SIU faculty on the picket line

November 9, 2011

The Southern Illinois University administration's drive at to impose a "corporate education" model compelled faculty to strike, reports Adam Turl.

TENURE AND tenure-track faculty at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale (SIUC) are on strike after more than a year and a half of working without a contract. The SIUC Faculty Association (FA)--a part of the Illinois Education Association (IEA)--represents more than 600 teachers.

After walking out at midnight on November 3, the FA has been joined on the picket lines by hundreds of students, graduate assistants, staff and community members.

The key issues in the strike flow from SIU Chancellor Rita Cheng and SIU President Glen Poshard's attempts to impose a "corporate education" model on the school. As one student and Navy veteran asked in an open letter, "Is SIUC just after my government benefits after all? Like [the for-profit] University of Phoenix?"

"What is at stake here," said striking professor Jyostna Kapur, "is the education of working class and middle class students. The administration wants to cheat our students of a good education by trying to make us work for more and more with less and less at a time when working class and middle class students are going into debt for this education."

SIU faculty and their supporters on the picket line
SIU faculty and their supporters on the picket line (Adam Turl | SW)

A central part of this assault on education has been Cheng's scheme to take away tenure rights from the FA. There are important secondary issues as well, such as a plan to force professors to teach additional "distance education" courses--taking away their ability to set curricula and standards--and the handling of furloughs. The possibility of reprisals for participating in the strike has become an additional issue.

The administration and Board of Trustees (BOT) claimed the authority to declare a "financial exigency" (a financial emergency) that would override tenure, allowing them to fire any professor or group of professors.

The response from the union has been that any such layoffs must adhere to a transparent and grievable process. In other words, any financial crisis must be proven "real" by opening the books to the faculty and independent arbiters.

During negotiations on November 8, the administration and FA may have come to a compromise in which the administration would adopt some sort of transparent process on finances, but the union would have to drop the demand for an independent arbiter.

What you can do

Join student and union protesters for a third day of the student strike, and demonstrate during the Board of Trustees meeting at Anthony Hall at 2 p.m.

Call the SIU Board of Trustees (618-536-3357), Chancellor Rita Cheng (618-453-2341) and President Glen Poshard (618-536-3357), and demand that the university settle and bring back qualified professors.

For more information on the strike, go to the SIU faculty blog Deo Valente, and the Occupy SIU and Occupy Carbondale websites.

Given that the chancellor and the administration have wasted millions of dollars on unneeded construction and $1.5 million more on a new logo (designed by an outside marketing firm), not to mention their own bloated salaries--Rita Cheng makes nearly $350,000 a year, more than $100,000 above the average chancellor salary--the demand for transparency is more than prudent.

Moreover, by demanding transparency the union is threatening to halt what has been Cheng's top-down corporate remake of the school.

During earlier negotiations, in order to sweeten the anti-tenure pot, the administration offered the FA modest pay increases, which the FA was told would result in large tuition hikes. While this is not true--the president and chancellor's salaries alone could cover a 1 percent pay increase for the FA--the faculty rejected the pay increases, and asked that pay hikes be tied to revenue. However, this, too, would mean opening up the books, so the administration rejected the offer.

The faculty offered, in the event of a decline in revenue, to take unpaid furloughs if there was contract language protecting them if the university found itself in the black. Cheng and company also rejected this, asserting that the administration and the BOT had sole authority over furloughs. As of this writing, the furlough issue appears to remain a sticking point in negotiations.

THE ADMINISTRATION'S supporters have tried to paint the faculty as greedy to stroke jealousy between the FA and relatively lower-paid workers at SIUC. But this is a misleading picture aimed at dividing and conquering workers. "I'm an assistant professor with a newborn," said Angela Aguayo, "and with a large amount of student loan [debt] and can barely make ends meet. One more furlough day, and I can't pay for day care."

"I just want a decent work environment, a decent humble life," she continued. "Roof. Food. [Chancellor] Cheng is making that difficult."

The administration's disdain for its employees more generally was demonstrated by how Cheng treated staff, graduate assistants and non-tenure track faculty represented by other IEA unions on campus. These employees were also working without contracts until the zero hour of the November 3 strike deadline, when Cheng suddenly rushed to make tentative agreements (TAs) after stonewalling for months.

