save money due to years of mismanagement and a $50m building, the only people harmed are the most on the margins. They have repeatedly said they can’t stand working with unions. This is union animus heightened. We’re in bargaining and they still felt they could do whatever they want.”

Since August 2023, the union has filed seven unfair labor practice charges against Columbia College with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), all of which are still awaiting adjudication.

The allegations against the college include refusal to furnish information required for bargaining, making unilateral changes to issues subject to collective bargaining, threatening to or transferring work out of the bargaining unit, soliciting workers to resign from the union and utilizing intellectual property of striking faculty.

“If we took on the changes, two-thirds of our membership would be gone, because they wouldn’t have classes any more if we accepted what they originally offered us,” said Tim McCain, an adjunct theatre professor and working professional at Columbia College, who saw one of his theater classes increase from 20 to 85 students.

He said because of significant increases to the size of his classes, he had had to adapt the way he teaches because there are too many students to have a more personalized class with each student.

“If this was about money, we’d still be teaching. They would just be negotiating a contract. But this is so much more,” added McCain.

The strike has received support from several local elected officials and students who have refused to cross picket lines and even engaged in walkouts of their own as Columbia College has sought to have adjunct faculty courses filled in by other adjuncts crossing the picket line or by full-time faculty members.

Many students have criticized Columbia College’s decision to cut courses and the impact it’s having on their education.

“It’s always the people they swear to protect that end up getting the brunt of it. It’s an expensive college. A lot of people are struggling to afford to be here,” said Sarah Khairy Nevárez, a sophomore at Columbia College who said the cuts had impaired students’ abilities to fulfill their graduation requirements on time.

Bria Hall, another sophomore at Columbia College, said the cuts were negatively affecting the ability for students to have one-on-one time and relationships with professionals, which was marketed to her in a mailer that ultimately led her to choose to attend Columbia.

They don’t see us as growing individuals or professionals, they see us as dollar signs. It’s heartbreaking and it’s not fair,” said Hall. “If you’re going to take our money, at least give us the education we deserve, it makes no sense to me.”

Columbia College did not comment on the executive bonuses, but noted the union and administration have both agreed to federal mediation and characterized the cuts in classes and consolidations as an adjustment to enrollment and financial difficulties.

“At the heart of the work stoppage is the fact that the college is asserting its management right to make decisions to address a financial shortfall. The union has refused to end the strike because it insists on a guarantee of employment for nearly all members of this contingent group of faculty and has sought veto power over class sizes and course offerings,” a spokesperson for Columbia College said in an email.

They added: “The union’s demands would jeopardize the college’s long-term sustainability by dictating which measures the college can and cannot use to restore its fiscal health.”