Taking Militancy to College

Like their counterparts in K-12, academic workers in public higher ed have organized to challenge austerity.

This October, after twenty-two months of strained negotiations with Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Teachers Union made a last-minute deal to settle their contract and avert a strike. While stalled contract talks were the immediate cause of the threatened work stoppage, there is a larger reason educators in the country’s third-largest school district once again authorized a strike: austerity.

Already reeling from school closures, mass layoffs, and the elimination of school services and programs, the CTU once again drew a line in the sand this year against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s cohort of neoliberal privatizers.

While the CTU’s fight against austerity in K-12 schools has rightly generated national attention, public education at all levels is now a key battleground. Of the 59 percent of CPS graduates who go on to a four-year college, almost three-quarters wind up at an Illinois public university. There, they confront the same pattern of budget cuts that they endured from kindergarten through twelfth grade. But they’re beginning to see the same spirit in their college instructors that they saw in their CPS teachers.

The CTU’s model of militancy has started to spread to public higher education in Chicago. But it will have to spread to the rest of the country if budget cuts and privatization are going to be stopped.

Classroom Warfare

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner — Rahm Emanuel’s wine-tasting buddy and one-time business associate — has long been a champion of charter schools and an enemy of the CTU. He has derided Chicago’s public schoolteachers as “virtually illiterate”; during the last strike, he publicly attacked the union. Shortly after the 2012 walkoff ended, he emphasized he didn’t believe teachers should have the right to collectively bargain and refused to answer whether he thought any worker should have the right to do so.

But Rauner also seems to disdain public education at the university level.

Upon entering office last year, the former private equity mogul proposed cutting state funding to public higher-ed institutions by 31 percent. Meanwhile, his anti-worker proposals instigated a catastrophic statewide budget stalemate that left public universities without funding for a year, until a temporary stopgap budget was passed this summer to keep colleges afloat for a few months. Higher education will see a drop in funding regardless of how the impasse is resolved, however, as state Democrats have proposed a 6.5 percent cut to public universities.

At state universities as well as CPS, budget slashing has led to dramatically lower enrollments. This year, CPS has fourteen thousand fewer students enrolled than the previous academic year. At the same time, enrollments at Southern Illinois University (SIU) are down to a fifty-year low. Chicago State University (CSU) — the only four-year college in Illinois with a predominantly black student body — saw only eighty-six new freshmen enroll this fall after much public speculation about whether the university would be closed due to budget cuts.

Lower enrollments give higher-ed administrators excuses to downsize their workforce. One-third of CSU’s non-faculty staff was laid off earlier this year, while at SIU, 25 percent of graduate teaching assistantships were recently eliminated and fifty open faculty positions were left vacant. CPS, meanwhile, laid off one thousand personnel in August, and announced it was letting go of another two hundred and fifty workers just before the strike was scheduled to start. (Yet the city has somehow simultaneously managed to find enough funding to hire an additional one thousand police officers over the next two years.)

One big reason enrollments at Illinois public universities are down: students simply can’t afford college.

The budget crisis has jeopardized the Monetary Award Program, or MAP grant, which provides working-class students with financial assistance to help cover tuition. After no MAP funding for a year, the stopgap budget allocates less than half of the program’s normal budget. As the Chicago Reporter notes, “more than half of black and Latino undergraduates at the state’s public universities receive MAP grants. Among all students who receive MAP, 57 percent are first-generation college students.”

While students and academic workers are being told to make sacrifices because the state is broke, top administrators are seeing huge paydays.

The president and chancellor of the University of Illinois recently got $175,000 in bonuses. Resigning in September after only nine months on the job, CSU’s president was awarded a $600,000 severance package — even as students living in CSU dormitories endured two weeks without hot water (probably because the school fired all the maintenance workers). And, of course, CPS’s chief executive during the 2012 strike walked away with $250,000 after only seventeen months at work.

Higher-Ed Fightback

When the CTU held a one-day strike on April 1 — a prelude to the threatened September work stoppage — they framed it not just as a response to their contract dispute, but as a statewide day of action against Rauner’s and Emanuel’s agenda.

The University Professionals of Illinois, the union representing faculty and staff at several state universities, joined the CTU, using the occasion to tie austerity in CPS to public higher ed. Mass rallies were held on the campuses of CSU, Northeastern Illinois University, and UIC.

This widespread participation was part of the increasing militancy in higher-ed unions across Chicago. As state funding for public education has shrunk, academic workers have found themselves fighting harder than ever to secure contract gains, maintain the long-existing rights that austerity measures seek to erode, and defend their students’ education.

Examining the UIC’s recent history of organizing provides a useful case study. After bargaining for a year without gaining ground, the UIC United Faculty leadership decided in late spring of 2010 to organize a contract campaign. Like CTU, these members pushed their union in a more militant direction, realizing that, if they were to win significant gains, they would have to fight for them.

Contract campaigns depend on the idea that worker action moves negotiations at the bargaining table. The employer, faced with the prospect of bad publicity and work stoppages that could affect their bottom line, chooses to move in negotiations rather than lose money and prestige.

Once UICUF organized its contract campaign, it saw movement at the table. The more pressure members exerted, the more management moved.

The faculty began by holding a silent protest at a meeting of the Board of Trustees — who hold more authority over university matters than the chancellor — because board rules prevent discussion of labor negotiations at their meetings. Union members filled the room, holding signs that said “Contract Now” while administrators attempted to speak as normal. Later in the campaign, United Faculty staged a larger protest outside of a leadership retreat on campus.

