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Illinois college unions protesting for wages, job security

CHICAGO — Faculty and graduate student workers at Illinois universities are protesting as college unions seek improved wages, benefits and job security.

This spring, employee strikes took place at the University of Illinois at Chicago, City Colleges of Chicago and Loyola University. At least three protests were planned at other campuses in the state during the school year but were stopped.

Another protest is now likely, as graduate students at the University of Chicago voted last week to allow a walkout in protest of the administration’s unwillingness to recognize them as a union, the Chicago Tribune reported. The group hinted at a strike prior to the end of the spring quarter in mid-June.

“We are starting to see ourselves more clearly as laborers,” said Janet Smith, a UIC professor and head of the campus faculty union. “We do our labor differently, but we are laborers. In order to get our voices heard, we have to use the tools that laborers do.”

In March and April, the union representing graduate and teaching assistants at UIC protested for three weeks after more than a year of bargaining. The strike canceled hundreds of classes as students were preparing for final exams. The union and administration subsequently reached a provisional agreement April 5.

Anne Kirkner, co-president of UIC’s Graduate Employees Organization, called the new agreement the best one that the union has ever negotiated.

“We did it through striking and unity,” Kirkner said during a rally on the last day of the walkout. “Because we know that strikes work.”

Since May 2017, at least eight unions at six Illinois schools have completed new contracts after a walkout or near-strike.

Graduate and teaching assistants at Loyola unionized in 2017. But officials declined to negotiate, citing they do not feel those students classify as employees who can lawfully unionize. Graduate students at the Rogers Park campus on the city’s North Side held a one-day protest in April and a sit-in at the office of university President Jo Ann Rooney.

“It’s about making very visible that our lives as graduate workers are not sustainable,” said Claire Lockard, a doctoral candidate in philosophy.

Faculty members at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb are also negotiating their first contract.

“Many universities treat their faculty as independent contractors, which allows for huge levels of inequality,” said Simón Weffer, an associate professor. “If we want to make sure everyone is being treated fairly, it becomes important to become a part of a union and work collectively to address some of these issues.”

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