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UIC students return to classes after faculty and administrators reach a contract deal

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The four-day strike that canceled classes for thousands of students at the University of Illinois at Chicago was suspended after faculty and administrators reached a tentative contractual agreement late Sunday evening.

The campus was buzzing with students as classes resumed on Monday. Faculty members, who gathered and picketed the square every day last week, were less visible. The faculty union has yet to set a date to ratify the proposed four-year deal.

“I’m excited to see how the rest of the semester goes with my classes,” sophomore Faith Aslam said as she left the UIC student center. “Because I like all my teachers… And I would like to continue to build a relationship with them… It would be difficult if it was all online, or we all taught ourselves at home.”

The deal ending the teachers union’s second strike in nine years began to materialize on Friday after trustees responded to union demands to raise teachers’ minimum salaries sooner and to invest more money in the annual collection pools.

“I’m sure being a teacher, being a professor is not easy at all,” said Aslam, who studies psychology and political science. “So I think they had every right to ask more for the work they do… It was really upsetting to see that it took so long to reach that agreement and finally get what they deserved.”

Just before midnight on Sunday, after a nine-hour bargaining session, the union enthusiastically tweeted: “We won! Strike suspended!

“This contract contains major gains on the issues most important to our members,” faculty union president Aaron Krall said in a statement.

The deal ending the teachers union’s second strike in nine years began to materialize on Friday after trustees responded to union demands to raise teachers’ minimum salaries sooner and to invest more money in the annual collection pools.

The interim agreement raises minimum salaries for nontenured faculty from $51,000 to $60,000 and for tenured members from $65,000 to $71,500 in the first year of the agreement. It also increases average annual wages by 17.75% over the next 4 years.

“The parties have been able to find common ground on an overall contract that addresses the various concerns of faculty and bridges the gap in compensation offers,” UIC leaders said in a statement.

“However, there may be challenging financial times that will require further collaboration with our faculty, staff, and administrative leadership to control or reduce costs, as well as improve our student retention and graduation rates, to improve stability financial institution.”

Mental health of students had emerged as a key and unprecedented bargaining issue. In that area, the talks resulted in the university’s commitment to create a student mental health care plan with input from faculty and students. The UIC administrators also agreed to the faculty’s request to establish free mental health and learning disability assessments for struggling students. These commitments are not foreseen in the faculty contract.

The agreement came after nine months of bargaining and 34 negotiating sessions, about half of which involved a federal mediator. The teachers have been working without contracts since August.

The 900-member union strike sent students scrambling to teach themselves at the very beginning of the semester, and highlighted long-simmering problems on the Near West Side campus.

Enrollment has grown significantly in recent years, just as other campuses have faced declines in student numbers. The faculty’s last contractual agreement was reached in 2019, shortly before the members’ scheduled exit.

Several UIC students have reported that all or nearly all of their classes were canceled during last week’s strike, although the union has been unable to say what percentage of classes have been cancelled. But the campus remained lively throughout the week, with picketing and rallies every day. Students and local politicians, as well as representatives of national labor and education organizations, joined the demonstrations on behalf of the faculty.

“The academic labor movement is on fire right now,” said Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, who flew in from Boston to join the UIC picket. “We’ve had decades of divestment at the federal and state levels… [Higher education] it’s at a breaking point, and I think the answer is faculty organization.

Mulvey said the UIC strike is critical to the higher education union movement because of the university’s majority minority student body and its status as the only research-intensive “R1” public university in Chicago. Ensuring universities like UIC pay salaries that recruit and retain strong faculty is essential, she said.

University administrators didn’t move much on minimum wages until after the strike began. On Friday, their offer increased from $54,500 to $58,140 for nontenured faculty in the first year of the contract. These faculty members make up nearly half of the UIC teaching force in the union and earn less than tenured faculty members despite often having similar credentials and workloads.

“Four days into the strike, they’re finally getting serious,” Charitianne Williams, a spokeswoman for the faculty union, said at the time.

Most faculty earn above the minimums. Median annual salaries for tenured faculty are $83,300; for tenured faculty the average is $134,000, according to UIC officials.

The strike raised questions about the university’s financial priorities and its commitment to transparency.

The faculty union has called for higher minimum wages that reflect historic inflation and the cost of living in a big city, as well as the additional job professors they have hired due to greater student mental health challenges.

But all the way through, university administrators said they didn’t have the financial resources to improve their minimum-wage offering. As recently as Friday, the university cited a $9.2 million gap between the union’s three-year compensation offer and the university’s “fair and fiscally responsible four-year offer.”

“Our faculty, our students are the heart and soul of this institution,” UIC interim chancellor Javier Reyes said on Friday. “We appreciate and care so deeply for them, as well as every person who works at UIC, to fulfill our mission as an institution. But at the same time we have financial constraints, we have limited resources.

The faculty union had disputed this claim, citing the university’s cash reserves. According to a union-commissioned analysis of federal data, the university had $1 billion in cash reserves in 2021. Reyes said the amount covered all three campuses at the University of Illinois and UI Health and it included some limited funds

“I don’t want to refer to $1 billion, because that’s actually not correct,” he said.

It is difficult to verify both sides’ claims because the UIC does not make its audited financial statements public. These statements are available only for the University of Illinois system as a whole, which includes UIC, but also the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign and the University of Illinois Springfield.

This is different from the practices of other higher education institutions such as the California State University system, which discloses certified individual financial statements for all 23 campuses.

“It’s definitely something to ask at the system level,” Reyes said of the lack of campus-level data. “We’re part of a system, so we follow the guidelines of our president and board of directors.”

Unique to this strike has been the focus on students’ mental health, which experts say is emblematic of “bargaining for the common good”. It is a type of work organization that goes beyond pay and benefits and introduces social conditions into contract negotiations.

“There are ways that negotiating to improve students’ mental health conditions … can affect the actual working conditions of teachers, which makes them appropriate to have a cheap contract,” said Tim Cain, professor at ‘University of Georgia studying unionization campus. “But it could also point to these broader goals of modern higher education unions, where it’s not just about my working conditions, it’s about making everything better.”

The faculty asked for a higher fee to reflect the extra time they invested supporting students affected by mental health issues. And they also asked the university to provide free psychological and neuropsychological testing for struggling students, which is already provided in Urbana Champaign.

UIC administrators responded by saying that faculty contracts were not the place to address student mental health, although they did eventually commit outside of contract to some of the union’s demands.

“We need to make sure we find that exact strategy that will help our campus holistically,” Reyes said last week. “It can’t be part of a negotiation…because we know this impacts our entire campus. And as such, we’re committing ourselves as a university… and saying this is a start.”

On the eve of the strike, the university said it would commit nearly $4.5 million over six years to improve student mental health services, increasing staff at the counseling center and raising salaries to recruit and retain students. personal. The union said it wasn’t enough.

According to a nationwide survey of college students called the Study on healthy minds6 out of 10 met the criteria for at least one mental health diagnosis after the pandemic began.

UIC serves approximately 34,000 undergraduate students, most of whom are students of color. One in three students are first generation college students.

Lisa Philip covers higher education for WBEZ, in partnership with Campus open. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation And @LAPhilip.

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Written by Natalia Chi

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