UIC faculty still at bargaining table after several days of strike

Negotiations continued Friday between University of Illinois at Chicago faculty and administration over pay increases and better mental health services for students.

The bargaining session, which began Friday afternoon and could continue into the weekend, will determine whether members of the faculty union will head back to the picket line Monday or agree on a new contract with the administration.

Hundreds of faculty and students have been picketing this week from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in hopes that a new deal promises fair salary increases for tenure- and non-tenure-track faculty that match inflation, job security and expanded mental health support services for students.

“The first step of bargaining for a new contract is to send out a survey to all of our members about what their concerns are moving into the next contract,” said Charitianne Williams, the UIC United Faculty’s communications chair and an English lecturer. “Very, very, very quickly, student mental health emerged as the faculty’s No. 1 noneconomic workplace concern.”

Over the last two years, Williams said, several faculty members have spent an average of four to six hours per week talking to students about nonacademic issues.

UIC has a counseling center, but there are too few mental health professionals on campus to meet the demands exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Williams said.

“I’ve tried using the counseling center before at the school back in 2020 and it was really bad,” said Charlotte Wagner, a junior and a political science major at UIC who has been picketing alongside Williams all week. “You would call and not even get a response and the counselors they hire just end up leaving because they are just so burnt out. I hope (the school) follows through on the promises.”

As part of contract negotiations that started nine months ago, faculty are seeking a more robust system to deal with mental health issues and the same access to psychological and neuropsychological assessments for their students that the University of Illinois already provides to students at the Urbana-Champaign campus.

On Monday, UIC’s administration announced that it committed $4.47 million over the next six years to address student mental health and well-being.

The funding will allow for increased staffing for the counseling center, including licensed therapists and psychiatrists, and salary enhancements to recruit and retain staff, according to an announcement from the university.

UIC junior Yael Lenga, who has also been rallying on the UIC quad with her friends every day since the union went on strike, said having classes canceled this week has been disruptive.

“My genetics class is a class I was already worried about and this week we didn’t have lectures, but we still have to submit the homework, so you kind of have to teach yourself,” she said. “But I’m happy to be out on the pickets. I enjoy the sense of camaraderie, even though it’s under such difficult circumstances.”

Lenga has been spearheading an effort to collect testimonials from students through an online form where they can submit words of praise for teachers who have meant a lot to them, she said.

UIC United Faculty held civil disobedience training at noon Friday to guide activists through best practices on protesting and interacting with authority figures.

Williams said about 200 organizers attended the training, and more than a hundred more have been showing up daily to protests that started Tuesday.

Williams, who said she is known for drinking hot water, said several of her current and former students stepped in to make sure she had what she needed while out in the cold.

“My office is open and doesn’t have a door, so one of my students had gone in and grabbed one of my travel mugs off my desk and filled it with hot water and came and gave me my mug and then took the empty one back to my office,” Williams said. “Once someone did it, others were like, ‘Oh that’s a good idea.’ So for the past two days, I’ve had my hot water in my hand.”

Like many students and faculty, Williams said she cannot wait to go back to class.

“I’m on the bargaining committee. Most of the other people on the committee, it’s their job — they’re doing their job right now,” she said. “I teach writing. (Bargaining) is not my job. I don’t want to be doing it, honestly. There are other things that I want to do instead, which is teaching and working with students.”

Interim Chancellor Javier Reyes has been absent from the negotiating sessions, said faculty union President Aaron Krall. Krall said Reyes has not attended a negotiating session since May.

“We have no choice but to not only stay on the picket lines but also to ensure our members and allies are trained in techniques that will get their attention,” Krall said of the civil disobedience training. “It’s long past time for this administration and this chancellor to take us seriously.”

Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, issued a statement urging Reyes and the UIC administration to end the strike.

“It is outrageous that the dedicated educators in UIC United Faculty had to resort to a work stoppage once again,” Montgomery said. “For nearly a year, they have been bargaining with UIC administration without success.”

Reyes, who spoke to the Tribune ahead of Friday’s bargaining session, did not make it clear whether he would be attending.

“My sincere hope is to reach an agreement and my request to everyone at the table is to remain at the table until we reach an agreement,” Reyes said. “If it doesn’t get done today, then we are going to come back Saturday and be back Sunday. I want us to have students back in classes and faculty back on campus on Monday.”

Reyes noted that he has interacted cordially with faculty members during the strike.

“We share the same values,” he said. “I am deeply involved. At every step, I get brought in to talk to the negotiating team about the counterproposals and what’s at the table and then we move forward. If people are saying I’m not at the table, I can tell you that I am engaged in the process and it’s been the practice all along.”

Williams said her fellow union members were shocked by the administration’s offer on Monday.

“Then on Wednesday, we were like OK, now they are going to finally settle, and we were doubly shocked,” she said. “So today, I am withholding hope. But I know whatever power I have to settle this contract and get back into the classroom, I am ready to use it and I know that’s true for every faculty member on strike.”

zsyed@chicagotribune.com