CHICAGO — After a year and a half of negotiations, the union representing faculty on the University of Illinois' Chicago campus has overwhelmingly approved a strike authorization.
The move does not mean a strike is imminent. It authorizes the union's bargaining committee to call a strike.
UIC United Faculty, part of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, represents tenured and tenure-track professors and non-tenure-track faculty, such as instructors and lecturers, on the Chicago campus. Faculty organized in 2011, fought with the university over the union's plan to have one bargaining unit, but ultimately began negotiating two contracts for two units (one for tenured and tenure-track and the other for non-tenure-track). The union and university have held about 50 bargaining sessions so far to come up with their first contracts.
"One of the reasons for taking a (strike authorization) vote now is to impress upon administration the union's willingness to stand behind the proposals we're making," said UIC United President Joe Persky, an economics professor at UIC. "We're willing to bargain ... but we're not willing to bargain with ourselves, which is what the situation has been," he said.
Ninety-five percent of the members who voted approved the strike authorization. Over 79 percent of tenure-track and 79 percent of non tenure track members participated in the voting, which occurred throughout the week at several locations on the Chicago campus.
"I think people are very upset," said Persky, who added that members were willing to call a strike authorization back in October. "People were already saying it was time to do something. ... The morale on campus is low now, which is unfortunate. We don't want to hurt the school. It's time for us to get this behind us," he said.
Among the issues to be ironed out are boosting the minimum pay for full-time lecturers (the union wants a minimum of $45,000) and addressing salary compression for faculty members who have been on campus for some time, plus bargaining for multi-year contracts, which would provide some longer-term stability for those on annual appointments who may not know until the end of the summer that they have a teaching job for that fall semester.
"Frankly, both sides need to focus on resolving the contracts," said UIC Provost Lon Kaufman in a statement Friday. "The UIC administration has heard the proposals by the union and will respond with sincere and meaningful proposals as we move through the mediation phase," he said.
A federal mediator was recently brought in to help the process. The next bargaining session is scheduled for Dec. 13, with additional meetings planned for January.
"Right now, at least in these negotiations, we are on two different sides," Kaufman said. "My hope is that through the negotiations themselves and the contract I look forward to them producing will put us where we belong, on the same 'side,' working together to increase the success of our students, contribute to our fields of scholarly inquiry, and increase the quality of life for those in our community," he said.
Although the events are happening in Chicago, they are being watched by those in Champaign-Urbana, where the debate over faculty unionization has intensified in recent months. Members of the Campus Faculty Association have been talking with faculty about unionizing. A formal campaign has not launched yet.
"We're closely following what is happening there," said Susan Davis, spokeswoman for the Campus Faculty Association. "A strike authorization vote is a negotiating tactic unions use when there is no movement. ... They've had an unbelievable number of meetings," said Davis.
Long, drawn-out negotiations have been common in recent years on the Champaign-Urbana campus, Davis said.
In March the Service Employees International Union Local 73, which represents food and building service workers on the Champaign campus, went on a three-day strike after negotiations stalled. In late 2012 the Graduate Employees' Organization averted a potential strike after coming to an agreement with the university following more than seven months of negotiations and its members authorizing a strike.
Before any strike, a union must file a 10-day notice with the state.
In his statement, the UIC's Kaufman said if there is a strike, "the university does have an obligation to our students and other constituents to continue normal operations. It should also be emphasized that no faculty member is required to strike or stop work, even if urged by the union. Every faculty member has the right to continue work," he said.