Chicago, IL - Over 200 workers, faculty and students at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) marched here, Jan. 21, to demand full funding for higher education and an end to threatened furloughs and layoffs. The rally was held outside the meeting of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees. It was called by a coalition of unions, including SEIU and the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), as well UIC Concerned Faculty, an ad hoc group, and student activists.
At the start of the semester, University of Illinois (UI) President Stanley Ikenberry announced furlough days and layoffs of administrators, faculty and staff. This is a result of the state failing to provide funds already allocated. Illinois has a state budget crisis that is second only to California. Since July 1, the state has provided the university with only $17 million of $436 million.
For weeks, departments have been meeting to respond. The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has been pushed to announce that they will not be able to recruit new graduate students for the fall of 2010. Ikenberry has also announced that he will be forced to raise tuition by 10% next year as well.
The main fire of the protest was aimed at the state legislature. In fact, President Ikenberry and Board of Trustees Chair Chris Kennedy (son of Senator Robert Kennedy), came out to thank the picketers, spending about ten minutes shaking hands with everyone on the picket line.
But the coalition United In Campaign Against Budget Cuts (UIC ABC), had plenty of criticisms of UI and UIC management, as well. Judith Gardiner, a professor of English at UIC for 40 years, criticized top administration for having made their decisions on cutbacks before students or employees had any input. Speaking to the rally on behalf of UIC Concerned Faculty, she called for alternatives to the furloughs, pay cuts and layoffs to protect students and faculty and staff who are not at the top of the pay scales.
In preparing for the protest and to respond to the crisis, SEIU Local 73 held meetings with 200 members over the last two weeks. Regina Russell, a leader in the Patient Access department, a call center in the Medical Center, said that her management reported an all time record in work performance this past year. “We registered and verified insurance for half a million patients. With 60 employees, that’s about 50 a piece every working day. It’s more than double what we were doing a few years ago. Even then, the hospital was banking profit. Why should we have to take layoffs and no pay raises?”
GEO Organizing Chair Jes Cook, and Willie English, a service representative for Local 73 and former UIC employee, spoke to the rally, denouncing the failure of UIC to negotiate fair contracts. Both GEO and the clerical unit of Local 73 have been meeting with Labor Relations for months with no progress to report. GEO represents 1400 workers; Local 73 has three units currently without contracts, totaling 2500 employees.
Raucous chanting and speeches lasted for over two hours, including almost an hour in a freezing rain, displaying a spirit that promises to keep this fight alive.