Faculty strike in Chicago draws wide support

UPDATE: The strike has been suspended as of Jan. 23: UIC-UF reached a tentative agreement. Read more here.

Hundreds of University of Illinois Chicago faculty on strike for a fair contract, and their supporters, rallied Jan. 17, chanting, singing and marching to the sound of a brass band. Among their demands: salaries that keep up with inflation (and allow them to live in the city where they work), mental health care for their students, job security so that nontenure-track faculty have more than a few days’ notice of whether they have a job each semester, and more transparency and due process for tenure-track faculty.

Randi Weingarten supporting strike
Lisa Philip/WBEZ

The faculty members of UIC United Faculty, an affiliate of both the AFT and the American Association of University Professors, number nearly 900, or one-third of the UIC’s faculty, and include tenured, tenure-track and full-time nontenure-track positions. Their strike is being heralded by a host of local and national figures, including AFT President Randi Weingarten, AAUP President Irene Mulvey, Illinois Federation of Teachers President Daniel Montgomery, Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates, mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson, state Rep. Lakesia Collins and many others who have attended rallies and joined their voices in the struggle.

“We are here fighting for a fair contract. We are here fighting for our students. And it is no exaggeration to say that we are here fighting for the future of higher education,” said UIC United Faculty President Aaron Krall, putting the monumental effort into perspective. The union has been without a contract for five months and went on strike after nine months of bargaining and a final 12-hour session that failed to produce an agreement. More than 200 members showed up at that meeting to support the bargaining team, and another 100 attended via Zoom.

Irene Mulvey

One issue driving the campaign is salaries. “Right now, the lowest-paid faculty members on our campus are paid $50,000 a year. That is not enough in the city of Chicago,” said Krall. “We’re not going to settle this contract until we move that number, and we’re going to have to move that number a lot.”

The union is also fighting for its student community. Weingarten praised faculty for demanding mental health support for their students, describing the anxiety, trauma and disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. “If we care about kids’ academic success, if we care about their future, it is vitally important on this campus to have the mental health supports they need to thrive,” she said. The administration told the bargaining team that students’ mental health is “not your business,” said Weingarten. “Of course it’s your business. It’s everybody’s business, and that is what bargaining for the common good means.”

UIC on strike

The CTU’s Davis Gates also highlighted the fight for the common good—the notion that union contracts can demand better conditions for the communities where union members live and work. “Common good bargaining is the only type of bargaining that is going to transform the very type of places where we work and where we live,” she said. “‘How we union’ will determine if people get healthcare,” she said, adding that “how we union” will also determine school funding, help for unhoused people, employment rates, and “if you can say Black lives matter and then prove it.”

In this contract, the fight for student mental health services is key: Students at the UI Urbana-Champaign campus get assessments to determine the need for mental health and learning services, but those are not in place at the Chicago campus; UIC United Faculty wants commensurate services. While administrators say they are rolling out improved student services, they have balked at including them in a faculty contract; but when students come to faculty for help they are not necessarily trained to give, student mental health becomes a very real part of faculty life. And at the Chicago campus, where the student population is majority Black, Hispanic and Asian, many have been especially traumatized by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students supporting UIC strike

“Dr. King said if the labor movement and the civil rights movement were to ever collide, what enormous potential it would be,” said Johnson, addressing the crowd the day after the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday. “That’s what we’re doing here today. … If you believe that your contract is setting [us] up to build a more just, equitable society, let me hear you say yes.” The crowd roared its approval.

“The UIC faculty are dedicated to this institution,” said AAUP’s Mulvey. “They want UIC to be the best it can be. … We stand in solidarity with you today, tomorrow and every day until you get the fair contract you deserve. … You are strengthening the academic labor movement, and we’re here with you for the long haul.”

[Virginia Myers]