UI Chicago faculty strike to protest administration stonewalling

Faculty members at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) on February 19 ended a two-day strike called to protest the administration’s stonewalling during collective bargaining negotiations.

The strike was organized by United Faculty AFT Local 6456, which represents 1,100 tenured and non-tenured faculty members at UIC.

Local 6456 won a union representation election in 2012. The union and administration have been negotiating the first collective bargaining agreement for the last 18 months.

Union frustration with the administration’s stonewalling boiled over recently.

“Our bargaining team has spent the last three days negotiating with the administration,” reads a union message to members. “What has it accomplished? Nothing. As far as we can tell, the only reason that they showed up was so that they could say they weren’t walking out on talks.”

The union called the strike, which 95 percent of the members voted to authorize in December, to bring attention to important issues that need to be addressed in the bargaining sessions.

Foremost among these issues is the question of whether UIC will pursue its strategic mission of providing a quality education to its largely working class student body–a mission agreed to by both faculty and the administration in their joint Strategic Thinking Report

“The UIC faculty is committed to that mission,” write Lennard Davis and Walter Benn Michaels, two UIC English professors in a piece written for Jacobin. “And the whole point of the strike is to help us fulfill it.”

The administration says that it is committed to the same mission, but it has raised student tuition 25 percent since 2007 without making substantial investments in those who most affect the quality of the students’ education–the faculty.

“It is outrageous that (UIC) has increased tuition and burdened students with debt, all while socking away almost a billion dollars of students’ money,” said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. “Just as outrageous is that the administration has spent the students’ tuition dollars on increasing the number of administrative positions and reducing the number of faculty.”

During the last five years, student enrollment has increased by 13 percent, said Joe Persky, president of Local 6456 during an interview with WTTW television. But the number of tenured faculty has declined by 1 percent during the same period.

On the other hand, the number of administrators, many of whom are paid substantially more than faculty members, has increased by 10 percent.

Faculty salaries have also lagged.

The average annual salary for tenured UIC professors, which according to Davis and Michaels is $65,000, has remained the same for the last two years, and three years ago faculty pay was reduced temporarily when they were required to take unpaid furloughs.

The situation for non-tenured lecturers is much worse. Many are paid $30,000 a year, barely a living wage in Chicago, yet they play a crucial role at the university.

Lecturers teach many of the first year courses at UIC, and success during the first year is a major factor in determining whether a student graduates.

The union wants a reasonable pay boost for all faculty, especially those on the non-tenured track. It also wants three-year contracts for lecturers.

But the union is seeking more than higher wages and better job security.

It’s fighting for a collective bargaining agreement that improves their students’ education–one that results in reduced class sizes, more individualized instruction, and safe and well equipped classrooms and labs so that cutting edge research and instruction can take place.

UIC also wants a collective bargaining agreement that ensures that faculty have a relevant voice in curriculum and budgetary decisions–decisions that affect the quality of their work.

Davis and Michaels write that as UIC has become more corporatized many decisions involving what faculty teach and how much will be spent on instruction has been usurped by a bloated bureaucracy whose values have been shaped in the corporate boardroom rather than in the classroom.

This usurpation has taken place under the guise of “shared governance,” which means “that faculty senates can ‘advise’ the administration, and the administration can then do whatever it wants,” they write. “To call shared governance real governance is like saying your dog has an equal say in how your household is run because sometimes when he whines he gets fed.”

The union decided to strike reluctantly, but in the end felt that a strike was the only action that could get the administration’s attention.

“The heart of UIC is its faculty and its students, but the trustees short change them both,” said Persky. “The administration’s priorities don’t match the University’s mission, and after trying to negotiate a fair contract for eighteen months, (they) left us no choice but to strike.”


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