Members also educated students about how their issues impacted student education. They distributed flyers at convocation, graduation, and on the university quad to raise awareness and connect austerity measures to the undermining of education quality. The Board of Trustees had stockpiled over $275 million annually for the previous four years, while tuition had gone up 25 percent and faculty hadn’t received cost-of-living raises since 2011.

Before taking a strike vote, United Faculty rallied more than five hundred members outside of University Hall, where the chancellor’s office is located. By the time it came to vote on whether or not to authorize a strike, the membership had demonstrated both their unity and their willingness to participate in large-scale collective action. A whopping 95 percent of the membership voted to strike — about the same percentage of CTU members that voted to strike in 2012 and 2016.

United Faculty finally saw the movement it wanted after staging a two-day strike in February 2014, during which nearly every member of the 1,200-person union participated. Management offered increased wages and better terms for promotion and job security.

However, it wasn’t until the union started to organize for an indefinite walkout that the administration agreed to raises for the vulnerable non-tenure-track faculty, ensuring that no one would make less than $37,500 a year. The final contract also notably provided processes for non-tenure-track faculty to apply for promotion and raises.

It should have come as no surprise to the faculty that striking would be required to settle their first contract. UIC Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) has been forced to organize toward a strike in every round of negotiations since certifying as a union in 2006.

Last fall, during GEO’s most recent contract campaign, they staged a work-in to make their labor visible — at a time when the administration had refused to provide them even one proposal during several months of bargaining. GEO received the first offer the day after they held a silent protest at a Board of Trustees meeting, where faculty and undergraduate activists joined them.

As GEO began organizing a possible strike, the administration moved significantly on wages, and GEO won the first raise that was higher than five hundred dollars since the union formed. The raise lifted many graduate students above the poverty line, making graduate school more accessible to working-class students.

These fights aren’t limited to UIC. Corporatized education models have forced higher-ed workers into taking collective action at both public and private institutions across Chicago.

At Roosevelt University in 2014–15, the American Association of University Professors Advocacy Chapter waged — and won — an issue campaign over the administration’s decision to hold a confidential search for the new university president. Nearly one hundred tenured faculty members signed a letter citing evidence that open searches do not decrease the pool of qualified individuals, which the advocacy chapter delivered to the Board of Trustees. More importantly, the chapter tabled with student allies in a high-traffic area of the university, distributing information to faculty, staff, and students about the lack of transparency in the hiring process.

Administrative hiring practices may appear far removed from negotiations over wages and working conditions. But the fight — just like CTU’s, UICUF’s, and GEO’s at their bargaining tables — was between educators and administrators, most of whom are business people trying to impose corporate logic on a public-service model. In Roosevelt University’s case, the disparity between mission and practice was especially depressing: Roosevelt was founded in order to give poor and working-class students of color access to higher education, but the president at the time — Charles Middleton — was the fifth highest paid private university president in the country.

Like the 2012 CTU strike, these campaigns succeeded because they disrupted business as usual and forced employers to face the possibility that their workers might stage even larger disruptions. They did this by engaging membership in new ways, then increasing militancy.

Each of these unions and organizations implemented the Contract Action Team (CAT) model. Members of a higher-ed union who organize a CAT do so by recruiting one new member — often a steward or department representative — for every ten or so members in a particular department of employment. The representative or representatives for a department then visit all of the union members in that department and hold one-on-one organizing conversations.

Organizing conversations during a contract campaign focus on issues relevant to the contract, such as how wages and job security affect student learning conditions, faculty research conditions, and the overall quality of public education. These conversations also help move members past their fear of taking action, always returning to the idea that individuals aren’t placed at risk when members organize together. This is especially important when talking to faculty who fear they might not receive tenure or to non-tenure-track faculty and graduate workers who fear they might not have their appointments renewed if they participate in union activities.

Through repeated organizing conversations, the CAT establishes a network of well-informed members who begin to realize that negotiations and rational arguments alone lead nowhere and who become agitated enough to commit to larger forms of action. They plan a series of escalating actions, potentially culminating in a strike, that typically unfold over the course of a year, always with the hope that the preceding action will cause the administration to fear the next action enough to move significantly in bargaining.

The Worst and Best of Times

Public education, from kindergarten to the college level, is enjoying the best and worst of times. In one sense, the situation has never been graver. Austerity measures and privatization efforts are decimating public education. Schools are shuttering, enrollments are plummeting, and both students and workers are facing extreme exploitation.

But at the same time — especially with the CTU’s continued example of militancy — there is a growing spirit of resistance and culture of organizing that’s beginning to win modest but tangible victories. From the Detroit teachers’ sickout this May, to the recent grad student worker and adjunct union drives, to the successful campaign to save the UMass Amherst Labor Center, resistance by students, faculty, parents, and alumni to austerity is on the rise.

In Chicago, the CTU has proposed raising school funding through a financial transaction tax and a corporate head tax, as well as by redirecting money in the city’s tax increment financing slush fund. At the same time, a new #TuitionFreeIllinois campaign has just been launched, which aims to offset the cost of attending state universities through a millionaire surtax.

This is a fight for the right of all students to be able to access a quality education, for educational institutions to be sites of inquiry and learning rather than profit centers, and for educational workers to make a decent living and uphold their professional integrity. As militant unionists at schools and universities understand, if administrators won’t abandon the austerity agenda, the only way to stop it is to force them through collective action.

Unions in higher education must be ready to withhold their labor. Their students deserve it.