The unions have not yet voted on those TAs. However, it seems some progress was made on key issues. For example, GA United, the graduate assistants union, appears to have garnered some concessions on health care and fees that were eating into pay.

Cheng and the administration settled with these unions at the last minute in part to avoid a campus-wide general strike, as well as to isolate the FA, which has become the administration's primary target.

"This is not just about the individual points in the contracts," explained Nick Smaligo, a graduate student and member of GA United. "It is about shared governance and [opposing] the corporate model in the university...[The unions] are structured such that they bargain independently for separate contracts. We would only have the power we need to change the system if we united as one union."

Nevertheless, solidarity from students and other union members has been growing since the beginning of the strike, helping push Cheng back into federally mediated bargaining. The Occupy movement, in particular, has been a pillar of support for professors, and vice versa.

On November 3, about 100 students and community members marched in solidarity with the FA at a demonstration called by Occupy Carbondale. Occupy Carbondale has maintained an occupation in solidarity with school unions on campus for several weeks. In mid-October, the university unsuccessfully tried to evict Occupy Carbondale, destroying a number of tarps and wrecking tents at the site.

The next day, dozens of dental hygiene students protested and marched through campus in solidarity with their striking teachers.

By Monday, November 7, protests had grown substantially. Hundreds of students joined a call for a "student strike"--organized largely on Facebook--walked out of class and marched through campus to the different FA picket lines, drawing hundreds more supporters. As the student newspaper, the Daily Egyptian, reported, "Chants of 'We want contracts now,' from faculty members were heard alongside 'We want our teachers back,' from students." The paper's report continued:

The protesters walked through the Student Center, where the teams were in negotiations on the second floor, and then circled Anthony Hall chanting, "Settle."

"We are fighting for you," [FA negotiator Morteza] Daneshdoost said. "What we are doing here is for the future of SIUC." Jyotsna Kapur, an associate professor in cinema and photography, was in tears during the student-organized rally. She said the student support was emotionally overwhelming.

Students called a continuation of their solidarity strike on Tuesday, November 8. The Tuesday protest grew to more than 1,200 marchers as it snaked through campus, the student center and back to Anthony Hall.

As Montana Goodman, an SIU student and protest organizer put it, "The fastest way to get the strike over is to support the unions--to disrupt the normal working of the school. There is a big connection between this strike and Occupy Wall Street."

Students plan to regroup on Wednesday at 2 p.m. outside Anthony Hall and march to a BOT meeting scheduled to be held on campus.

ONE THING galvanizing students on the side of the FA has been the response of the administration to the unions and to the strike.

A few weeks before the strike, after pro-union students handed out leaflets and fact sheets, the chancellor implied that they were being used as "pawns" by the faculty. As the November 3 strike date approached, the chancellor's website threatened students who did not attend classes during the strike--although this was contradicted by a university spokesperson later.

When the strike began, students were told classes would not be interrupted. However, hundreds of classes were interrupted and unqualified scabs sent in to teach. For example, one dean with a background in microbiology was sent to teach advanced history classes, declaring on his Facebook status, "I'm going to be a history professor this week!!!"

Students took to writing complaints on the SIUC Facebook page--only to find that the university censored their comments within minutes. Hundreds of comments were deleted, and numerous students, alumni and others were banned from posting. The Daily Egyptian slammed the administration's attack on free speech in a scathing editorial.

While the administration remains aloof, students know and support the faculty on strike. As Goodman put it, "The unions are people I know--my teachers, people I see every day. Rita Cheng? Maybe I see her two times a year."

David Foutch, another student protester, said, "Unions are democratic power. I support democracy."

Negotiations resumed over the weekend and have continued since. The show of strength by the FA and the outpouring of solidarity from other union members and students seem to have pushed back the worst of the worst administration demands.

But the strike is not over yet. There are still important issues on the table about reprisals for strikers, furloughs and administration attempts to force faculty to teach distance education classes on the cheap.

This strike is also a response to a larger problem--the ongoing attempt to remake every arena of life into a for-profit enterprise. "We are at a point where it seems like people are fed up," Kapur said. "This is just one of the symptoms of a problem that's been sweeping the state."

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