- Interview by
- Sara Wexler
On Tuesday, January 17, University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) workers represented by UIC United Faculty (UIF) went on strike. The walkout comes after faculty reached an impasse in bargaining with the UIC administration; management was found guilty of bargaining in bad faith by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board last month. Workers say they have now been without a contract for over nine months. Jacobin’s Sara Wexler spoke with two faculty members on strike about their experience with bargaining and the union’s demands, which include adequate mental health resources for their students, greater job security for contingent faculty, and higher wages for tenure- and non-tenure-system faculty.
Can you tell me why you’re on strike today?
We are on strike today for more transparency in decisions that affect faculty working conditions, better pay that recognizes the work that UIC faculty do, and a more equitable distribution of resources for our entire UIC community.
We’ve been working without a contract for a semester. We started our bargaining campaign fighting for fair wages, for support for our students, for job security for our non-tenure-system faculty. As of yet, the administration hasn’t met our demands. We think we need to focus everybody’s attention on this contract, and we hope that some of that focused attention is going to get things done.
When and how did the organizing around the strike start?
We started bargaining back in April. We know that the university administration isn’t a union-friendly administration — it’s in fact notoriously anti-union. So, when we start planning our bargaining, we also start planning for our strike.
We’ve been organizing toward a strike since we started our bargaining campaign, probably as early as January of 2022. Part of the way this works is that if you’re going to have a credible strike, you have to start laying the groundwork early. We’ve been thinking about what it would mean to strike and how we’d get organized for a long time. We began targeting a particular date and putting the infrastructure in place in the fall, probably as early as November.
Could you say more about the university’s approach to bargaining?
In late June 2020, we filed charges against UIC management for unfair labor practices related to their refusal to come to the table over unilateral changes they were making to our working conditions in response to the COVID pandemic. In late December, the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board found the university guilty of bad-faith bargaining for their refusal to come to the table, coming to the table with nothing, and unilaterally implementing policies dealing with issues that were on the table.
Over the course of this contract negotiation, we expected these bargaining tactics. This isn’t our first rodeo with them; they always do this. The administration has had our full contract proposal since August. It took them two months to respond to our economic proposals, which meant they responded for the first time in October. So, while we keep moving toward them trying to work out a compromise, they just don’t do anything. It’s that stalling, that resistance to working together, that really has gotten us to this point. If the university wants the strike to end, it will have to abandon those tactics and come to the table in earnest.
The most common thing that we see is just stalling and stretching things out. We see a lot of surface bargaining: the administration will make minor changes to a sentence but not really change their position and try to sell it to us as some kind of big movement. We also see the administration questioning what belongs or doesn’t belong in a contract. We know that we are empowered to bargain over wages, terms of employment, and conditions of work, and the administration says that anything we asked for doesn’t belong in a contract. Maybe it’s the domain of the Senate, maybe it’s the domain of the Provost Office, but it certainly doesn’t belong in the hands of the workers. And we disagree.
What are your concrete demands?
On the economics, our union has been organized around this “one-faculty” principle, where we are fighting for the tenure-system faculty here on our campus but especially the non-tenure-system faculty. We see our contingent faculty members struggling with low salaries, high workloads, often unclear expectations, and the continual threat of not being rehired for another academic term.
So, we’ve generally put those concerns out front. We’re fighting hard for raising the minimum salary. As a personal example, I’m on the non-tenure side, as a senior lecturer in the English department. When I started here fifteen years ago, I made $26,000 as a full-time faculty member. Over the course of our previous three contracts, we’ve brought that minimum salary up to $50,000. But we look around and see what other educational workers are making around the city and the region, and we know that’s not nearly high enough.
We also need raise pools for all of our faculty that at least help chip away at inflation. We all know that we’ve lost money in real dollars due to this historic inflation. So, we want to be able to keep up, but we also want to keep pushing ahead and seeing the work that we’re doing on this campus being rewarded with merit pay.
We’re also fighting for more job security, focusing on the issue of reappointments. All of our non-tenure faculty work on limited-term contracts for a certain number of years. Already in our union contract, everybody starts on a one-year contract but can move up to three-year contracts. But no matter what, when you come up for reappointment, the university can wait until July 16 to tell you if you have a job on August 16. We think that our faculty need more notice that they’re not going to be reappointed.
The issue that we’ve been talking about a lot at the table and in public is about supporting our students. This is our fourth contract that we’re trying to bargain; we see this as an opportunity to jump into bargaining for the common good — we see that it’s time to put our union power in the support of health in our community, and especially our students’ health. We think fighting for students’ mental health resources is really important, particularly the kind of psychological and neuropsychological assessment that can help them get disability accommodations in our classrooms.
During COVID, all faculty were sent messaging from management to please do whatever they could in terms of flexibility and leniency for student success and student support, whether it meant extending deadlines or forgiving absences. There were so many requests from the top for maximum flexibility, which really were not needed because faculty were already doing that. I know from my own conversations with my closest colleagues, even for synchronous, face-to-face classes on Zoom, we all built in a sick option so that students could get attendance credit after they got done working or after they got done taking care of their sick family member.
When we returned to in-person learning, these requests, these mandates, didn’t stop; they continued, because students needed them. It was a need recognized by everyone involved. And as we’ve resumed and continued with in-person learning, these mental health concerns and diagnoses that weren’t received during the time of lockdown have only grown and become more and more visible in the classroom.
Remember, the students are very young. All those students who would have been seen in high school by guidance counselors or support staff and would have been recognized as . . . “You might have a learning disability, or there might be something we could do here, like a diagnosis that will help us find answers and make sure you succeed.” They missed out on all those opportunities.
