- Interview by
- Ben Koditschek
In the past few years, museum and media workers across the country have conducted numerous successful unionization campaigns. This bright spot, along with exciting victories at Amazon, Starbucks, and Apple, may represent the initial stirrings of a revitalized labor movement.
A 2017 unionization attempt by non-tenure-track faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) led to the school offering multiyear teaching contracts, a significant victory that gave part-time faculty the ability to schedule classes more reliably. Then, like at so many workplaces, the COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity for the school to backtrack on these gains. But the faculty were prepared to fight back.
In 2021, staff at both the Art Institute of Chicago and SAIC organized amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In early 2022, before the dust had settled, the part-time faculty began their own organizing effort.
Ben Koditschek, Jacobin’s art director and a 2010 alumnus of SAIC’s undergraduate program, spoke with three organizers of the school’s part-time faculty. The conversation touched on what it’s like to be a working-class artist, the benefits and pitfalls of relying on technology for organizing during a pandemic, and the role of art labor in relation to the labor movement as a whole.
Annie and Evan, tell me about your experience as faculty at SAIC and the relation of your art practice to your teaching. And Anders, could you speak about your role as an organizer?
I graduated from SAIC in 2013 with an MFA in print media. Within two years, I was brought into the print media department as a lecturer, getting one or two classes each semester. I was also teaching at Harold Washington College. Recently, I started teaching at Columbia College as well. It has always been hard to piece those schedules together.
Right before the pandemic, a handful of us received the last promotion from lecturer to assistant adjunct before SAIC put promotions on hold. I had applied one year before and was denied. In these promotions, you’re not only going up against members of your own department but also against lecturers across the institution. The promotion process entails putting together a packet similar to that of a tenure packet, including all your research, the art projects you’ve conducted, and the classes you’ve taught, along with your teaching practices and student evaluations. Then you give a presentation to your department to see whether or not they will support your application.
Going up against your colleagues creates an environment of toxic and rigorous competition. Competing for basic necessities like health insurance is demoralizing. It is difficult to value a promotion when it means your peers, who you respect and value, continue to live without security.
I graduated from SAIC with an MFA in fiber and materials studies in 2019. I was hired to teach a class in the printmaking department for spring 2021. I was able to teach three classes this past spring, because I hadn’t taught any in the fall. So for the spring 2022 semester, I had a relatively well-paid situation. Going forward, I have one guaranteed class each semester. As a lecturer, I don’t have health insurance, and the pay is quite low.
I ended up dishwashing right out of graduate school and then working as a barback. I haven’t been able to afford a proper studio since I graduated, so a lot of my more physical practice as a sculptor and a printmaker has fallen away. That’s meant that my practice has turned toward things like writing, some performance works, and bookmaking. I still do bar work and various other jobs around the school to supplement my teaching, to pay for rent and food.
When I started teaching, I was bartending at the same time and working as a personal trainer. I was patching a lot of different jobs together. We have the teaching job in order to support the art-making practice, but then we also need other jobs to support the teaching job — so it goes on forever.
I now teach between six and seven classes across different institutions each semester in order to save some money, make rent, rent out a studio, purchase the materials I need, and go to residencies that are oftentimes unpaid.
In those six or seven classes, you have to be fully present. It’s a privilege to do this for students. I love my teaching practice, and it is a huge part of my life, and I find it so nourishing. But it takes a lot to be that present. I found that the more I was putting into my teaching practice, the less I had left for my own artwork. This high point of finally being stable meant that I was exhausted and burnt out and spread incredibly thin. It isn’t sustainable.
A few years ago, I was experiencing a lot of pain. I managed to get a doctor’s appointment at a time that didn’t conflict with any of my classes. They couldn’t figure out what was happening and kept shoving me from specialist to specialist. It was so hard to schedule because I couldn’t take off work for something where I wasn’t actually laying in the hospital. Eventually I got a CAT scan. I got a message from my doctor saying, “We got the results of your CAT scan, and we’d recommend that you go to the emergency room immediately, as fast as you can.” It turned out that my appendix had ruptured. I had just been walking around for days in extreme pain, still teaching. So I went off to the hospital and was there for about a week.
As soon as I got out of the hospital, I went straight to class. I had a substitute teacher lined up, but I was so concerned about missing class and making sure that I was as professional as possible because, as a lecturer, it’s such a competitive environment. That class was the first one I was teaching that I had proposed based on my own research, so I felt like I had to be there, and I just went right back in. My shoes had disappeared at the hospital, so I was wearing my mother’s sneakers from the hospital to finish class.
I’m the director of public affairs for AFSCME Council 31, which is the Illinois statewide affiliate of AFSCME [American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees]. We have about a hundred thousand active and retired members across Illinois. Nationally, AFSCME has a campaign that began a couple years ago called Cultural Workers United that is doing a lot of organizing work in libraries and museums and other related institutions.
Staff at both the Art Institute of Chicago and SAIC reached out to us in the early part of 2020, and I was brought in to assist with communications. They went public in August and had their election by mail in December. That work has moved to a phase of preparing for and then actually going to the bargaining table. They’re in negotiations now — that started last month. Now I’ve gotten involved with the SAIC non-tenure-track faculty organizing as well.
