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Faculty strikes still loom in Illinois

Union faculty members at Southern Illinois University last week stopped short of making history. The strike they threatened but finally rejected would have been the first in Illinois by a faculty at a four-year university.

That distinction could soon fall to the faculty at Eastern Illinois University, where the faculty union has voted to authorize a strike.

If not Southern or Eastern, then perhaps Chicago State, Governors State, Northeastern Illinois or Western Illinois University. Tenured faculty members have unionized on all six campuses – half of the state’s dozen public four-year universities. Nontenured faculty members at Northern Illinois University also have a union.

The ground for such organizations is especially fertile in Illinois, where state laws give public university faculties the rights both to bargain collectively and to strike. The state is among a minority in this respect.

But Illinois is not an oddity, says Craig Smith, assistant director for higher education at the national American Federation of Teachers. There are similar levels of college faculty union activity, he says, in such states as Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York, where the entire faculties of the sprawling State University and City University of New York systems are represented.

Smith traces union activism in higher education to the late 1960s. It has been largely confined to public universities – the result of a 1980 Supreme Court decision holding that faculty members at a private university are managerial and not entitled to bargain collectively.

The AFT and National Education Association – whose combined 3.7 million members are mostly public elementary and secondary school employees – now represent 230,000 higher education workers between them. That’s out of the national total of 3 million – including about 1 million faculty members – on higher education payrolls.

The union total includes not just faculty members but also other college employees. Much recent growth has come from the addition of groups of part-time faculty members and graduate teaching assistants, Smith says. Last year, for instance, the AFT won the right to represent graduate assistants at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

“Given the good faith bargaining that has gone on, strikes have been a relatively rare occurrence in higher education, all things considered,” Smith said. In the past three years, faculties have struck the University of Hawaii, Eastern Michigan University and Wayne State University in Detroit.

Like faculty unions, faculty strikes are somewhat more common at two-year than four-year colleges. Illinois saw the most recent one – at William Rainey Harper College, a community college in Palatine. A total of 206 full-time professors walked out in October for 11 days. Issues were salaries and health insurance benefits.

The SIUC union won an election in late 1996 to represent the university’s tenured and tenure-track faculty members, now numbering 680 out of a total faculty of 1,500. About 390 of those faculty members – 10 more than voted in the union a little over six years ago – now belong.

The union is an affiliate of the NEA, its only bargaining unit on a four-year campus in Illinois. The association narrowly lost a faculty election two years ago at Illinois State University and is still working with would-be faculty organizers there and at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, said Donna Manering, the association’s higher education director for the state.

All of the state’s other university faculty unions are allied with the American Federation of Teachers. Sue Kaufman, president of the umbrella organization for all of the federation’s Illinois higher education bargaining units, says salaries have been a major issue with faculties statewide. They are paid significantly below their peers at similar schools in other states, she says.

Agreeing, the Illinois Board of Higher Education adopted a five-year plan to improve faculty salaries at the state’s public universities. But in this third year of the plan, it ran afoul of the state’s strangled budget. Across the state, faculties have found raises hard to come by, Kaufman says.

This was a no-raise year for all Southern Illinois University employees, on both its Edwardsville and Carbondale campuses. In negotiations that began a year ago, the university first offered to tie Carbondale faculty raises to increases, if any, in the university’s state funding. The union began by asking for 21 percent over three years.

In November the union voted to strike Feb. 3 unless it had a tentative contract by then. Days before the deadline the university made its final offer of raises totaling 7.5 percent over the next three years – and more, in proportion to any increases in the university’s state funding.

Union members approved the contract, replacing one that expired June 30, by a vote of 202 to 73 on Friday.

Union leaders said they were disappointed that the contract did not include certain provisions on faculty and union rights they had sought.

But pay is of overriding importance. “Salary translates into respect in the academy,” Kaufman said.

“There is a growing sense among (university) faculty and staff that they are not being respected for the work they do,” Kaufman said. “That portends we’re going to have some rough times.”