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UIC Faculty Begin Two-Day Strike, Classes Canceled for Thousands

By Quinn Ford | February 18, 2014 9:36am | Updated on February 18, 2014 1:50pm
 The union representing UIC professors said it has been unable to reach a deal on its first contract.
UIC Strike
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NEAR WEST SIDE — Faculty at the University of Illinois-Chicago walked off the job Tuesday after failing to reach a deal on a contract, canceling class for thousands of students, although some classes were still held.

The union representing tenured and nontenured faculty announced the two-day strike, scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, after 1½ years of bargaining with university officials failed to produce an acceptable contract, union officials said. However, classes taught by graduate students, which are represented by a different union, were still held for many of the school's nearly 17,000 undergraduate students.

Hundreds of faculty members rallied in UIC's quad Tuesday morning, belting out chants and and carrying signs calling for higher pay.

The union, which includes 1,150 faculty members, was certified in July 2012 and is negotiating for its first contract with the university.

Major sticking points include wage increases and minimum salaries for the lowest-paid union members. The university has increased its tuition while teachers have not received a pay raise in two years, said union president Joseph Persky.

"It's time to reorient the budget of the university to the things that matter," Persky said. "We are striking to put academics back at the center of the university."

The minimum salary for nontenured, full-time lecturers is $30,000 per year. The university has offered to raised the minimum to $36,000 by 2016, but union officials are calling for the minimum to be increased to $45,000 per year.

"We are striking to end the gypsy labor market for lectures. We are striking to guarantee fair pay for productive, long-term faculty," Persky said.

One teacher who is making the minimum salary is John Casey, a English lecturer who teaches a mandatory first-year writing course.

Casey, who has been at the university for 13 years and has a doctorate degree in literature, said every freshman is required to take his course.

"[It] tells you something. It's an important class," Casey said. "You would think that the paycheck would reflect that, but it does not."

University officials, in a statement, said they believe the strike is not in the best interest of "the faculty, the University or our students."

The union and university have met for negotiations 67 times since 2012, and negotiations have included a federal mediator since December.

UIC spokesman Bill Burton said the university "continues to bargain in good faith."

"The two sides have made progress on many issues and have tentative agreements on several articles," Burton said in an email. "[It is] important to remember this is the first-ever contract. It started with a blank page."

The next bargaining session is set for Friday, and sessions are also planned for Monday and March 3.

Some students said Tuesday they agree teachers should make more money, but they worried that money would ultimately come out of their pockets.

At a coffee shop inside the UIC student center, Doris Medina, a junior studying psychology and Spanish, said it's unfair that "Some teachers that have a Ph.D. degree are being paid the same as high school teachers."

But Medina said she feared any increases in salary would add to tuition costs.

"I'm in the middle," she said. "I don't know where to stand, because either way, I think we'll end up losing regardless."

For the current school year, in-state tuition is about $13,000 per year, while out-of-state tuition is  about $26,000.

Persky claimed the university had $1.3 billion in reserves that could be spent on teachers. University officials said keeping cash reserves is "prudent, especially in light of the precariousness of Illinois finances," but officials also said funds that can be used for salary increases — funds that are unrestricted and recurring — are "far smaller" than $1.3 billion, although they did not provide an exact figure.

Many students still went to classes on Tuesday. Medina said none of her classes were canceled because those lectures are given by graduate students. Graduate students have a "no-strike" provision in their contract, but some said they would join the picketing after teaching class, and union officials said they weren't upset that graduate students had crossed the picket line to teach.

Freshman Anna Colter, who had four of five classes canceled, said both she and her parents were upset by the action.

"I feel like it's a waste of our tuition money, honestly," she said. "I honestly don't know what it'll accomplish."

Not all faculty picketed. Volha Karankevich, a part-time chemical engineering student, said one of her classes Tuesday was taught by a professor who did not want to participate in the strike.

Still, "I think they do deserve a raise. … I just hope if they do get one, it doesn't cost the students money. That's my biggest concern," Karankevich said.

The faculty union said about 90 percent of classes taught by its members canceled classes on Tuesday.

Persky told faculty members the strike was called to "realign" the university's priorities with its stated mission.

"We are striking to win the attention of the board ... of the city, of the state, of the nation," he said. "It's time to put our university back together."