UIC faculty ready to strike

By Jodi S. Cohen

University of Illinois at Chicago faculty members are poised to strike Tuesday for the first time in campus history. The two-day walkout could cancel hundreds of classes at the Near West Side public institution.

The union, which represents about 1,150 full-time tenured and nontenured faculty members, was certified in 2012 but has not yet reached agreement on its first contract with the university despite dozens of bargaining sessions, including during the past three days.

Despite making some progress over the weekend, the union has called the university’s latest proposals “insufficient.” There are no bargaining sessions scheduled before Tuesday’s planned strike, though a university spokesman said the administration offered to meet Monday.

“The negotiations have been dragging on almost interminably,” said UIC economics professor Joseph Persky, president of the union, UIC United Faculty, whose members have not had a salary increase since the group formed. “I never thought we would get to the point where we had to strike to get a contract. It is time to deal with this.”

College faculty strikes are rare, and this one is especially notable because it comes at a time when national unions are pushing to organize faculty at research institutions across the country, including at U. of I.’s flagship campus in Urbana-Champaign. The UIC strike would be the first in a while at a major research university; faculty members at Southern Illinois University went on strike in 2011.

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    The limited two-day action — which will include a rally and picketing in the campus quad and in front of classroom buildings — is intended to send a message to the administration without creating a drawn-out disruption to the education of UIC’s 27,500 students.

    The strike will not affect classes taught by graduate student instructors, who are represented by a separate union and have a no-strike clause in their contract. Striking employees will not be paid if they miss work, according to the university.

    UIC Provost Lon Kaufman said the strike’s impact on students would be similar to if a professor canceled class because of the weather, car trouble or any other reason. But because the strike would be on Tuesday and Wednesday, it has the potential to affect at least one class taken by each of UIC’s 16,600 undergraduate students, Kaufman said.

    “The material will be made up along the way. Those that need to graduate will graduate. I think the grades will be unaffected,” he said. “We expect the faculty who will not be teaching, as they would on any other occasion, will call in and alert students. Faculty don’t have any desire to harm the students or disable them.”

    The unresolved contract issues at UIC are mostly economic ones. According to the latest public contract proposal, from Friday, the union wants a merit salary increase of 4.5 percent this year, while the administration has offered a 3.25 percent increase. The two sides also are at odds on how to structure future pay adjustments — the union wants a minimum increase of 3.25 percent for each of the next two years, while the administration’s offer calls for currently undefined “wage increase programs” equivalent to the increases that other employees will get those years.

    The union also is asking that the minimum salary for nontenured, full-time lecturers, many of whom hold doctorate degrees, be increased to $45,000, from $30,000, and that instructors be offered multiyear contracts. The university has offered a minimum salary of up to $36,000 by 2016.

    The union is asking that tenure-system faculty earn a minimum of $60,000 a year.

    Kaufman said the minimum salaries for lecturers are “competitive” with what instructors are paid at other institutions, but that the university recognizes the need to increase the wage.

    “It is certainly one of the major issues for us and one that will be remedied going forward,” he said. “We have the responsibility to learn from what happens in this experience and correct what needs to be corrected in order to ensure the excellent education of our students.”

    More complicated, Kaufman said, is agreeing on how to determine merit, and what factors make faculty members eligible for merit-based salary increases.

    “It is how one distributes those dollars and how best to do so to achieve or reward or identify the most meritorious faculty,” he said. “The union and the administration may have different views on that, and that is the crux of the issue — making sure we define excellence the same way and reward that.”

    The two sides have been working with a federal mediator since November.

    “I am surprised they can’t resolve this,” said Northwestern University law professor Zev Eigen. “These are not very complicated issues as far as labor management goes. This looks more like muscle flexing … rather than heart-of-the-matter problems.”

    But both sides have more at stake than the contract, Eigen said, particularly as a union drive is underway at the Urbana-Champaign campus. The UIC union is affiliated with the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers.

    “Both the union and the employer in this case are hyperaware of the impact this contract will have on other potential bargaining units,” Eigen said. “The union is nervous that if they don’t get something good and they get less than what they promised, it will be less likely they will be successful in organizing at other places.”

    Faculty at the Urbana-Champaign campus this year received average raises of 4.15 percent to 4.65 percent after years of furloughs and salary freezes.

    UIC employees who are not part of the union, including faculty members, administrators and academic professionals, received average salary increases of 2.75 percent to 3.25 percent this academic year. The UIC union does not include part-time faculty or those in the colleges of Medicine, Dentistry and Pharmacy.

    The union has said it is striking for instructors such as John Casey, who graduated from UIC with a doctorate in 2010 and has been teaching in the English department. He currently makes $30,000 for a nine-month job teaching writing and advising students on courses and career preparation.

    Casey, 35, teaches an introductory writing course required of all UIC freshmen.

    “I am living off of my credit cards. It is not a position that someone should be in regardless of education, but particularly when you have a doctoral degree and spent all the time and money earning that degree,” Casey said. “If I am teaching courses seen as being that important, you would think the paycheck would reflect that.”

    Union leaders have used their contract dispute to raise questions about university spending. They have argued that the university’s priorities are misplaced as the number of tenure-track faculty members has decreased during the past decade, mirroring trends nationally.

    “This is a period when tuition has continued to rise dramatically,” said Persky, who has worked at UIC for 39 years. “The money somehow is not being funneled into actual academic teaching activities, and it raises serious questions about what the administration thinks it is doing with all these funds.”

    The next bargaining session is set for Friday, following the expected strike, and other sessions are set for Feb. 24 and March 3. UIC’s employees are represented by 24 bargaining units, and there has been only one strike in the university’s history, a 2012 walkout by some hospital employees.

    The faculty union already is threatening another strike toward the end of the semester if a contract is not reached.

    “I don’t think anybody would like to see this happen,” Kaufman said about the expected strike. “Going forward, it is certainly not how we would like to see the university viewed.”