Striking UIC faculty pickets, rallies with local, national leaders: ‘Without you, this place would not run’

Faculty and their supporters protest Tuesday during a UIC Faculty United union strike at the University of Illinois Chicago in the Little Italy neighborhood.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Hundreds of faculty at the University of Illinois Chicago hit picket lines across their Near West Side campus Tuesday on the first day of an indefinite strike after nine months of contract negotiations.

The UIC Faculty United union announced late Monday that it would proceed with its walkout after a 12-hour bargaining session still didn’t yield enough movement to land a deal.

Some classes went on as scheduled in departments not affected by the strike. But many students walked around campus observing picket lines and taking photos, some even joining the demonstrations.

A few dozen union members marched outside UIC’s University Hall, chanting, “What do we want? A contract! When do we want it? Now!”

A minute’s walk through campus led to more striking faculty at the East Quad, where members chanted, “Get up, get down, Chicago is a union town!” with Scabby the Rat overlooking them and the Chicago skyline.

By noon, several hundred union members gathered at the quad for a rally with officials, including mayoral candidate and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates, state Rep. Lakesia Collins, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th).

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, speaks Tuesday during a UIC Faculty United union strike at the University of Illinois Chicago.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Union President Aaron Krall, a senior lecturer in the English Department, said the union “hoped we wouldn’t have to call a strike.”

“We are here fighting for a fair contract. We are here fighting for our students. And it is no exaggeration to say we are here fighting for the future of higher education,” Krall told a cheering crowd.

Collins, whose district includes the UIC campus, told the striking faculty members that “without you, this place would not run.”

“The administration here needs to understand that the low wages they are presenting to you are a slap in the face, and they can do better,” Collins said. “Nobody wakes up and says, ‘I want to go on strike.’ This is a hard decision that you had to make.”

Union members said they plan to picket daily from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. until a tentative agreement is reached. Rallies will also be held every day on the East Campus Quad at noon with speeches from local, state and national officials.

The two sides agreed to resume bargaining Wednesday.

Faculty and their supporters picket Tuesday during a UIC Faculty United union strike at the University of Illinois Chicago.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The union is demanding higher minimum salaries, bigger pay raises that match inflation, mental health support for students, better job security for nontenure-track faculty, learning disability assessments for students and more. 

The UIC administration is offering raises of 17% over four years, averaging 4.25% per year, the union said. That figure is composed of merit raises and other specific pools of raises that do not apply to all union members across the board.

Union leaders called that offer insufficient, and said “seven years of record enrollments and over a billion dollars in unrestricted reserve funds” was “evidence that the university can afford to take demands for faculty raises seriously.”

Protections for nontenure-track faculty — many of whom have Ph.D.s and now make up almost half the faculty — are also a key sticking point.

Nontenure-track current minimum salaries sit around $50,000; the union is pushing for closer to $61,000. And they work on one-year contracts, which leaves minimal job stability, according to the union. Faculty without tenure don’t find out until June 1, or in some cases in mid-July, if they’ll be retained for the new academic year in August or have to find new jobs. The union wants those notification dates pushed earlier into the spring.

Student mental health has also emerged as a focal point of negotiations, with the union arguing a worsening mental health crisis affects faculty members’ ability to do their jobs. Students can’t focus if they’re dealing with unaddressed trauma and struggles, and faculty are thrust into doing the work of a therapist or social worker, a job they aren’t trained for.

Union members said Tuesday they want the university to staff its mental health clinics so no student gets turned away. Some of their students are on six-month waiting lists, faculty said, without adequate insurance to seek off-campus help sooner.

“Many of my students have struggled to even get appointments,” said Rebecca Woodard, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education.

Faculty and their supporters chant as Scabby the Rat is seen in the foreground during a strike at the University of Illinois Chicago on Tuesday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Marisha Humphries, an associate professor of educational psychology, said faculty are told to keep an eye on students’ mental health and direct them to the mental health clinics. But that starts to feel like misguided advice, she said.

“It makes a situation where we’re encouraging them to go to a place where their needs are not met,” Humphries said. “We need more counselors in the counseling center to meet their needs.”

On Monday, UIC’s administration announced it had committed $4.47 million over six years to initiatives to improve student mental health — but added the issue goes beyond “a single union contract.” At the time, officials said “the university remains hopeful that a resolution can be achieved.”

The union quickly responded that offer wasn’t nearly sufficient to offer all students the proper support.

The union has nearly 900 members. The campus has about 34,000 students, including nearly 22,000 undergraduates.

Davis Gates, who has helped lead the CTU’s bargaining over student supports, said mental health is a worthwhile topic for unions to bring into contract negotiations. She pointed out that UIC serves a majority student of color population — almost two-thirds of those enrolled are Hispanic, Black or Asian — with needs that must be met.

“When you put mental health care on the table, you put the neglect of communities on the table,” Gates said. “When you put mental health care support on the negotiating table, you say, ‘Leaders have not done their job, and the people have to unite and get the job done.’”

Johnson, a CTU organizer and mayoral challenger, said the contract fight is “about working people, and this country has shown animus towards working people for too long.”

“When Dr. King said that if the labor movement and the civil rights movement were to ever collide, what enormous potential it would be — well, people of Chicago, that moment is here,” Johnson said. “If you believe that your contract is setting ourselves up to build a more just, equitable society, let me hear you say yes.”

In an email to the university community Monday, UIC interim Chancellor Javier Reyes and acting Provost Karen Colley called the strike “disappointing and not in the best interest of the university or our students. The administrators added that “the decision to strike is up to each faculty member” and encouraged students to check their online dashboards and emails for the status of their specific classes and labs.

“Please plan to attend if you have not been told the class or lab is canceled,” Reyes and Colley said. “During the strike, the university is committed to continuing normal operations to the fullest extent possible.”

The union authorized the walkout in November, when 77% of its members voted, and nearly all supported a strike. Union members have been working without a contract since mid-August. Weingarten, in an interview after the rally, accused the UIC administration of slow-playing negotiations and failing to bargain in good faith.

“This strike date had been set a long time ago. The day before, to say publicly to the world, ‘Oh no, social-emotional supports for your kids, the kids you teach, shouldn’t be part of bargaining,’ shows bargaining in bad faith,” she said.

The union last went on strike in 2014. It authorized a walkout in 2019 but reached a deal the day before a planned work stoppage.

Since 2014, faculty at all three University of Illinois campuses — Chicago, Urbana-Champaign and Springfield — have gone on strike. Graduate student workers at UIC went on strike last spring for eight days over to raise their pay a reduce student fees. It was their second walkout in three years.

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