What’s the breakdown of non-tenure-track to tenured faculty at SAIC?
Three-quarters of all faculty are non-tenure-track. Some people only teach one class a term. However, the majority of classes are taught by non-tenure-track faculty. When you add in class prep time, mentoring students, and the instructor’s own practice and research, which is necessary to continue to get these teaching positions, there’s nothing part-time about it. And yet somebody like Evan doesn’t even have access to benefits.
That kind of neoliberal flexibility is in line with what the administration wants. It’s like, “This is the ideal work situation, because everybody can do what they want, and they have autonomy and freedom.” But it’s the autonomy and freedom to be poor.
Even though full-time and part-time faculty frequently teach the same number of courses per semester, the amount of work we do is often not recognized by any kind of repayment or loan forgiveness. I went into a good amount of debt attending SAIC for graduate school — somewhere around $80,000 for two years, which is fast accruing interest. If I were to pay my income-based minimum payment for the next year, I would still have more than my principal left over, because my interest is so high.
I’m working as a part-time faculty member at a variety of different institutions, doing full-time work at each of them. But I’m not eligible for loan forgiveness, because you have to be a full-time faculty member for that to apply to you. We can’t explain these nonsense breakdowns to someone from Nelnet or any kind of loan servicing agent. And it is impacting us not only in terms of the work we’re doing but also in our continued debt that mounts higher every year. It just feels impossible.
The pandemic led to these sorts of realizations about the uncertainty and precarity with which we live. What we have available to us in general was already so low that the second you take away our real health and safety, there’s almost nothing left.
The pandemic clearly played a major role in catalyzing this organizing effort. Why was that?
The non-tenure-track faculty are riding the momentum of our colleagues on the staff side of the school and at the museum. But I would argue that we’re part of something much larger within the city itself. We were recently sent an article asking, “Why is so much unionizing happening in Chicago?” There was a quote from it that said, “Our bosses don’t care if we die.” On the higher-education side, we have had more opportunities to keep ourselves safe. But there is a similar kind of realization — that the supposedly good-faith negotiating without a union that was happening before, which the administration advocates for, keeps a lot of the power in their hands.
They gave us multiyear contracts around the time of our last unionization attempt, in 2017, before I was teaching, and that helped deflate the effort back then. It was a temporary solution masquerading as a permanent one. But when the pandemic hit, we saw a huge series of layoffs of central faculty and staff members, as well as the dissolution of multiyear contracts. Their allocation of money was not toward making sure we could keep multiyear contracts or keep all the staff on the payroll. But the money continues to be going somewhere — and not to the people who are really making the school run.
In addition, the sheer quantity of work that goes into teaching a regular semester in-person — compared to what we’re paid — is massive. As soon as you transfer that to an online or hybrid format, you have to reinvent your curriculum and reinvent new structures for connecting with students. The amount of work exploded during the pandemic when we moved to a hybrid format. There was no additional pay for faculty, and student tuition was the same. Faculty are trying to make what students are learning worth what they are paying, without having full support in doing so, and without even having health insurance to make sure they can enter that space safely. We’re not only advocating for ourselves with these efforts, but also for students. We want to make sure faculty are not burnt out and that we can support students in the ways they need.
The pandemic did not create any of these issues, but it exacerbated them and exposed them. You had this stratum of faculty that were already tenuous and contingent, and then they were pushed to the brink with furloughs and layoffs. At the same time, the school is getting $11 million in federal funding from the CARES Act and other pandemic-related aid. Then you had staff and faculty getting called back to work before there were vaccines, and there was not great personal protective equipment (PPE).
Evan made mention of the Chicago Tribune story from early June. One of our bargaining committee members who works in the gift shop at the museum is quoted in that story. And she was saying, “They were forcing me back to work before vaccines were available. I had to ride public transit. I had to interact with people that were walking in off the street from who knows where. That was a risk to my life. And for what? To sell a $3 magnet. It really showed me that I was worth less than a magnet.”
How have you been going about organizing the union? What are your tactics?
You cannot build something lasting without a sense of solidarity, which is to say a structure in which we’re all here for each other in our complicated difference — recognizing what each of us are able to do, what each of us are able to bring to the table, and really spending time listening, not assuming that each person has all the knowledge, but that we are a community bringing this together.
As much as the pandemic fired people up to organize, it was isolating. And isolation is the enemy of organizing, because organizing is all about coming together in solidarity. We had to find a lot of different ways to do that, between Zoom and Signal and Hustle. Ultimately, organizing is always going to be about conversations — about talking to and, more importantly, listening to every single one of your coworkers. To the extent that the pandemic pushed people apart for public health reasons, we were tasked with trying to overcome that with other technologies or tactics, so that we could continue to have those conversations and that unity. It’s been a little easier with the faculty, because everybody is pretty much back in person. In a way, the shop floor is the school.
What are some of the specific issues that you’re hoping to change?
