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High stakes in faculty strike at Chicago City Colleges
"Everyone supports us"

By Lee Sustar | October 22, 2004 | Page 15

CHICAGO--The faculty union at community colleges went on strike October 19 in a fight for its survival as a viable union. The 800 teachers, members of American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 1600, are drawing the line against massive increases in health care costs, increased teaching workloads and new requirements to publish that, if violated, could open the door for the firing of tenured faculty.

"We're ready to go," one city college teacher told Socialist Worker. "It started slowly, but now we have the support of all the campus unions. Construction workers in the building trades are going to honor our picket lines. The national AFT has sent two staffers to run a strike preparation meeting that had representatives from every college. The students are getting organized, too."

The battle at the City Colleges of Chicago (CCC)--a system of seven two-year institutions--is long overdue. A series of concessionary contracts--pushed by former Local 1600 President Norm Swenson--has reduced full-time CCC faculty from 1,500 members in the early 1980s to little more than half that number. As a result, more than 650 adjunct faculty--part-timers with low pay and few benefits--increasingly take up the slack.

That's why CCC Chancellor Wayne Watson apparently believes that he can use part-timers to run a classic strikebreaking operation. While the adjuncts recently organized a union and negotiated their first contract earlier this year, the agreement requires them to keep teaching during strikes by full-time faculty.

Watson further aims to split high-seniority full-timers from younger teachers. In a previous contract, the union accepted a deal in which longtime faculty would teach three courses per semester, while newer hires teach four. Now all teachers would have the higher workload--and also publish regularly or risk losing their jobs.

Watson did back off his initial demand for a four-year wage freeze, but has taken a hard line on imposing vastly higher costs for health care that would amount to more than the board's proposed 3 percent annual wage increase.

The battle is one of a series of fights at the City Colleges, which provide working-class young people with an opportunity to attend four-year institutions or obtain training in fields such as nursing. Local 1600 has a fighting history, striking seven times between 1966 and 1978. But the union has been dormant for more than a decade as the system was slashed to the bone.

In recent years, the board has privatized the CCC payroll system, contracting it out to American Express, and cut the budget for counseling and tutors. This agenda has the firm support of City Hall--Chancellor Watson is a close family friend of Mayor Richard Daley.

But this time, Watson may have gone too far. As one faculty member put it, "Watson may be itching for this fight, but so are the teachers. The students and the staff are fed up, too. We've got everyone's support. Now we have to turn that into action."

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