As a non-tenured faculty member, Beverly Love knows she has a lot at risk as Strike Day approaches at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale (SIUC). “It’s very frightening, I understand I’m in a somewhat precarious position…”
But she also believes that faculty, staff, and students all stand to lose even more if they don’t stand firm against the administration’s attacks on the rights of educators. And that’s why today, Thursday, Nov. 3, Love and her colleagues at SIUC will set aside the semester’s syllabi, power down their office computers, and walk out.
“We do not have a choice,” Love said, regretfully.
Four united unions, representing graduate students, university staff, and both full-time faculty and non-tenure track (or contingent) faculty, have been working without a contract for more than 480 days. Early this morning, at 2:45 a.m., the association of civil service employees signed a tentative agreement; at 4:10 a.m., Graduate Assistants United also signed; and at 5:10 a.m., non-tenure track faculty followed.
During these past few months without a contract, the administration unilaterally imposed four furlough days, sent pink slips to 90 contingent faculty members, slashed the length of teaching contracts to just 18 weeks, and also advised SIUC’s students that if they feel “threatened” by faculty or staff, they should call 911.
With their every move, it became increasingly obvious that the real threat to students—and the quality of their public university education—is coming from the university’s apparent refusal to bargain in good faith. And no one issue shows that more clearly than the discord around distance education.
“There is a new push toward increasing the amount of distance education and we want to make sure the contract has a clause about the ratio of students to faculty in these classes,” said faculty union president Randy Hughes. “There also are issues around the faculty control over the quality of these programs.”
The issue has not been salary – although the university administration has offered faculty raises, which it has said it will fund through student tuition increases, the faculty association has turned them down. “(We have) continued to offer, as we have for a long time now, that our salaries should increase if and only if SIUC’s overall revenues increase. If SIUC’s finances improve, our salaries should increase. If not, not,” said the faculty union, in a press release this morning.
“The fundamental issues are transparency and accountability. Just as we hold our students and ourselves accountable by giving them a syllabus outlining the critera by which we will judge them, so too we expect the administration to provide us with transparency and accountability.”
Meanwhile, for SIUC graduate students, the main issue has been health care—or the lack of it. Kristi Brownfield, a 31-year-old doctoral student in sociology, recently testified to the SIUC Board of Trustees that her prescribed medications for multiple sclerosis would cost $1,700 a month under the terms of the health insurance plan provided to her and her classmates by the university.
“I am not taking that medication,” she said.
That plan, which is exempt from the regulations of the federal Patient Affordable Care Act because it is a student plan and self-insured, forces students to “choose between buying food and keeping healthy,” Brownfield testified.
But SIUC isn’t the only higher-ed union pushed to brink these days. On Nov. 18, the California Faculty Association (CFA) also has scheduled one-day strikes at California State University (CSU) East Bay and CSU Dominguez Hills, in response to the Chancellor’s refusal to pay previously negotiated pay raises. And, while the strike is specifically about wages, CFA’s problems with Chancellor Charlie Reed go far beyond pay.
“What is at stake in our contract fight is two competing visions of the university,” said CFA President Lillian Taiz. While the Chancellor promotes a vision of highly-paid administrators, supervising a weak force of instructors who work “from prepared modules, mainly online, in a mostly privately funded university, “ she said. “CFA is pressing hard to ensure that we can provide the professional working conditions for the faculty and reasonable learning conditions for students that are essential for quality education.”
For her part, back at SIUC, Love, an assistant professor in the department of radio-television, admits that yes, striking is scary. But she is heartened by the incredible solidarity shown by the four unions, as well as the support shown by community members and students. And when students ask her, as they often do: “Dr. Love, are you going on strike?” She replies, “I want to teach you. I want to be here. I want to settle this contract.”
Click here to sign a petition to show your support for the faculty at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.