SIU's Community of Resistance

— Rachel Stocking

ON THE EVENING of November 2, a coalition of the four Illinois Education Association/ National Education Association (IEA/NEA) locals at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC) held a solidarity rally to prepare for a joint strike set to begin the next morning.

The rally was electrifying, the turnout fantastic: Hundreds of union members — Faculty Association (FA), Non-Tenure Track faculty (NTT), Association of Civil Service Employees (ACsE), and Graduate Assistants United (GAU) — assembled in the courtyard, took our picket signs, and gathered into sixteen carefully organized picket teams.  After getting our assignments, we all went home ready for the 6 a.m. start time the next morning.

Bargaining for all four locals continued into the night. Around 4 a.m., picket captains received a text message: three of the four locals had reached settlements and were legally required to return to work. The Faculty Association would be striking alone.

As we headed out into the rainy November morning to try to reconstruct our picketing plan, it was hard not to feel grim.

The university’s effort to break our locals’ solidarity, however, had backfired. Our joint strike threat had been real, and to avert that catastrophe the administration made “offers they couldn’t refuse” to the three smaller locals. Those major concessions were major victories for everyone.

Throughout the FA’s week-long strike, GAU, NTT and ACsE members joined their picket teams on lunch hours, breaks and between classes. Not only were all 16 picket sites continuously covered, but impromptu rallies with chants of “three down, one to go” became daily, sometimes hourly, events at the main entrances. After months of joint organizing, we all had something to celebrate from the first moment of the strike.

“Union Busting is Disgusting”

That moment had been a long time coming. After decades of incompetent leadership, the SIU President, Glenn Poshard, had installed a new Chancellor, Rita Cheng, in June 2010, just as the contracts for all four unions were expiring.

Negotiations had already begun, but Cheng immediately began warning of furloughs — i.e. wage cuts — in the coming academic year. Some suspected her mission was to destroy the unions on campus. Then in November 2010, without consulting the unions, she announced four furlough days for all non-student employees.

The administration wasn’t legally allowed to furlough us during contract negotiations. At the bargaining table, the IEA teams rejected the unilateral wage cuts, insisting on budgetary transparency and accountability in confronting so-called “fiscal emergencies.” The Chancellor threatened retaliatory layoffs, and the administration teams refused to negotiate the issue.

In March 2011, the administration’s union-busting agenda came into the open as they declared a bargaining impasse and imposed terms. The terms immediately implemented the four furlough days and claimed the power to unilaterally institute furloughs and layoffs in the future — a direct attack on the unions’ legal right and responsibility to negotiate wages, terms, and conditions of employment.

Negotiations halted and the union filed an unfair labor practice charge contesting the illegal furloughs. By this point it had become clear that the SIU leadership, like government officials around the country, was using the state’s budget crisis to attack collective bargaining, calling for “shared sacrifice” while taking public workers’ wages and threatening their jobs.

At the same time, the new Chancellor began undermining traditional academic rights. By centralizing decision-making, she challenged the long-standing principle of academic shared governance. In a mad dash to increase revenues through new distance education programs, instructors were given no choice about offering courses online — violating the faculty’s academic freedom to choose their own teaching methods.

The new imposed terms allowed layoffs for any reason with 45 days notice, nullifying the academic freedom and job security protections of tenure.  In the names of fiscal responsibility and administrative “agility,” the administration was seeking to bring SIUC “forward” into the union-free, online world of for-profit degree mills.

This two-pronged assault on collective bargaining rights and academic values solidified our four-local coalition — and during the Faculty Association strike, it brought out hundreds of students, shouting “union busting is disgusting” as they marched in support of our unions, collective bargaining rights, and quality public education.

“We Want Our Teachers Back!”

For the first two days, strikers’ morale was very high, thanks to spirited rallies, the support of the other three locals, and hundreds of gestures of support from the community.

Multiple missteps by the administration also helped. In the preceding weeks, the Chancellor had issued a series of misleading statements insulting and threatening union supporters, and assuring that “qualified replacements” would keep “business as usual” in the classrooms.

Illegal directives to department chairs to interrogate faculty about their strike plans, combined with a suspiciously convenient decertification campaign against the FA, brought distrust to an all time high. Many union activists joked that Cheng was doing our organizing for us.

