Faculty set strike date at UIC

Caroline Gonzales and Jason Netek report on a looming battle at the University of Illinois at Chicago that is uniting campus unions and stuents.

UIC faculty rally with student supporters outside a Board of Trustees meeting (UIC United Faculty Local 6456)UIC faculty rally with student supporters outside a Board of Trustees meeting (UIC United Faculty Local 6456)

AFTER dragging out negotiations over a contract for faculty members for more than 500 days and 65 bargaining sessions, the Board of Trustees at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) may well have a strike on their hands.

In early December, UIC United Faculty (UF) Local 6456, representing over 800 faculty members, voted in favor of authorizing a strike by an overwhelming 96 percent margin. A strike could begin on February 18-19, according to the union.

Stagnant pay, lack of job security and opportunities for career advancement, and the need for many faculty to find a second job to make ends meet have produced a high turnover rate and an increasingly unhappy workforce. "Right now, we are trying to negotiate a contract that promotes transparency, gives faculty voice and respect, and allocates funds to resolve the serious problems that handicap both learning and research," said Scott McFarland, executive vice president of the union at UIC.

Several weeks before the strike vote, United Faculty held a teach-in at Jane Addams Hull House. Throughout the day, hundreds of students, university staff, grad students and faculty members joined together to discuss labor history, neoliberal attacks of education and the place of workers in society.

UIC has many labor historians, education policy experts and radicalized lecturers who push students and others to analyze the roots of oppression and exploitation, both inside and outside the classroom. These questions are running themes in classes ranging from sociology to gender and women's studies, to social work and anthropology.

On January 22, as the trustees held the opening meeting of their weeklong retreat, almost 100 students and faculty occupied the Student Center West building, silently holding signs that read, "Don't make the faculty strike!" Dozens of union members folded the sign so it read "Faculty strike!" instead.

After the meeting, members of UF, the UIC Graduate Employees Organization and students joined a picket line organized by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Illinois Nurses Association. SEIU is in contract negotiations at UIC as well, with the key issue being the withholding of pay increases.

Remzi Jaos, director for the Higher Education Division for SEIU Local 73 and chief negotiator, explained why unions on campus and students are working together: "We are pooling our resources, sharing our information on bargaining trends, and gathering together for actions, so that we can be effective in our solidarity. We are all in this together to give strength to our message to the Board of Trustees and the administration."

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THE CONDITIONS that have led the faculty to prepare for a strike are all too common for workers in higher education.

The average UIC lecturer makes $30,000 a year--less than the median salary for a Chicago public school teacher--which makes having a second job nearly a necessity for many. Non-tenured faculty lack job security, and there is a high turnover rate--many lecturers don't work more than a year at UIC before moving on. All of this instability affects students since the university's departments are in a state of perpetual change, and the lecturers on hand at the moment often juggle multiple jobs.

Sara Buck, a UIC student and part of the Illinois Indiana Regional Organizing Network said the quality of education has deteriorated in the years since the Great Recession struck, "due to the administrations austerity policies."

One non-tenured faculty member, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to fears of retaliation, talked about the direction of the school:

These policies are made to make sure that the funding stays exactly where it can continue to benefit the people in power. There has to be a platform for all constituents, key players and students to have a voice. And so these budgetary concerns should not lie at the feet of two or three people. We should have representation of all the different folks who are affected to fulfill the needs of all.

Until we have that kind of collective body, I think we are going to continue to have problems with funding, where funding is going, who is getting what. But this also speaks to the philosophy of the university and what they value.

The UF says a good contract can be settled with faculty without any extra cost to students. Since 2007, tuition has increased by 64 percent, and student enrollment is up by over 10 percent. Plus, UIC officials still claim the school is broke. Even as it was closing nearly 50 schools last spring, the city of Chicago gave UIC $75 million to develop University Village, a real estate complex, which has resulted in a very lucrative deal for the university.

The UF says a good contract can be settled with faculty without any extra cost to students. For example, paying a fair wage would cost less than 1 percent of the extra cash that the university has complied, without any tuition increase.

An increasing share of tuition goes to administration costs, versus resources for our education. Over the last five years, the administration budget has increased by 10 percent, while tenured jobs have decreased by 1 percnt.

Student and campus workers alike recognize the complicity of the administration in driving this new business model of the university, which is in direct contradiction of UIC's mission statement: "To provide a wide range of students with the educational opportunity only a leading research university can offer and to foster scholarship and practices that reflect and respond to the increasing diversity of the U.S. in a rapidly globalizing world."

But this is in keeping with the trend throughout public education toward privatization and the corporate "reform" agenda.

Together, the unions at UIC are standing up and sending a unified message--that workers and students alike are unhappy with conditions on campus. Students are paying more for a worse education--meanwhile, UIC employees are providing more wealth than ever for the university, but getting by with less.

If the faculty get the contract they are asking for, not only will they have jobs worth staying in, but students stand to get a better education as well.

The UF says that a strike will begin on February 18-19, with picket lines going up on those days--students are encouraged to come to campus on those days, but to join the picket lines instead of going to classes. Workers across Chicago are being asked to write solidarity statements from their unions and community organizations, and come out to show the administration that this fight is part of a broader struggle for all workers in the city.