Why We’re On Strike

Today the tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty members who make up the University of Illinois at Chicago faculty union walked out of their classrooms and onto the picket line for a two-day strike. It is the first faculty strike at a major research university in the United States in a very long time.

Most of the state research universities that have unions got them in the 1960s and 1970s, but, in a renewed push to organize campus labor, UIC and the University of Oregon just won certification in the past few years. Oregon got to their contract pretty quickly; we’ve not been as lucky. We now hope that after two years of fighting us followed by a year and a half of stonewalling on our contract negotiations, the Illinois Board of Trustees will finally start serious bargaining on the main issues that divide us.

To understand why we’re striking, it’s useful to know a bit about the University of Illinois at Chicago. It is, indeed, a major research university, but “large, struggling underfunded research university” would be more accurate. We’re more like Wayne State University, Temple University, or CUNY’s Brooklyn College than the University of California at Berkeley or the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, or even the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

But mainly, we like it that way. Unlike the flagships of state universities around the country (never mind selective private colleges), we don’t think our job is mainly to educate the children of the upper middle class. At Ann Arbor, for example, more students (16.9 percent) report a family income of over $250,000 than under $50,000 (15.6 percent). That’s why the Education Trust calls these schools “Engines of Inequality.”

But at UIC, that number is nowhere near as high. Only about a third of our students come from families making over $60,000, and many of our students are from immigrant families, live at home, hold full- or part-time jobs, and even have children of their own.

What this means is that we characteristically enroll students whose preparation, as reflected in their ACT scores, isn’t as good as the students at places like Urbana-Champaign. (Family income is a very good predictor of ACT scores.) And we have some real problems with retention (family income is a good predictor of retention, as well).

But the UIC faculty and administration are completely united on the fact that we don’t think that the way to solve these problems is by getting “stronger” (which is to say, richer) students. In fact, when we put together a “Strategic Thinking Report” in 2005, we explicitly said we’re not looking to recruit “better” students; we want to do a better job of educating the students we have.

The faculty is committed to that mission. And the whole point of the strike is to help us fulfill it.

Start with the retention problem. The biggest falling off is between the first and second years of college, so our administration is (rightly) concerned with the first-year experience. What courses do first-year students take? Who teaches those courses?

Every entering UIC student takes at least one writing course; most take two. Not surprisingly, our writing courses are overwhelmingly taught by lecturers (i.e. non-tenure-track faculty), on year-to-year contracts and paid a standard salary of $30,000. Furthermore, although the administration carries on endlessly about the importance of merit, it’s unwilling to establish a promotion track for non-tenure-track faculty members, the whole point of which would be to reward merit.

So what exactly does it mean to insist on the importance of the first-year experience and then pay the people most responsible for that experience a wage that virtually requires them to work a second job? What does it mean to claim you want to reward the best and the hardest working when you not only won’t promote them, but you won’t even provide a position they could in theory be promoted to? You’re short-changing both the faculty and the students.

The tenure-track faculty members, of course, are better paid. But a quarter of them make less than $75,000, and another quarter make less than $90,000. The median salary of all faculty members at UIC is about $65,000—less than what the average Chicago public-school teacher makes.

And this is not because our faculty members are just starting out in their careers. On the contrary, with fewer tenure-track appointments getting made, the tenure-track faculty skews older; therefore, we have salary compression—the effect of years of no raises combined with the effects of inflation and no cost-of-living increases. But the Board of Trustees has been as reluctant to deal seriously with this issue as it has been to deal with with those $30,000 a year non-tenure-track faculty.

These are bread-and-butter issues. They don’t even speak to the loss of autonomy and control that faculty members are experiencing, to questions like what academic freedom means to people on one-year contracts or to the politics of reducing universities to nothing but supposed instruments of economic development.

Historically, the administration of the university was a function of faculty members who were chosen to manage the running of departments.  The dean was Dean of Faculty—chosen by and beholden to the people who actually teach students. But with the bureaucratization of the university and the growth of the university as corporation, deans, provosts, and their myriad vice provosts have become management. This now-bloated segment of the university makes decisions about the welfare of faculty and students.

The term “shared governance” is invoked to disguise this evisceration of power, but what it mainly means is that faculty senates can “advise” the administration and the administration can then do whatever it wants. To call shared governance real governance is like saying your dog has an equal say in how your household is run because sometimes when he whines he gets fed.

One of our issues in this strike is to take back decision-making power over the issues that matter to us—curriculum, teaching conditions, the distribution of money, and the like. The administration is fighting ferociously to retain that power—since giving it up would in effect be returning it from management to workers.

But are professors really workers? When we were organizing, the administration kept telling us we weren’t—we were professionals. And, in fact, at UIC, we belong to the Illinois Federation of Teachers, which does indeed describe itself as a “Union of Professionals.” If you’ve done any work on the history of professionalization, you know that one of the original points of the whole concept of the professional—as it applied to ministers, doctors, lawyers, and professors—was to distinguish them from workers.

But what we’ve all begun to realize is that, whatever it meant in the late 19th and early 20th century, in the 21st century that distinction is pure ideology. Professionals are workers—and professors are workers.

That’s a hard lesson to learn.  In organizing our union in the first place, many (especially tenure track) professors were reluctant to join, seeing themselves the way the administration wanted us to see ourselves: as professionals who shouldn’t be lumped together with public-school teachers, university staff members, fast-food workers, even our own non-tenure-track colleagues.

But the administration has been helpful, treating us as badly at the bargaining table as they treat UIC’s other unions. Those other unions have been even more helpful, since they understand perfectly well not only that they are workers but that we are, too. Recently, our IFT representative Nick Christen came back from a Service Employees International Union meeting where he’d spoken to several hundred members about our impending strike.

“In the audience,” he reported, “were workers from all over the Chicago region including UIC, the City of Chicago, home aides, and hospital employees. Dozens of them volunteered to take time out of their days to stand in solidarity with us during our strike, and in the case of one home-care aide who makes about $22,000 a year, take an unpaid half-day off to march with us. Why? Obviously, because it is the right thing to do.”

It is the right thing to do. We can’t get justice for our faculty unless our union fights for our faculty. But unless our union becomes part of a larger movement, fighting for home-care aides making $22,000 a year as well as adjuncts making $30,000 a year, and for Chicago public-school teachers making $75,000 a year as well as Chicago public-college teachers making $80,000 a year, we can’t get justice at all.

We have to end the divide-and-conquer mentality of corporate management and realize again the perennial message of labor and unions—we’re all in this together.

Lennard Davis and Walter Benn Michaels are professors of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This article originally appeared in Jacobin.

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