Illinois college faculty strike wins gains

CHICAGO — Faculty members at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) reached agreement on a new contract Dec. 8 after a 20-day strike halted classes here for 12,000 students. The teachers were demanding a fair wage increase, a reduction in workload and an end to a two-tier wage system separating full-time tenured and part-time teachers. The agreement won pay increases, especially for the lowest paid faculty members.

This was the first faculty strike in 75 years in the state university system. Earlier this fall, teachers in the city college system struck for the first time in 25 years.

The 500 faculty members are represented by University Professionals of Illinois Local 4100, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. The striking teachers and staff received strong support from students. The strike was solid despite administration threats to eliminate health insurance, punish students who respected the picket line, and deport immigrant faculty members who supported the strike.

By law the university administration was required to inform the Immigration and Naturalization Service that immigrant workers were on a legal strike. But now this information had to be given to the Department of Homeland Security. While some immigrant workers remained on the picket line, at least two went to Canada during the strike, fearing deportation.

“The administration is making us work less on things that make us a good institution,” Sarah Hoagland, a professor of philosophy and women’s studies, told the World. Hoagland, who teaches three courses each fall and spring semester, said she works long hours preparing for her classes and keeping up on the latest developments in her field, hours that are not reflected in a 40-hour workweek.

Additional hours advising students and student clubs are part of the faculty workload. But two years ago, the administration unilaterally declared that faculty would not get credit toward their work hours for this work.

NEIU faculty salaries have been at the bottom in the Illinois university system. As bad as salaries are for full-time faculty, the salary for new teachers is approximately half to two-thirds of that. Part-time “Unit B” faculty receive half the salary of a full professor but must teach more courses.

Funding for the state higher education system has been cut 16 percent over the last four years. As a result, full-time faculty slots have been cut and the number of part-timers at NEIU has ballooned to over 50 percent. While other state universities have managed to increase faculty salaries, NEIU chose to increase administrative costs. Tuition skyrocketed 70 percent in the same period.

One part-time professor, an immigrant, who continued to walk the picket line in the face of deportation threats, has a Ph.D. and has been teaching at NEIU for seven years. As part of the “Unit B” faculty, he teaches five courses a semester and receives $27,000 a year, what one union spokesperson termed a “slave wage.” He is forced to work 70 hours a week teaching at three universities including NEIU, commuting over 700 miles each week, to support his family. “I see my children only on Sundays,” he told the World.

“We are trying to protect the right of the faculty and staff to reasonable compensation and workloads so we can provide the quality of education students deserve,” said John Murphy, Local 4100 vice president. “We believe we are battling for the future of public higher education in Illinois.”

The author can be reached at jbachtell@rednet.org.