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School of the Art Institute’s nontenured faculty calls on museum to recognize new union

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

A “strong majority” of the faculty’s bargaining unit, which comprises some 600 adjunct professors and lecturers at the school, have signed union authorization cards, members of the faculty organizing committee said Wednesday in a letter addressed to school President Elissa Tenny.

Adjunct professors and lecturers at the school rallied outside the museum late Wednesday afternoon, calling for job security, higher wages and health insurance for lecturers, who teach without it.

“We are adding our hard work and strong voices to a whole movement that is swelling across this country,” said Elena Ailes, an assistant adjunct professor at the school who teaches sculpture and first-year foundational courses.

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

“There are so many of us, that if we took one day off, this school would not function,” said Anjulie Rao, a lecturer who teaches in the school’s department of architecture, interior architecture and designed objects and in arts journalism. “And yet they treat us like the most disposable employees that they have. We are teacher gig workers.”

Art Institute staff members formed the city’s first major museum union when they voted to unionize 142-44 in January. The staff at the museum’s school soon followed with a 115-48 vote for the union. If the nontenured faculty succeeds in unionizing, it would form a third separate bargaining unit under the union’s umbrella.

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

In a statement, SAIC director of communications Bree Witt said unionization was a decision the faculty will make “individually and collectively.”

“If a union is voted in, we look forward to working with the bargaining team,” Witt said.

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

“We know that this school has a world-class reputation, and that is because of all of you here,” Ramirez said. “But the administration doesn’t recognize all that you do.”

Non-tenure-track faculty members at SAIC first announced their intention to unionize in May. Nearly 200 adjuncts and lecturers at the school signed an open letter announcing the union drive, calling their working conditions “intolerable.” The school’s two-tier system of compensation and benefits creates a “permanent underclass of contingent faculty,” they wrote.

In May, school President Tenny and Provost Martin Berger said in an email to the part-time faculty that they did “not believe that unionization is in the best interests of faculty or the school” but would bargain with a union if one was voted in.

If the 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. The union’s membership includes curators, retail employees, librarians and custodians at the museum and academic advisers, administrative assistants and mailroom employees at the school.

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 service workers nationwide, including at the Chicago Public Library. In recent years, employees at museums including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Philadelphia Museum of Art have also unionized with AFSCME.

After rallying on the Art Institute steps Wednesday, faculty members and supporters marched to the Sharp Building, a campus building where they said President Tenny was hosting a school event.

“What’s outrageous? Poverty wages,” they chanted outside the building.

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