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Chicago Indymedia

LOCAL News :: Labor

City Colleges Ready to Strike for First Time in 27 Years

Teachers in the Chicago City Colleges are considering the possibility of striking for the first time in almost 27 years if the administration doesn't offer workers a fairer contract proposal. Kari Lydersen reports for Chicago Indymedia.
Passions ran high as about 20 teachers at Wright College sat in the music room on a warm September afternoon, agendas on musical stands in front of them, Cook County College Teachers Union president Perry Buckley and a science teacher at the front of the class telling tales of past labor struggles.

The teachers were discussing the possibility of going on strike for the first time in almost 27 years if the City Colleges administration didn’t come through with a better contract proposal in the coming weeks.

Now it looks likely a strike of over 1,000 City Colleges faculty and other workers will start on Oct. 18. The strikers would include the City Colleges’ 476 full-time faculty, about 200 full time professional including lab and computer instructors, about 160 part-time professional tutors and mentors and about 500 security guards. The three groups are all members of the Cook County College Teachers Union who have been involved in negotiating a master agreement that covers three separate contracts. If satisfactory contracts aren’t reached for all three groups, they will all strike together.

In votes held at each of the city’s seven colleges on Oct. 5, employees voted 701 to 23 to authorize the three union negotiating committees to strike if an agreement with the administration isn’t reached by Oct. 18, after sessions with federal mediators on Oct. 12 and 14. On Oct. 6 the union filed a notice of their intent to strike with the Educational Labor Relations Board.

“We don’t want to strike, but if we have to we’re ready,” said Brenda Cardenas, an English teacher at Wright College who is known for developing a Latino studies program and leading poetry readings and workshops.

The union says a strike would leave over 2,000 classes without teachers, and they say this would essentially shut the colleges down.

“I don’t know where they’d find enough qualified professionals to teach college classes for just a few weeks in October,” said union legal counsel Bill Naegele. “It would be a futile attempt for them to try to keep the colleges open with all the teachers out on the street.”

Union president Perry Buckley noted that the City Colleges’s non-credit teachers, who are part of a different union, have agreed not to cross picket lines.

But Chicago City Colleges Chancellor Wayne Watson said, “The colleges will stay open.”

The current contentious negotiations and possible strike represent a return to a past era for the City Colleges teachers. Preceding the 27-year period of harmonious relationships with the administration, the college teachers were famous in the labor world for striking six times between 1966 and 1978, even though at the time it was illegal for educational unions to strike. In a booklet published by Daley College teacher Larry Linderman, former union president Norm Swenson calls this a probable record for any local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), with which the union is affiliated.

“We were the first public employee union in Chicago to gain a collective bargaining contract, although there were many unions larger and more powerful” writes Swenson, who retired from his post this year after four decades as union president and is still serving on the union negotiating team. “I was the first union president in Chicago to be punished for striking, and I was sentenced to jail terms in 1971 and 1975.” In 1971, the booklet notes, teachers struck for five weeks in bitter cold conditions.

The full-time faculty’s contract expired July 15, the security guards – mostly retired police and sheriffs – have been without a contract since January, and the part-time professionals have been in negotiations for 16 months.

The main sticking point in the faculty contract is health care.

Naegele said the proposal currently on the table would have employees paying up to 400 percent what they currently pay for health care. They currently pay a fixed amount, but the proposal calls for them to pay 15 to 18 percent of the premiums for coverage, meaning if insurance premiums rise over the years the amount they pay could also rise sharply.

“We’re willing to double what we pay for insurance, but with their proposal it’s going to be a lot more than that,” said Buckley.

Watson said the $5,000 and $10,000 deductibles were never part of the proposal; that teachers would pay between 8 and 15 percent of premiums and that with rising health care costs across the country, the proposal is fully reasonable.

“We are in a health care crisis in Illinois,” he said.

An earlier proposal also would have had retirees losing their health benefits upon retirement, but Watson said that provision has been removed.

“It was a mis-step,” he said. “That was changed.”

Union members are incensed that while they will be paying much more for healthcare, top administrators at each college will get free health care and life insurance for themselves and their dependents for life.

Watson counters that only a handful of presidents and vice-chancellors of the colleges get this benefit, and that it is standard in the field.

“When they say all these administrators are getting this they’re exaggerating,” he said. “It’s only about 11 people, and this is common throughout the US.”

The teachers are also angry about a provision of the administration’s proposal which they refer to as “publish or perish.” That is, a requirement that tenured faculty would be up for review every four years and their review would include assessments of whether they had published, taken graduate courses or done other extra-curricular work.

“That goes against the whole definition of tenure,” said Cardenas, who said she often works 12 hour days including grading papers and staying into the evening for poetry events or to meet with students. “Who wants to be taking graduate courses right up until they retire, on top of everything else?”

Watson said the teachers are misrepresenting the provision, in that they are not required to “publish or perish” but rather have to show “evidence of professional development” which could be exhibited by publishing, holding an art exhibit, doing a student research project or a community outreach project.

“The taxpayers shouldn’t be funding a person who gets a job as a teacher at 26 and never does anything in their field again,” he said. “As a taxpayer would you want that? Everyone gets evaluated, whether they are a lawyer or a doctor or a teacher.”

He said it is possible though not likely that tenured teachers could lose their jobs if they are not found up to par.

“We’d sit down and work with them to update themselves,” he said. “Ultimately if they never do anything it could result in some kind of action.”

Buckley and the teachers gathered at Wright College said there is no doubt teachers go beyond the call of duty in extra-curricular projects with students, but they don’t want to be evaluated on volunteer work and continuing education which is not part of their job description.

“We love our students, we love what we do,” said Buckley, who was an English teacher before becoming union president this summer. “I was moderator of the Indo-Paki Club and the Shakespeare Club. We all do things like that that we don’t get paid for. Because we believe in what we do.”

The teachers are also unhappy with provisions that would effectively increase the course load and class size for some teachers, without a corresponding increase in pay. They say they are already pushing themselves to the limit, working long days including unpaid preparation time and volunteer activities.

And the teachers say they are especially angry about the contract since the number of full-time faculty employed by the city colleges has decreased sharply over the past decade, from about 1,500 to 476 today. They describe this as part of a top-heavy structure where there is one administrator on the payroll for every two teachers. As of July 2004, city colleges staff lists show, there were 2.3 faculty for every administrator. Additionally the city colleges contract with American Express for administrative accounting work.

But Watson calls this point disingenuous, since the ratio they cite is comparing the number of full-time credit faculty to the total number of administrators, who also oversee part-time staff and non-credit programs.

”It’s a little unfair, isn’t it?” he said.

Cardenas said she loves teaching at Wright, but with increased health care costs she is afraid she’ll have to look for another job.

“I don’t spend money on anything extra,” she said. “I can pay rent and for a car and not much else. I can’t afford to buy a home on my salary. If I have to pay thousands extra in health care, I just won’t be able to do it.”

Buckley said the new contract would hit younger teachers, who are lower on the pay scale, the hardest.

“It used to be that the city colleges were a wonderful lifetime job,” he said. “Now we’re losing the best and the brightest. They leave after a few years for better jobs. [The proposed contract] is putting the city colleges in jeopardy. That’s the reason I took this job – we used to have a wonderful collegial relationship [with the administration] but now Wayne Watson is ram-rodding over people, using this mantra that we’re under-worked and overpaid when the opposite is true. It’s become a battle.”



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