At the Board of Trustees retreat on Wednesday, January 22, both President Easter and Trustee Pam Strobel explained that the purpose of their retreats was to ensure that the U of I system fulfilled the promises of the land grant college mission. (For those of you not versed in the history of land grant colleges, they were founded in the 19th century as an alternative to traditional higher education, which focused on the liberal arts and was the privilege of the very wealthy. Many land grant colleges specialized in professional training: agriculture, mining, engineering, and the sciences.) One of the central premises of land grant colleges is that a practical post-secondary education would allow poor Americans to enter the middle class. UIC, in particular, was moved from its original location on Navy Pier to its current location because Richard J. Daley believed that expanding the university would improve the lives of Chicago’s working class and their children.

Certainly, a lot has changed since the land grant system was started over 150 years ago and since UIC moved to the Circle Campus in 1965. But, UIC’s historic commitment to a practical education for all, regardless of their economic background, should not change. Increasing tuition (30% since 2007) and shrinking faculty numbers and pay threaten this mission. If the Board of Trustees is truly interested in fulfilling its historical mission, a good way to start would be to pay its faculty fair wages.

 

United Faculty, the union that represents full-time faculty at UIC, has been in negotiations with the University since September 2011 and have had over sixty negotiating sessions. They entered federal mediation in November 2013. UF and the University have come to a number of tentative agreements; the sticking points are, no surprise, mostly financial. Here is what UF is asking for:

  • Shared governance with administration over curriculum and budgeting.

  • Tenure track (TT) employees will be given a 3.5% raise. The University has offered them a 2.75% increase. To put these numbers in context, non-union UIC employees (including non-unionized faculty in the Colleges of Dentistry and Medicine, academic professionals, and administrators) received 2.75% to 3.25% raises in 2013. And downstate at UIUC, faculty received 4.15% to 4.65% raises. The faculty’s demands are by no means extravagant.

  • Non-tenure track (NTT) employee minimum will be raised from $30,000 to $45,000 a year. This works out to a raise from $5,000 per class taught to $7,500 per class.

The raise in the NTT minimum sounds like a lot, and the University keeps claiming that they simply don’t have the money to pay the increased salaries. Independent audits of the University’s budget, however, indicate otherwise: a June 2013 report stated that the University’s financial position is strong. There are now over $1 billion in unrestricted funds, having grown $287 million in the past year; UF’s salary increases would cost approximately $3.5 million per year. It’s clear there are the funds available, but paying instructors seems not to be the University’s highest priority. The conclusion I draw from the University’s unwillingness to pay instructors living wages is that education is no longer their highest priority. Perhaps the new face of land grant colleges is one that values home redecoration over undergraduate education. That, at least, UIC is willing to invest money in.

 

UF authorized a strike in December, with over 95% of their members voting to strike. A walk out is anticipated soon if the University doesn’t begin to take UF’s demands seriously. Hopefully, today’s action sent a message that UF is going to fight for a good and fair contract. If not, the University is in for a shock when its core employees refuse to teach classes, grade papers, meet with students, or serve on committees. No matter what, GEO stands by UF: their fight is our fight.

The struggle to secure the rights of workers and a fair wage are affecting nearly everyone on the UIC campus. Which is why in a local, concrete, sense there is very good reason for union solidarity.

The faculty’s fight to win a fair contract hinges on two key factors. The first is wages. UIC has consistently, over the past 5 years, suppressed wages, electing to spend money on everything but those upon whom the university relies the most: its educators. The faculty’s efforts are an attempt to address inequality and ensure those who make the university function are compensated for their efforts. Secondly, the efforts of the United Faculty (UF) are aimed at improving the shared governance within the university to ensure those who have the closest contact with students have some control over the direction of their departments.

SEIU Local 73, which represents campus workers including service, maintenance, and clerical staff, is engaged in a similar struggle to protect its members’ wages and rights.

These struggles are the GEO’s struggles.  For instance, UF’s fight is very close to our own. If UF succeeds in lifting NTT(Non-Tenure Track) salaries, it will have a direct impact on how much TAs at UIC can reasonably expect to be paid. We are considered part-time employees, and our wages are often based on either the full-time salaries of NTT employees or their per class pay. A massive wage increase for our fellow instructors lays important groundwork for GEO to demand a living wage for graduate employees. Moreover, the GEO is constantly fighting to have its voice heard in a number of forums, including workplace rights, Campus Care, and tuition and fees.

The reasons for showing solidarity go beyond anything happening exclusively on UIC’s campus. If we look at the issues raised by the UF and the GEO as part of the ongoing crisis in American academia, the stakes are even more significant. Solidarity strengthens the rights of workers and slows the erosion of higher education. Many of us accept our low wages and poor working conditions because we won’t be here forever. But, when we graduate, what kind of work will we find? Nationally, 75% of college-level instructors are non-tenured faculty (part- or full-time). Many of us will not achieve tenure. A faculty union that guarantees living wages, benefits, and job security to faculty will be essential for those of us who decide to stay in academia.

We can think of this problem even more broadly still. Since the earliest days of organized labor in the United States, there are two key things for which labor has fought: Wages and control over labor conditions. In every industry, such as the fast food industry where workers continue to fight for the right to unionize, or state and local administrators and public service workers, individuals continue to face these problems. The economy has done labor no favors recently, making it more important than ever to stand by those whose plight is our own.

What enables to the GEO to strive toward a better workplace environment for its members by (for example) advocating for LGBTQ rights and improving working conditions is your participation, your belief that everyone deserves a living wage and the right to work in safe conditions without fear of discrimination. These are the challenges that have rallied individuals to union causes for over a century and these are the challenges we continue to face today. Showing solidarity empowers laborers everywhere – not just those at UIC and not just those in higher education, but all workers.

Solidarity,

GEO

Join United Faculty and SEIU members at the Board of Trustees meeting this Wednesday, January 22nd at Student Center West at 9:30 am as we urge the university to negotiate and fairly settle their contracts.

9:30 AM-10:30AM
United Faculty action at Board of Trustees Meeting
Meet in Student Center West lobby
We will be holding signs urging the University to negotiate with the faculty union and not force them to strike.
11:00 AM-1:00PM
SEIU Rally
Student Center West Quad
SEIU will be holding a rally demanding that the University save their steps. SEIU has an annual raise for all employees built into their contract called “steps.” The University wants to replace these annual raises with the general campus raise system. Campus raises and infrequent and lower than SEIU’s steps and would mean that employees would see fewer and smaller raises over their years at UIC. SEIU and the University are entering federal mediation in their negotiations in hopes they will be able to come to an agreement that keeps their steps in place without a strike.