UIC Faculty Rekindle Fight for Public Education With Historic Strike

Rebecca Burns

On Tuesday, more than 1,000 tenure and non-tenure faculty members at the University of Illinois-Chicago began a two-day strike after months of failed negotiations between the faculty union and the university. (UIC United Faculty Local 6456)

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As a tenured professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC), Josh Radinsky never expected to participate in a strike — or to see so many of his colleagues ready to do the same. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s like a ghost town today,” Radinsky marveled as he and a group of colleagues picketed outside an empty academic building yesterday morning.

Tuesday marked the start of an unprecedented two-day walkout staged by UIC United Faculty (UICUF), the union that represents more than 1,100 tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty members at the state university. Strikes by university professors are a rare occurrence: The first of its kind at UIC, the faculty strike is also one of only a handful at U.S. colleges and universities during the past five years. Since gaining recognition in 2012, though, UICUF has been locked in a stalemate with university administrators over its first contract. In December, faculty members voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if progress wasn’t made at the negotiating table.

This week, the union made good on its threat: Faculty members walked out of their offices on Tuesday morning, fanning out into picket lines across campus. 

Though the sight of picketing professors may be novel, it’s become increasingly evident to many that the union and administration were coming to loggerheads. As Radinsky, who’s taught for 14 years in the university’s College of Education, says about the strike, This needed to happen — I think it’s about time.” 

As it’s geared up for a strike, UICUF’s central contention has been that the university is not as cash-strapped as it claims to be. The union argues, based on reports of auditors and bond ratings, that UIC has more than $500 million in unrestricted reserves. And during the past five years, according to UICUF, even while the school has deferred faculty raises and withheld other benefits in the name of tough fiscal times, it has also increased the number of administrators by 10 percent.

Though the union says that some progress has been made during negotiations on non-economic issues such as academic freedom, the two sides are still sorely at odds about pay and benefits. Specifically, UICUF has put the penurious conditions of non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty at the center of its struggle: NTT faculty members currently make a minimum of $30,000 annually, and the union is demanding a $45,000 wage floor. Though the university offered $36,000 in its most recent counter-proposal, union negotiators say this does not constitute a good-faith negotiation.

We don’t see that as an actual compromise,” says John Casey, a non-tenure-track lecturer who is a member of the union’s bargaining team. Casey teaches a freshman writing course and says his low wages impact his ability to give his students the attention they deserve. He says he’s had to take a string of outside jobs, including a recent one as a bicycle tour guide, to make ends meet while teaching at UIC.

For its part, UIC maintains the union’s proposals for tenure-track faculty would lead to a 23 percent hike in costs for the university; its proposals for non-tenure-track faculty would increase costs by 27 percent. A work stoppage or strike is not in the best interest of the faculty, the University, or our students,” the university said in a statement issued last week on its website. However, under Illinois law, educational employees in a bargaining unit without an applicable no-strike clause in a contract have a right to strike. Each professor or instructor has the right to strike, or to work.”

The UIC strike represents a new height of coordination between tenured and non-tenure-track faculty, who often bargain contracts separately and sometimes see their interests as divergent. As I’ve reported previously, UICUF has found a unique way to maintain solidarity between the two groups. In 2011, the university successfully blocked tenure-track and NTT faculty members from forming a single bargaining unit — a move union activists say was an attempt to divide and conquer.” But the two groups have maintained the same core demands and the same bargaining team, operating as a unified group even though they must ultimately bargain two separate contracts.

Though the last major wave of faculty unionization took place in the 1970s, labor organizing in the academy is on the rise again. A surge of organizing among adjunct professors during the past year has won new, adjunct-only unions at several private universities, including Tufts University in Massachusetts. This resurgence is a direct outgrowth of the large increase in the use of low-paid contingent faculty,” says William A. Herbert, a distinguished lecturer at CUNY and executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions.

However, he notes that the labor action at UIC is fairly unique because of the apparent [tenure-track and NTT] faculty unity and prioritization for improving the working conditions of contingent faculty.”

Casey, who was an adjunct activist even before UIC unionized, tells In These Times that he was initially uncertain whether working with tenured professors would be the best path to improvements in his own conditions.

I was skeptical when we first started about how the relationship would work,” says Casey. “[But] our tenure-track faculty have been amazing allies.” Among the benefits of working in conjunction with tenured faculty, he says, is that the most vulnerable faculty members may be shielded from retaliation. I mean, my boss was out here today on the picket line,” Casey notes. That’s pretty remarkable.” (Department heads at UIC are not included in the union, but many have expressed support for the strike.)

Many labor activists are hailing today’s walkout as a historic development whose impact could extend beyond Chicago. For example, faculty members at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), the flagship campus in the state system, are currently in the midst of their own union drive. And many of those professors have their eyes on UIC as a bellwether for the rest of the state.

Given the expanding ranks of NTT faculty at Urbana-Champaign, UICUF’s ability to secure a higher wage floor for equivalent positions at UIC would be a huge boost for us here,” Susan Davis, a professor in the Department of Communication at Urbana-Champaign and a member of the pro-union Campus Faculty Association, tells In These Times via e-mail. 

Davis also points out UIC higher-ups could be taking a hard line in contract negotiations with UICUF in an attempt to stem the tide toward faculty unionization at other campuses. We think the administration is playing hardball with UICUF in part because they could set a dramatic precedent for the University of Illinois as a whole,” she continues.

Spokespeople for UICUF estimate more than 1,000 faculty members participated in the first day of the strike and that about half of all classes were cancelled. More than 200 people, including students, attended a midday rally on Tuesday. The group chanted, Chop from the Top!” and No Contract, No Peace!” while many marched with distinctly professorial picket signs, such as I Teach, Therefore I Am (Exploited)” and The Inductive Method: No Contract, No Work!” 

Campus service and maintenance workers represented by SEIU Local 73, who are in the midst of their own contentious contract negotiations and could strike in March, also came out to demonstrate solidarity.

We’re hoping that this will show us a way towards a stronger contract,” says Michael Schmitt, a member of the union’s bargaining team, who says the $13 to $17 an hour wages in Campus Parking Services aren’t enough for him and his co-workers to make ends meet. Though other campus unions have clauses in their contracts that prohibit them from striking in solidarity with faculty, many still attended pickets during their free time on Tuesday.

Faculty strikes are distinct from those at other workplaces in that they don’t actually cut into the university’s bottom line — though they can disrupt day-to-day business on campus, students have already paid tuition for the classes being cancelled. Therefore, faculty strikes are most often a short-term, symbolic tactic aimed at gaining public attention and support, says Herbert.

UIC faculty members insist, however, that their two-day walkout is a warning to the university before bargaining sessions resume again on Friday. We’re out here today to show urgency,” says Casey. If we don’t see any progress … we will go out on indefinite strike.”

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Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

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