Non-Tenure Faculty Coalition considers strike

By Megan Jones

Some non-tenure faculty hope to show University administrators the importance of their work by exploring striking in the near future.

The Non-Tenure Faculty Coalition Local 6546 voted to explore striking through a committee and will continue to call for labor action, said Union President Shawn Gilmore. The earliest a strike would begin is April 18.

The strike is not “open-ended,” meaning that the strike will only last for a few days and can include a series of actions such as rallies, picketing, a building strike or a one-to-three day work stoppage.

“We are very closely tied to the undergraduate body … One of the things that is important about a strike in education is minimizing the impact on students but also making clear why the impact is what it is,” Gilmore said. “If we do strike and you do withhold your classes, it’s important to not leave students up in the air about what that means.”

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Gilmore said faculty would likely either remove material or reschedule it to compensate. He also mentioned people who run research labs will have to decide what to do with ongoing projects.

The coalition represents around 500 non-tenure track faculty and an “overwhelming majority” voted in favor of striking. Gilmore was unable to release the total vote count. Members would be re-polled before authorizing an open-ended strike.

The union has met with the University 28 times for bargaining, three times for side meetings and had two sessions with a federal mediator.

Campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the University is disappointed the union feels the vote was necessary, adding this is the first of several steps that would be taken before the group could strike. She said the strike would happen only after both groups reached an impasse in negotiations.

“We value the work our specialized faculty do, and we’re working to reach a collective bargaining agreement that is fair to all parties and that ensures we are good stewards of university resources in these challenging financial times,” Kaler said in an email.

Gilmore said down the road, the union could discuss the possibility of withholding final grades or an indefinite walkout.

Classes end May 4 and finals begin May 6. While the mediation process does not hinge on the school year’s schedule, the pressure they can place on the University is tied to the amount of time until the end of the semester. He said the union is acting now to ensure that they have enough time to create a plan and the first time they do not discuss this is the week before finals.

Clinical Assistant Professor Jeffrey Frame wrote in an email to his atmospheric sciences students that while he is a member of the bargaining unit the union represents, he did not join the union. He wrote that students can rest assured that his classes and labs will continue.

“It is my hope that this conflict will be resolved without the need of a strike for the sake of your education, which I hold dear,” he wrote.

Sam LeRoy, sophomore in Business and Illinois Student Senator, said he personally is frustrated, especially after seeing gridlock in Illinois legislature, to see the same brand of politics come back to the University.

Because two parties cannot come to an agreement, now one party is going to bring a group of constituents up for collateral damage: the students. He said students are paying tuition and receiving scholarships to receive education and do not deserve any missed opportunities.

“If I was struggling with an assignment, they would not tell me to give up … and my comment to the union right now would be to keep working at it and trying to make it right to all of us,” he said.

The union was certified in July of 2014 and had its first bargaining meeting in October of 2014. In that time, Gilmore said the union had settled tentative agreements on some provisions, such as a grievance procedure, but has not made any substantive agreements.

Gilmore said this led to the union’s breaking point of exploring a strike after frustration over how little was being solved. He said that easier pieces to the contract, such as an academic freedom and governance provisions could not be solved, which had been discussed for 18 months multiple times, he said.

“We’re done discussing and both sides know where they are,” he said. “We just need to solve what the discrepancy is and agree on the language and the University was unwilling to finish those portions. So if we couldn’t get to those in mediation, we thought it would make a very difficult time to get to larger issues.”

Kaler said the process is taking longer than subsequent agreements because this is the first-ever agreement with a newly unionized group, adding “we continue to bargain in good faith, and we’re optimistic we can find common ground.”

The union filed a notice of intent to strike Thursday morning with the University, the Illinois Labor Relations Board and the State’s Regional Office of Education. The next bargaining session with a federal mediator is set for April 27.

Gilmore referenced a two-day walkout strike held by the Graduate Employee Organization in 2009. By the middle of the second day, the organization was back in negotiations and had finished their contract by the end of the second day.

He said he hopes students will understand that the non-tenure faculty have one-year contracts, meaning there could be a quick turnaround and a student might not know if their lecturer will even be around next year. This makes a group of faculty very contingent when it comes to writing letters of recommendation or talking to someone about graduate school.

“We want to stabilize those relationships, … but if I have to continue to job hunt every spring because we don’t actually have a contract in the fall and I still don’t know what I’m teaching, that puts me in a weird position and that impacts students directly and indirectly already,” Gilmore said.

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