After nine months of contract negotiations, members of the union representing University of Illinois at Chicago faculty had not hit a deal with the administration and instead moved to their first day of a strike Tuesday afternoon.
Hundreds of faculty, and students who support them, gathered at the university’s East Campus Quad to picket and host a rally where they were joined by several officials, including Stacy Davis Gates, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, and state Rep. Lakesia Collins, a Democrat from Chicago.
Priorities for the UIC United Faculty union include fair pay raises for tenure and non-tenure-track faculty that match inflation, job security, and expanded mental health support for students.
“Compensation is our biggest issue that we’re really able to legally strike over since it directly affects us … but while that’s extremely important, something that is incredibly important that emerged during COVID, and is all that anyone talks about during our member meetings, is student mental health and wellness,” said Charitianne Williams, the union’s communications chair and an English professor at the school.
The union has specifically asked for access to free evaluations for learning disabilities, a benefit that students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign already receive, and free psychological and neuropsychological testing to address mental health. The union claims that the responsibility has often fallen on the faculty’s workload.
Over the last two years, Williams said that many students approach their professors for emotional and mental health support aside from academic support.
“It should be up to a trained professional to tell me how to support my students, instead of me, an untrained professional, depending on my intuition on how to help them,” she said.
On Monday, the UIC administration announced that it committed $4.47 million over the next six years to address student mental health and well-being.
The funding will allow for increased staffing for the counseling center including licensed therapists, psychiatrists and salary enhancements to recruit and retain staff, according to an announcement from the university.
The strategy will include the creation of a social work trainee field unit, opening of a wellness drop-in space on the west side of campus and more.
But Williams said the recently announced strategy is not enough because the funds can run out and so can the university’s commitment.
“It’s not very much money to spread over the next six years,” Williams said. “And it’s just a plan, it’s not even really a promise.”
Williams said she has been informing students of the negotiations. They’re all very supportive, she said.
A handful of students attended the rally while others watched as their professors picketed on the quad instead of carrying out lesson plans in the classrooms. Others, however, went on with their normal day.
Graduate students who teach classes, adjunct professors and other faculty who are not part of the union are required to continue teaching.
Anna Regnerus, a third-year student at UIC, attended the rally with friends. Most of her classes had been canceled, she said.
“I definitely support,” Regnerus said. Her father is an alum of the university and the reason she chose UIC is because of the caliber of its professors, she said.
Instead of seeing her professors during her typical Tuesday classes, Charleigh Hicks watched as they picketed in the quad.
“It’s sad that they have to get to this point because it is not only taking them from what they love to do, but it takes students out of classes,” Hicks said.
By Tuesday evening, the union had not gotten a response from the administration, said Williams, but a bargaining session was expected to resume Wednesday. Faculty are set to picket every day this week from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. until a tentative contract agreement is reached.
Javier Reyes, interim chancellor of the university, informed the student body of the strike and said “during the strike, the university is committed to continuing normal operations to the fullest extent possible.”
Reyes added that “based on the shared principles between all involved, the university remains optimistic that a fair and beneficial bargaining agreement can be achieved.”
Professors who are members of the UIC United Faculty union had been working without a contract since August and in November 77% of their nearly 900 members voted in support of the strike.
“It’s been very frustrating for all that we do and all that we want to continue doing,” said Paul Preissner, an architecture professor since 2006. “But it’s great to see so much support.”
The last time the union went on strike was in 2014 when members went on a two-day work stoppage before settling. And in 2019, the union reached a deal with the administration just a day before they’d planned a work stoppage.
Members of the union include tenured, tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty with 51% time or more, including visiting faculty.
The work stoppage under the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act allows the members to picket and demonstrate peacefully and they can choose to work or to strike. Those who choose to work and not strike will continue to be paid, but those who choose to strike will not be paid during the demonstrations.
Students are encouraged to check their online dashboards and emails for the status of specific classes and labs.
“We will be out here until the contract is settled, the things that we’re asking for are things that we need. It’s not a frivolous request,” Williams said. “We will take care of our students to the best of our ability while we are out here.”