Having a seat at the table, in terms of contract discussions, is essential and huge. Currently, we elect people to represent us in all things related to the school’s part-time decisions, things like multiyear contracts and curricular development. They are permitted to sit in admin-based meetings with full-time faculty and then inform us of what’s going on.
But we want to be able to have those conversations ourselves, and have the administration sit in front of us, and have legal support. Ideally, in the future, while union representatives are in the bargaining committee, our part-time reps will also be present and able to push for things specifically related to the classroom and curriculum versus contract.
The most basic thing is having a seat at the table where decisions are made that affect working lives. When there is a contract in place, there is going to be an agreement that has the force of law that can codify the workers’ desires. Right now, it’s all about building the organizing committee, gathering cards, getting to majority, either getting recognition or going to election, and winning the union.
What is management doing to fight against your unionizing efforts?
They started out by claiming neutrality but immediately backtracked in an email, saying that they could not, in good faith, continue conversations around the reinstatement of multiyear contracts, because we had to figure out if we wanted to do it with our part-time reps or a third-party union — using very weird, either-or language, even though those two things are not mutually exclusive. We posted an entire rebuttal to this email on our social media channels.
I think the subtlety is intrinsic to their approach. It’s familiar to anybody aware of the corporate union-busting consulting industry. It’s very early for us to say what senior leadership may do in the weeks and months to come. But with respect to the staff last year, they retained Cozen O’Connor, which is an international law firm based out of Philadelphia with a long track record of anti-union, management-side representation that boasts on its website examples of its great work successfully frustrating the right of workers to organize. And they hired a costly crisis communications firm called Reputation Partners here in Chicago — again, with a long, sordid history of union busting.
They engaged in a lot of subtle but duplicitous misinformation with employees, falsely telling staff that they were not eligible for representation. Talking about the union being an outside entity, trying to impose itself in the special relationship between management and workers or faculty.
In addition to the subtlety of language, it seems they’re capitalizing on frustration around the timeline of reinstating those multiyear contracts. There are a lot of part-time faculty who are ready to get the ball rolling again. Putting it on hold exaggerates that frustration and, I think, very deliberately places it on unionization efforts.
The school says one thing and does another. They’re continuing to use language essentially like ours. They say things like, “We are all about solidarity. We are all citizen artists.”
How do you see the significance of what you’re doing in regard to a broader project of power for art workers or the labor movement generally?
There is a history within the art world of questions around labor — what does it mean to value the work of the artist as a laborer? It goes back to the 1960s. Especially now, in many ways, the art world as an institution has become a parody of itself. But that is high above us, for those of us working at galleries as art handlers, working as teachers, and even as students at private art institutions. We’re caught up in a presupposition that the work we do isn’t valuable, that we are, as a group, a luxury class — that it’s excessive to go for an art degree.
But I think asking for more for ourselves recognizes that what we teach is valuable. What our students are learning from us is valuable. The work we do as artists in this society is valuable. I think that is what the workers’ movement in general is about — recognizing the value of the work that so many of us on the ground level do. To value art labor is to recognize that there is no sector of labor that can be excluded if we’re going to value all the labor that we do. It’s not about becoming rich and famous. For us, it’s about getting the recognition we need to teach our students to value their labor — but also that we deserve enough pay to be able to afford rent and continue to provide that labor to the world.
The Chicago Arts Census is something really fabulous. It was not built by SAIC faculty, but many faculty and alumni are participating and spreading the word. It points out a general decrease in arts funding, and it asks, “How much are we all really making? How many jobs do we actually have?” If people aren’t telling you how much they’re making, where are they getting their money? How are we supposed to take off four weeks to go to an artist residency? That is the main thing that gives us the research and the clout for promotion that we get at the school. There are a lot of different pieces to this puzzle that don’t add up. And if the United States is not going to take art funding seriously, how are we supposed to make that work? And for the people who are able to get by, where are they coming from, and how do they have that money?
Second, from a faculty side, we not only have a lot of future artists in our classrooms but a lot of future art teachers. It is incredibly important to me that we find a way to leave this profession better than we found it. I don’t want students to look at those of us who’ve graduated as already jaded about the lack of sustainability of this job. We can’t have them graduating and thinking, “I’ll never be able to live doing that.” Our graduate students have over $100,000 of debt for a graduate degree, and tuition is increasing at the same time. So if we don’t solve this now, it’s just going to implode on itself.
This is why the Cultural Workers United campaign is so exciting to me. It’s so important to help workers within arts and culture to lift themselves up, and also to raise standards in the whole sector — to hold really iconic institutions in our communities accountable to being the good citizens that we expect from major employers.
It started with organizing the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (LA MOCA) a couple years ago. They just got their first contract and have realized some real gains. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis organized. The Philadelphia Museum of Art organized. Then SAIC was next — and this is continuing. There’s a whole bunch more that are just happening now, in Baltimore and in Pennsylvania and in Columbus, Ohio. The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures just went public with their majority with AFSCME in late May. This wave is still rising. It hasn’t crested yet. And there are so many workers to lift up on that wave.