This turned out to be especially true when it came to the students. As soon as the strike began, it was obvious that business was not going to be “as usual.” Students were informed the night before that they were required to attend class, only to find that the “qualified replacements” were clerical workers with clipboards who took attendance and then left.

Meanwhile, professors’ email accounts were blocked so that students could not communicate with them. In one dramatic display of autocratic ineptitude, someone began censoring the university’s Facebook page: any comment that even mentioned the strike was removed within minutes, unless it was anti-union.

Students were angry and confused. They complained loudly to the media, which aired stories that countered the administration’s claims of normalcy. In response to the Facebook censorship, some students set up an alternative page where students and parents shared the comments banned from the official page. More students began showing up on the picket line. On the second day, an entire class walked out and marched through campus, yelling “we want our teachers back.”

At the end of that Friday, dozens of students rallied with picketers and then attended dinner at strike headquarters.  Already buoyed by the positive media coverage and the gestures of solidarity and support, our spirits were lifted that night by the news that the administration had called our team back to the bargaining table on Sunday.

“Whose University? Our University!”

By the middle of the day Monday, however, morale was slipping. Word went round that replacements were actually holding classes rather than just taking attendance. The parking lots seemed fuller. There was no word from the bargaining table. It felt like we were all holding our breath without knowing when we would be able to exhale.

Then, at the end of the day, the students showed up. After rallying at the administration building, hundreds of students carrying signs went from picket station to picket station, past classrooms and dorms, picking up more and more students and faculty as they marched. Finally about 1,000 people, mostly students, were gathered outside the Student Center where they spoke through “human megaphones,” demanding a settlement.

Where did they come from? The FA had made some efforts to reach out to students before the strike — an informational meeting, tables in the Student Center, a Facebook page and Twitter account.  But preemptive accusations of manipulation, dishonesty and greediness kept us from going beyond presenting our side of the story.

Instead, the solidarity initiative came from a few undergraduates affiliated with Students Against University Cuts and Occupy Wall Street (SIU). After Friday’s dinner, these leaders organized a word-of-mouth, social media campaign for Monday’s march.  At the end of that rally, the “human megaphone” spread the call for another march the next day, which drew even more students.

On the last day of the strike, a third march ended by surrounding an SIU Board of Trustees meeting with shouts of “Whose University? Our University!” rattling the windows (you can watch footage at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jnl8s_x_etc).

It may be hard to appreciate this accomplishment against all the fall’s Occupy Wall Street actions around the country. But SIUC is not UC Davis, and Carbondale is definitely not New York City, Portland or Oakland.

SIUC is an unusual institution: a research university with virtually open enrollment. The 18,000 students come from diverse backgrounds — small towns, urban centers, wealthy suburbs — with different levels of preparation and support, and difficulty connecting with each other. Carbondale’s isolation leaves them with little to do, and seemingly without much connection to the latest political, cultural or intellectual developments.

At the same time, like university professors everywhere, a lot of SIUC faculty don’t imagine themselves as workers or unionists. But many of us are committed to democratic education, and see it as our job to help each one of our students recognize and appreciate the connections among themselves, their fellow students, and communities and ideas outside southern Illinois.

That commitment made it hard to leave our classrooms to go on strike. But the administration’s actions showed us that we had to do so in order to protect our jobs, our union, and the quality of our students’ educations.  And then our students showed us that they understood this, on levels that we were only beginning to grasp.

Those three marches, so unexpected and uplifting, not only helped us continue our fight, but also gave us an education about solidarity and resistance in the 21st century.

After the Board of Trustees meeting, the bargaining teams reached a tentative agreement. It recognized the key rights that the imposed terms had nullified: the union’s right to accountability and transparency in layoffs and furloughs, academic freedom in the classroom, and protections of tenure.

Our back-to-work agreement also recognized the solidarity that the administration had tried to destroy: there would be no disciplinary actions against any SIUC students or employees for “actions in support of the Faculty Association during the strike.”

Our biggest victory was the simple fact that we not only stopped the union-busting on our campus, but we strengthened all our unions, we built union democracy and rank and file activism for the future, and helped create a campus-wide community of resistance that won the fight. We really did take back “our university.”

March/April 2012, ATC 157

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