UIC faculty strike over wage increases and student mental health services

After nine months of contract negotiations, members of the union representing the University of Illinois at Chicago College did not reach an agreement with management and instead moved to the first day of the strike on Tuesday afternoon.

Hundreds of faculty and students who support them gathered on the university’s East Campus Quad to picket and host a rally where they were joined by several officials, including Stacy Davis Gates, president of the Chicago Federation of Teachers, and State Representative Lexia Collins, a Democrat from Chicago.

UIC’s Consortium of United Colleges priorities include a fair salary increase for non-tenure faculty that is commensurate with inflation, job security, and expanded mental health support for students.

“Compensation is our biggest issue that we can really legally get around because it affects us directly…but while that is very important, something very important came out during COVID, which is all anyone talks about during our members meetings,” said Charitian-Williams. , the union’s head of communications and professor of English at the school, “is student mental health and wellness.”

The union specifically asked for access to free assessments for learning disabilities, a benefit students already get at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and free psychological and neuropsychological testing to address mental health. The union claims that the responsibility often rests with the college’s workload.

Over the past two years, Williams said, many students have turned to their professors for mental and emotional health support along with academic support.

“It should be up to a trained professional to tell me how to support my students, rather than me, an untrained professional, relying on my gut how to help them,” she said.

On Monday, the UIC administration announced that it is setting aside $4.47 million over the next six years to address students’ mental health and well-being.

The funding will allow an increase in the number of staff at the counseling center including licensed therapists and psychiatrists and improve salaries for hiring and retaining staff, according to an announcement from the university.

The strategy will include establishing a social work intern field unit, opening a dedicated wellness space on the west side of campus and more.

But Williams said the recently announced strategy is not enough because money could run out and so could the university’s commitment.

“There’s not a lot of money to put around over the next six years,” Williams said. “It’s just a plan, it’s not even a promise really.”

Williams said she informed the students about the negotiations. She said they are all very supportive.

A handful of students attended the rally while others watched their teachers squat in quads instead of carrying out lesson plans in the classroom. However, others continued with their usual day.

University of Illinois faculty gathered on the Chicago campus after going on strike Tuesday.

Graduate students who teach classes, assistant professors, and other faculty members who are not part of the consortium are required to continue teaching.

Ana Regneros, a third year student at UIC, attended the rally with friends. She said most of her classes have been cancelled.

“I certainly support,” said Regnerus. She said that her father is a university graduate, and the reason she chose UCLA is the caliber of her teachers.

Instead of seeing her teachers during her typical Tuesday classes, Charlie Hicks watched as they lined up the quads.

“It’s sad that they’ve come to this point because not only does it take them out of what they love to do, but it takes students out of the classroom,” Hicks said.

Williams said that by Tuesday evening, the union had not received a response from management, but that the plea bargaining session is expected to resume Wednesday. Faculty members are scheduled to picket every day this week from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. until a tentative contract agreement is reached.

Javier Reyes, interim chancellor of the university, informed the student body of the strike and said “during the strike, the university is committed to continuing its normal functioning as far as possible.”

“Based on the principles shared by all concerned, the League remains optimistic that a fair and beneficial negotiation agreement can be achieved,” Reyes added.

UIC member professors had been working without a contract since August, and in November 77% of their 900 members voted to support the strike.

“It’s been incredibly frustrating for everything we do and everything we want to continue to do,” said Paul Pressner, professor of architecture since 2006. “But it’s great to see so much support.”

The last time the union went on strike was in 2014 when members stopped working for two days before settling down. And in 2019, the union reached an agreement with management just one day before it was scheduled to shut down.

Consortium members include tenure-track, permanent-track, and non-career faculty members with 51% of the time or more, including visiting faculty.

Work stoppages under the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act allow members to picket and demonstrate peacefully and can choose to work or strike. Those who choose to work and not strike will continue to be paid, but those who choose to strike will not be paid during the demonstrations.

Students are encouraged to check their online dashboards and emails for the status of specific classes and labs.

“We’ll stay here until the contract is settled, and the things we ask for are the things we need. It’s not a frivolous request,” said Williams. “We’ll take care of our students as best we can while we’re here.”

Larodriguez@chicagotribune.com

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