As Budget Cuts Loom, a Fight Back Builds at UIC
It seems to be an average day in the bustling student center at the University of illinois at Chicago. Students hurry past me on their way to class. “Have you heard about the budget cuts and tuition hikes?” I ask as I pass out flyers for a rally March 4th, part of a national day of action to defend public education. Some people give me signs of recognition - but most pay me no mind and continue on their way. On this side of campus, things are business as usual even as 20% tuition hikes and huge budget cuts loom.
But recently, undergraduates are starting to take notice. Concerned members of the student government have formed SOC, the Student Organizing Committee and have started holding weekly meetings. So far, this has led to some future lobby days and a ballot initiative that calls the cuts and tuition hikes into question. Then, last month, the Univeristy announced the closing and merger of the existing diversity centers on campus and groups like the Chicano organization, MeSA, started to join the fight back. But the fact is that the budget crisis is still flying under the radar for most undergraduates. And those that are ready to fight are just now beginning to organize.
Meanwhile, UIC's workforce is feeling the brunt of the crisis and have already begun to take action. Amidst a 13 billion dollar budget crisis, The State of Illinois owes the univeristy 483 million dollars in unpaid bills, UIC has responded with layoffs, pay cuts, and furlough days. All the while, those workers that have unions have been trying, unsuccesfully, to negotiatiate fair contracts with the administration.
After nine months of stall tactitcs on the University's part, the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) decided it was time to put their foot down. On February 15th, hundreds of Teaching Assistants and Research Assistants voted 95% in favor of filing an “Intent to Strike” petition, a first step toward actually going out on strike. Then on Friday, February 26th, the SEIU bargaining team of 1,500 clerical workers followed the GEO and recommended that the membership also vote for “Intent to Strike.” Other significant sectors of workers are set to start bargaining this month and, considering UIC's recent behavior at the bargaining table, there is no reason to expect anything but more signals of ”Intent to Strike!”
Like other front line staff, the UIC faculty are also feeling the pinch. This semester, the administration announced mandatory furlough days leading to cancelled class and a 10% cut in pay for faculty. Last week, the UIC newspaper reported that furloughs at the Univeristy of Illinois Medical Center are putting patients at risk.
In response to the furloughs, over 300 faculty have joined the call for a joint furlough day on March 8th. Instead of holding class, professors will hold teach-ins around campus to speak out about the crisis in public higher education.
This all comes on the heels of a rally March 4th organized by a new coalition of the affected sectors on campus. Workers are joining forces in what looks to be a mounting fight over the future of the University. The goal now is to engage the student body in this process and bring them into the struggle. While we know we have a lot of organizing still to do, it appears clear that the events of the past few weeks are just warning shots in a larger battle to come.