Union not talking about full strike at UI — yet
URBANA — A walkout by nontenure-track faculty at the University of Illinois could come within 10 days, but it will likely be short.
The Nontenure Track Faculty Coalition Local 6546 will poll its membership again before authorizing any "open-ended" strike, union President Shawn Gilmore said Thursday.
Union members authorized their leaders to call a strike. The union hasn't announced specific plans, but Gilmore, an English lecturer, said actions could include pickets, rallies or a one- to three-day work stoppage — or all three.
"They're not open-ended," he said.
Members discussed more drastic measures, such as an indefinite walkout or withholding grades, but "if it comes to that in a few weeks, we will come back to that issue."
The union's move comes with just a few weeks of classes left before finals and commencement. The last day of classes is May 4 and finals begin May 6. Gilmore said the union's actions are tied to the negotiations, but the approaching end of the school year "does put a lot of pressure on the whole system."
Before taking action, the union has to wait 10 days after notifying the university of its intent to strike, which was filed Thursday. The next bargaining session with a federal mediator is scheduled for April 27.
The union represents almost 500 lecturers, researchers and other faculty members who are not part of the tenure system, though not all have joined the union. They work across campus, from engineering on the north to agriculture on the south.
Among them is microbiology lecturer Ken Chapman, who teaches three courses for non-microbiology majors, mostly from the College of Agriculture — students in food science, animal science, human nutrition, kinesiology, crop and soil sciences. One is a lecture course with 250 students, and the other two are lab courses with numerous hands-on lab sections.
He's taught at the UI for 14 years, and for eight years before that at a liberal arts college in Kansas. But he still has a year-to-year contract. Last year, he received his reappointment letter in midsummer and a final notice in September — two weeks after classes started.
After 14 years, Chapman said he doesn't worry as much as he did his first few years on the job.
"It would cost the university more to replace me than to keep me here," he said.
Chapman holds a UI bachelor's degree in microbiology and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, and did postdoctoral work at Michigan State and Ohio State. He earns a little more or less than $50,000 a year, depending on whether he teaches a summer class — far less than tenured faculty in his department, and less than some junior high teachers, he said.
But Chapman, a strong union supporter, said the issue is about "stability and respect" — having multi-year contracts, a voice in governance and basic rights to formal grievance procedures laid out in a contract.
"It seems to be a pattern around here, that every time a union organizes, they have to strike to get their first contract," he said.
Arthur Schmidt, a research assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering, is not a union supporter. Schmidt, who has worked at the UI since 2003, said he's always been treated "very equitably," with performance evaluations and merit-based pay increases until August 2014, when he received a notice that he was now part of a bargaining unit.
The university withheld general raises from union members that year until a contract agreement was reached, "which has still not happened," Schmidt wrote in a letter to The News-Gazette.
"I was never asked if I wanted to be part of a union or given opportunity to vote on whether I felt a strike was merited," he wrote. "I want the public to know that there are NTT faculty on this campus who are very grateful to be part of this outstanding institution, who do not endorse this action, and who will absolutely not support any strike or action against the University."
The last large-scale work stoppage on campus was in 2009, when the Graduate Employees' Organization staged a two-day walkout. A contract settlement was reached on the second day. Professors moved classes to other locations or made alternative assignments during the strike. Afterward, instructors scheduled extra classes or condensed materials to compensate, just as they would for a snow day, Gilmore said.
Campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said it's "premature" to talk about contingency plans for a faculty strike.
"If classes are canceled for any reasons throughout any given semester, we deal with that as it happens," Kaler said Thursday. "This time of year, I think it's always important that everybody's able to make progress toward their degree.
"We really are optimistic that we can work together and get an agreement that is fair to everyone and recognizes the need to be very good stewards of our resources," she said. "We're still bargaining in good faith, and I hope they are too."
If the faculty union opts to withhold grades at some point, Kaler said, the campus would consult with each department head and "we would work together to do whatever is best for those students," she said. That might involve calculating student grades based on the work completed to date, she said, though it would likely be different for every class.
Gilmore said the union will make clear to its members that they must keep their department heads or supervisors informed. "We have people who run research labs or do clinical work in the field, and they would have to decide what a strike would mean for that particular kind of work," he said.
The union is coordinating with other campus unions, as well as non-union workers and campus security, on any walkout, Gilmore said. "We would not be blocking anyone who has to be in a building," he said.
It's also asking for "solidarity" from other unions to perhaps move their work to different buildings if they can't join the strike, he said.
The GEO has a no-strike clause in its contract. GEO officer Alia Bellwood, a teaching assistant in communication, said the union would encourage its members to "stand at the picket line" and support the faculty union and request that their classes could be moved out of those buildings. They are not obligated to cross a picket line or pick up teaching loads of striking faculty, she said.
Inside the union
Who are the roughly 500 non-tenure-track faculty members at the UI? The union lists three general categories:
Teaching faculty: 75-80%
Instructors, lecturers, teaching professors and teaching associates who teach a significant part of undergraduate classes — especially in English, math, statistics, accounting, business, communication, agriculture and the performing arts. Also teach graduate courses in some departments. Generally work on a nine-month basis with year-to-year contracts. A few were recently awarded title of "Teaching Assistant Professor," new pathway for promotion outside the tenure track.
Research faculty: 15-20%
Research professors and research assistants/associates who are engaged in long-term research projects, especially in the sciences and engineering. Typically hired with grants that fund those projects, though some raise their own grant money for salaries. Also supervise and advise post-docs, graduate and undergraduate students. Usually have Ph.D.s and work 12-month, year-to-year contracts, though it varies with funding.
Clinical faculty: 5%
Clinical instructors and clinical assistant/associate professors who organize and supervise clinical experiences of undergraduate and graduate students, particularly in education, social work and music. Often are practitioners in the field (e.g. therapists or musicians) and teach classes related to their clinical work. Most work on nine-month contracts, though length ranges from a semester to multiple years.