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Strikes looming at 3 state universities: ‘We’ve already exhausted a bunch of other steps’

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 3/31/2023 Zareen Syed, Chicago Tribune
The main entrance at Governors State University in University Park on Sept. 8, 2022. Union officials at GSU said students there have an increased need for advising assistance. © Vincent D. Johnson/Chicago Tribune/TNS The main entrance at Governors State University in University Park on Sept. 8, 2022. Union officials at GSU said students there have an increased need for advising assistance.

Hundreds of faculty and professional staff at three state universities could go on strike next week. For over a year, the employee unions at Chicago State University, Eastern Illinois University and Governors State University have been bargaining with their respective employers to secure fair contracts.

“A strike is definitely at the top of the list of options because we’ve already exhausted a bunch of other steps,” said Billy Hung, lead negotiator for EIU University Professionals of Illinois and a microbiology professor.

Union members at EIU are scheduled to have an all-day bargaining session Monday and another session April 7, which will steer the union’s next steps. Hung anticipates knowing on Tuesday, after EIU UPI’s general membership meeting, whether the union will strike.

After members overwhelmingly voted on March 10 to authorize a strike, the unit filed its 10-day notice with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. Hung said he will approach the upcoming bargaining session with caution.

“I’m somewhere between 0% and 30% hopeful, mostly because of the rhetoric the administration has been employing ever since the strike authorization vote,” he said.

Hung said the EIU administration sent out several emails indicating it is going to hire substitutes for when the union goes on strike.

“It’s really disheartening to hear because it signals that they think we are equally exchangeable,” Hung said.

“That’s not how teaching works: It’s a connection with your students and if you do not have your student’s attention it doesn’t matter what you do,” he said. “So if they put a substitute in our classroom, all they can say is they have a warm body there and I don’t know how much teaching will actually take place.”

Because a strike means a total work stoppage, union members will not provide course materials to other faculty members to teach their classes, but they each have contingency plans in place, Hung said.

Hung teaches a lab-heavy class that requires four hours a week for research and testing. Going on strike hurts everyone, he said.

“You have to wonder, why are they willing to pay a substitute instead of using that money to give us the pay raise we are asking for,” Hung said. “I mean talk about making a situation worse. Already our members are upset at the administration refusing fair pay, and then they turn around and say, ‘Oh well, if you decide to strike, we’ll just replace you temporarily.’”

CSU UPI Chapter President Valerie Goss has similar woes ahead of the union’s next bargaining sessions Saturday and Tuesday.

“Our side, from the beginning, has said we do not want to be on strike,” Goss said. “And the administration has stated that as well. But we see that they are not prioritizing the students by providing us with fair compensation that we need so that we can do the work that we need to help the students.”

Union members at Chicago State had a bargaining session Friday that didn’t go as Goss had hoped. Depending on how the Saturday session goes, the union is preparing for a strike on Monday, with picketing that will occur on campus from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and a rally at noon.

CSU is the state’s only Predominantly Black Institution, and colleges and universities that are designated as PBIs have low-income and first-generation college students as more than 50% of their student body. Goss said although faculty and personnel identify with the students and stand by them, adequate support for the staff just doesn’t exist.

“We have a diverse population amongst our faculty. We are at 95th and King Drive in the Black community. We’re in Chicago, where the cost of living is higher,” Goss said. “Why would the salaries be less for faculty teaching at CSU than any other university location throughout the state? For years, there’s been disinvestment in higher education. We’re not asking for a makeup of all this disinvestment; what we’re asking for is for the gap to not continue increasing.”

CSU officials, who have been bargaining with CSU UPI since June 6, said in a statement on Friday that while only a limited number of issues remain, there are large differences in the parties’ positions.

“We remain focused and eager to return to the bargaining table to work toward a new agreement and to avoid an unnecessary strike,” the statement said. “We have contingency plans in place should the Union choose to take this action, but we remain hopeful it will not come to that. No one will win during a strike.”

Officials at CSU also pointed to a “significant financial strain post-pandemic,” saying in the statement that the institution is anticipating a budget gap.

All three institutions serve special student populations, including Governors State, which is a Minority Serving Institution and an emerging Hispanic Serving Institution.

Union officials at GSU said students there have an increased need for advising assistance, yet school advisors are overloaded, some with as many as 500 students.

“After both sides made some movement at the bargaining table on Thursday, we’re optimistic going into next week,” said Chris Tweddle, spokesperson for GSU UPI and an associate professor. “However, we still have some progress to make to reach a deal that our members will accept. We’re also working with the university to address our concerns about adviser workload, which directly impacts the support we can give our students.”

Union members at GSU have an additional bargaining session scheduled for Thursday, and could strike as early as April 7.

“We’re seeing this trend in higher education where our professionals and faculty are stretched thin,” John Miller, president of University Professionals of Illinois, said in a statement. “They’re being asked to give more time, take on more work and offer more support. Yet these institutions choose not to compensate them adequately in return.”

In a statement on Friday, EIU officials said “the University remains wholly dedicated to ongoing good faith negotiations to reach an agreement that recognizes the contributions of the faculty to the University as well as the economic challenges facing the University. It is our sincere hope this can be achieved before any strike would occur.”

Officials from Governors State were not immediately available for comment.

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