UIC faculty win first contracts

May 21, 2014

James Daugherty and Caroline Gonzales report on the first contract for union faculty members at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

AFTER ROUGHLY two years of mobilizations and bargaining, members of the UIC United Faculty (American Federation of Teachers Local 6456) voted overwhelmingly to accept a first contract at the University of Illinois at Chicago on April 25.

Of the tenure track faculty members who voted, 98 percent voted yes, and of the non-tenure track members, 97 percent voted yes. The contract settlement came days before the beginning of an open-ended strike by both tenure track and non-tenure track faculty, which could have disrupted classes leading into the final exams of students.

United Faculty was certified in the spring of 2012 and represented both tenure track and non-tenure track faculty. Since that time, the administration dragged its feet in negotiations, bargaining in bad faith (in an unbelievable 60-plus bargaining sessions) until the beginning of the spring semester of this year, when a successful two-day strike forced the administration to start talks in earnest. It was only after the February strike that real progress began at the bargaining table.

UIC faculty members on the picket lines during their strike
UIC faculty members on the picket lines during their strike (Bob Simpson | SW)

Though faculty strikes are quite rare in the U.S., that may be changing as the strike at UIC and the recent strike mobilization at Portland State University (PSU) have shown. Mary King, the immediate past president of the PSU AAUP, said:

In our own recent contract struggle, only a threatened strike moved an intransigent administration at PSU, utterly impervious to a yearlong attempt at dialogue about the damage being done by prioritizing administration, real estate and athletics over academics and students.

Universities all over the country are facing the same destructive trends, with the result that students are taking on unconscionable levels of debt, everywhere paying more for less, while teaching, learning and working conditions worsen. We're all better off because UIC faculty are standing up for their students, their university and their profession.

FACED WITH a high-handed and entrenched university administration, deteriorating conditions and salaries, attacks on the traditional prerogatives of university faculty, United Faculty followed the example of the successful Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike.

With the CTU showing that public-sector unions can fight and win public support, United Faculty members voted overwhelmingly to strike in February. And it worked. Varying estimates from activists and local leaders confirmed that a solid majority of teaching on campus was affected during the February 18-19 strike, with 60 percent to 80 percent of classes canceled.

Many graduate student workers--who often work in close collaboration with faculty and have their own union, the Graduate Employees Organization, AFT Local 6297--also canceled classes in individual acts of solidarity, so the impact of the strike went beyond even the membership of the faculty union.

This sense of solidarity is unique in that both groups of faculty, tenure track and non-tenure track, are members of the same union local and worked on the bargaining team together to prevent the administration from driving any possible wedges between the two--but they actually bargained two different contracts covering the different groups.

Support and sympathy between the two groups isn't automatic in academia, where usually the professional "common sense" emphasizes individual accomplishment, reputations and prestigious titles. The well-established hierarchy within academia can easily lend itself to a hyper-individualism and elitism, as those higher up in the food chain don't see themselves as connected in any way to those below them (i.e., graduate students, lecturers and junior faculty without tenure).

United Faculty's success with forming and keeping a solid front against the administration is thus all the more remarkable.

THE TWO contracts contain some significant economic improvements for both the tenure track and the non-tenure track faculty.

For those off the tenure track, whose positions are almost always one year in length and require a constant process of re-applying for their own jobs and who often have no mechanism for performance review or promotion, the improvements are immediate. Many are now eligible for multi-year contracts, which will finally give some element of stability and security to their previously precarious situation. The lowest-paid positions are also seeing an immediate 25 percent increase in salary.

All classifications are guaranteed 10 percent raises upon being promoted, 6.75 percent raises retroactive to 2012, and additional support in terms of research dollars and professional development monies, as well as new computers every four years.

They are guaranteed to be notified of their re-appointment by June 1 of every year (often, non-tenure track faculty or "adjuncts" are informed of their being expected to teach within weeks, and sometimes days, of the beginning of the semester). Additionally, they all now have a union grievance procedure, layoff and recall rights, union representation on campus committees and non-discrimination protections, including civil union status and gender identity.

The tenure track contract also contains similar economic improvements, but additionally covers issues specific to their situation, such as tenure and promotion protections.

However, it's worth noting some of the weaknesses of both contracts. Neither have "past practice" clauses in the contract, which gives tremendous leeway to the administration to change policies unilaterally. As well, the tenure track contract doesn't allow procedural violations of the tenure process to be grieved through the union grievance procedure, which can be a key strength of faculty unions.

In addition, neither agreement covers anything related specifically to intellectual property rights, which has become a significant issue for higher education unions, because of the profit-driven move by major universities toward Massive Open Online Courses--or MOOCs, where a professor films a lecture that is then sold by the university for profit online to as many buyers/students as they want, without any ownership or control by faculty.

These are notable absences in the contracts that significantly curtail the clout and the scope of bargaining moving forward for the new union. It's noteworthy that the union's bargaining team was small and engaged in closed-door bargaining rather than, for example, the first contract victory last year by the faculty union at the University of Oregon, which utilized open bargaining to apply pressure and publicly embarrass the administration into conceding sweeping gains to the new union.

As well, the union bargaining team at UIC reached an agreement a full week before the date set for the second, open-ended strike, thereby losing potential leverage which might have been applied in the normally intense final bargaining hours before the strike.

However, the three-year agreement just signed is backdated to 2012, which means there's only one more full year of the agreement until the union is back at the negotiating table. The union will have a full year to regain its energy, build on its accomplishments, recruit new members and go back to the table stronger than the previous year.

In November, the union will begin negotiating again, for their August 2015 contract. Scott McFarland, a lecturer in the UIC English Department, put it this way: "We will be fighting for the same things that we were originally fighting for and more. We haven't made all the gains our members need, but as a union that has won a contract, we now have more leverage."

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