Before the pandemic, these were also available for UIC students. This is a working-class campus with so many first-generation students; access to mental health care and neuropsychological health care isn’t common. Working with working-class and first-generation students and bringing those students into higher education is a part of UIC’s mission. It is a beautiful mission — I love working here with these students. That should not change, but you shouldn’t be inviting these students in and then not giving them the resources they need to succeed.
These mental health needs have grown. They are truly affecting faculties’ work life. I spend hours every week working with my students doing what I can as an untrained professional in terms of psychology and neuropsychology, support, doing everything I can to make sure they get what they need, and so is every faculty member that I’ve talked to.
It emerged in our bargaining survey that we send out to all faculty in the bargaining unit. Before we start drafting the new campaign, we send out a pretty extensive survey just asking people, “What’s happening in your department? Are these policies being enacted? What problems are there? What is emerging as the biggest obstacle between you and doing your job the best you could do it right now?” Student mental health and access to mental health support and neuropsychological support and learning-disability support immediately emerged as the priority for all of our faculty; it immediately emerged as everyone’s number one concern.
So, when we started drafting a contract, it became our number one concern as well. We’ve been told that it doesn’t belong in the faculty contract — that it isn’t a part of faculty work conditions. But the faculty have said something very different, that it is in fact a huge part of our workplace conditions. The university’s argument is trying to divide faculty, students, and staff, and put everyone into their own little group, as if we don’t interact with each other, as if our experiences aren’t impacting each other. But our experiences are all shared.
We have been inspired by unions like the Chicago Teachers Union, who have put those kinds of concerns, concerns for the common good, really front and center in their campaigns. It’s a way of thinking about what a union is a little differently, as being not just about the self-interest of the particular bargaining unit of the faculty. But if we are trying to grow our power, what do we do with that power to help our whole community? I think that is a core principle that we are trying to push forward in this campaign.
What has the students’ response to the strike been like?
We just got about twenty students who came up with student-made picket signs, and they’re heading to Student Center East to picket in support. Students really are extraordinary. I expected it because I know the students well who are part of my daily life, but I have been overwhelmed by their response to this, which has been just across the board. They’re just like, “Thank you for including us. We see you as an important part of our experience here. It’s reassuring that you see us as an important part of your experience here.” There’s been a lot of mutual love and affection.
What we’ve seen on campus and what we’ve seen on social media and in terms of the students who have been in touch with us, we feel a lot of support. I think there’s always going to be some frustration; there’s always going to be some confusion. Strikes are inconvenient for everybody, which is one of the reasons why we hope to make this a short one. So far, I think the students are supportive.
Do you see your strike and organizing as connected to faculty strikes elsewhere, like the recent walkout at the New School?
We’ve been focused very much on what we are experiencing — what our students are experiencing, what our faculty are experiencing, and just our local context. However, we are quite aware other faculties, other schools, and other students are experiencing very similar things. And that this sort of general institutional business-model approach to education, to working with faculty in higher ed, creates this sort of knee-jerk reaction to collaboration and working with each other and actually listening to the faculty on the ground with the expertise to advise on some of these larger issues.
Sure, salary is one of the things that’s on the table, because that is how contracts work. The administration wants to focus on the numbers, because the numbers are a short-term issue. You’re gonna have new people in charge later, and they can deal with the new numbers. But right now, that’s all they want to focus on. They don’t want to think about our community in this holistic way.
The union really started trying to focus on transforming our local community into a stronger, healthier, more successful community. We see the same things that are impacting our wellness as an institution impacting other institutions. So, we see the connections; we’re thinking about them now. Hopefully, when this is over, we can think about them even more and work on building a vision for higher ed that’s good for everyone.
I think we see our union as part of a statewide and really nationwide labor movement in higher education. We know that universities have been pushing further and further in relying on contingent labor. We’ve seen states retreating from funding higher education. And we see organizing as a faculty as one of the last, best options we have to push back against all of that. That does mean wages, it does mean job security. And ultimately, it means making the universities accountable for creating the conditions to be successful in higher education to do the mission that we set out to do.
When we talk about job security and higher wages for non-tenure faculty, we do really want to make the jobs of the non-tenured faculty better. We want to make sure that they can support themselves and their families and patrons in a city like Chicago. But we also just want to make it harder for our university to rely on non-tenured faculty if we get more expensive. And if it gets harder to fire us, then we want to incentivize the university to continue to support the tenure system and to hire more faculty in the tenure system. So, we see this as a push that’s bold about wages and bread-and-butter stuff, but it’s also ideologically about what higher education should be and how we can push back against the sort of trends that we see all over the place.
Could you say more about the kind of transformation of the university you envision?
We have a lot of shared-governance proposals in our contract. Almost every policy that we’ve asked for, we’ve included the language of shared governance in that proposal, and the administration strikes that language every time, no matter what. It will even accept the proposal, but it will take out the language about shared governance.
We feel like faculty are an underutilized resource when it comes to envisioning how our universities can transform and grow and function. I talk to students every single day about their needs for learning and for their future. I talk to all the students: the students getting As, and students who are failing, and the vast majority of students who are in the middle.
This is information that the administration doesn’t have. They do a lot of work with spreadsheets and donors, and they have a certain amount of expertise that I don’t have. But I’m there trying to implement policies that interact with what I know best and what other faculty members know best.
I think that the vision that we have adopted here at UIC, with tenure-track, non-tenure-track, undergraduate students, and graduate students recognizing our interdependence and our ability to profoundly influence each other’s lives is a vision that everyone in higher education should be working toward. We all have a role to play, and we should be playing those roles together.