Opinion: UIC Strike Seeks to Address Bigger Issues Than Contract

UIC's first-ever strike is as much about what kind of an institution it will be as it is about pay

In today’s media landscape, most labor reporting about strikes ends up looking a lot like most reporting about hurricanes. On the first day of the strike viewers or readers are told something is happening, there’s pictures of a picket line, someone is interviewed about how the strike will inconvenience them, and the facts and figures—hourly wages, contract negotiations, etc.—are dutifully reported

And by the second or third day, the story is usually over and the reporters have moved on.

But take a look behind the picket lines and a deeper story usually emerges. The faculty strike at the University of Illinois-Chicago, now in its second day, is one such example.

Instead of simply being about who gets paid what and when, the school’s first-ever strike is as much about what kind of an institution UIC is and will be, and whether or not educators are in the business of adding value to students or adding value to a university’s bottom line.

Of course, the strike is, in many ways, about pay:

Some 1,100 full-time tenured and nontenured faculty members are taking part in the two-day strike, after failing to reach a deal following 18 months of negotiations, the union says. The next bargaining session is planned for Friday.

The key issue, [union president Joe] Persky said, is wages — particularly for the 70 or so nontenured full-time lecturers who earn a $30,000 annual minimum. The union says those lecturers deserve a $45,000 minimum. The administration is offering to boost pay to the mid-$30,000s, beginning in the next academic year. The union is also seeking a 4.5 percent merit pay increase for the current academic year, while the administration is offering 3.25 percent — with no guarantees for future years, Persky said.

Writing in Jacobin Magazine, however, two UIC English professors, Lennard Davis and Walter Benn Michaels, make the case that UIC faculty are also committed to educating working-class students and say the strike is also about whether or not they’re able to fulfill that mission:

To understand why we’re striking, it’s useful to know a bit about UIC. It is, indeed, a major research university, but “large, struggling under-funded research university” would be more accurate. We’re more like Wayne State, Temple, or Brooklyn College, say, than Berkeley or Michigan, or even the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

But mainly, we like it that way. Unlike the flagships of state universities around the country (never mind selective private colleges), we don’t think our job is mainly to educate the children of the upper middle class.

If you look at college enrollments, almost all the top public schools enroll a large proportion of students from well-off families. At Michigan, for example, more students (16.9 percent) report a family income of over $250,000 than under $50,000 (15.6 percent). That’s why the Education Trust calls these schools “Engines of Inequality.”

But at UIC, that number is nowhere near as high. Only about a third of our students come from families making over $60,000, and many of our students are from immigrant families, live at home, hold full- or part-time jobs, and even have children of their own.

Further, much of the long-running battle leading up the actual strike gets to the heart of questions about the nature of education in a for-profit university, and what academic areas are deemed important:

When it comes to colleges and universities struggling to do right by their students, UIC is less the exception than the rule, according to Gary Rhoades, director of the University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education.

At many schools, Rhoades said, professors are resisting “administrative desires to narrow the range of fields in which education is provided, to concentrate resources on a few areas that [management] thinks are going to pay off — either in terms of bringing in research moneys [or] cutting off areas that are not seen to be so valuable in the marketplace for the student.”

Clearly, not everyone agrees with that approach:

The UIC faculty members call their strike an effort to ward off that sort of thinking. They insist they are standing up for their students.

“When I teach American literature,” [Professor Walter Benn] Michaels said, “they’re going to learn something about the value of literature — something that they’ll take with them all the way through their lives. That’s important to us. That’s part of what a university is.”

In a city with as many institutions of higher learning as Chicago has, questions over who gets to educate what slice of the student populations matter in more ways than one.

Nevertheless, if Chicago is to remain competitive in a global economy and produce more than a system of educational “haves and have-nots” at every level of educational achievement, care must be taken to provide opportunity for those among us who are unable to enter those schools that require taking on enormous debt or the right connections just to get in.

It’s good to see at least some of the UIC faculty considers that problem at least as important as their own paychecks.

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