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After Four-Year First Contract Fight, Northern Illinois Faculty Secure COVID Protections

Five years ago, it was hard to imagine a successful union drive on our campus at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois. But this spring, as the COVID-19 shutdowns and conversions to online teaching began, the United Faculty Alliance bargained protections that were more than what seemed commonplace at other campuses.

We bargained tenure clock extensions, adjustments to expectations for research productivity, intellectual property protections for online course content, faculty choice over whether student evaluations would be used in assessing us, and agreement to follow state mandates to ensure everyone’s health and safety.

Today, 65 percent of the tenured and tenure-track faculty at our university are members of the UFA, a chapter of the University Professionals of Illinois local and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). How did we go from nothing to a strong union with a solid contract in half a decade?


Interest in forming a faculty union had percolated for many years, but organizing efforts had never gained traction among the tenured and tenure-track faculty (although instructors had been unionized for decades).

As usual, management became the best organizer of the workforce, by creating problems that struck our campus with particular force. At the same time that the state’s financial support for public higher education was plummeting, NIU experienced dramatic administrative bloat, stagnant faculty wages, shared governance structures that were often ignored, vanishing research and travel budgets, and unaddressed racial and gender inequities.

This situation—common to many universities—led to increasing unrest among faculty who had previously been fairly quiescent…

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