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Forced to the Edge: The City Colleges of Chicago Contract

By Hector R. Reyes, Assistant Chapter Chair of AFT Local 1600, Harold Washington College

The full-time faculty and both the full-time and part-time professionals of the City Colleges of Chicago (CCC) are represented by the Cook County College Teachers Union, AFT Local 1600. On September 1, 2012, the officers of Local 1600 oversaw the counting of ballots on a vote to ratify a tentative agreement that these officers had reached with the CCC chancellor, Cheryl Hyman, eight days before. No one among the regular union membership knew that this momentous negotiation was taking place. Our understanding was that attempts at early negotiations had failed, and not much was to be expected until the spring of 2013. After all, our contract would not expire until July 12, 2013.

Then on August 25, some of us began receiving in the mail, to our shock, a packet with news of the tentative agreement and a ballot that we had to cast by September 1st. The shock was that we had to digest the terms of what is a very exacting contract, attempt to discuss and clarify it with our fellow union members, and have the vote reach the union's office in less than seven days. It was even more shocking for those who had heard the news, but not received their packets even by the middle of the week. By August 28, when we took a straw poll during an emergency union meeting at Harold Washington College, about 50 percent of the members had not received their packets. The tentative agreement specified that a vote had to be taken before September 3rd.

When the president of Local 1600, Perry Buckley, came to Harold Washington College (HWC) on August 30 to speak to our members about the tentative agreement, he acknowledged that Mayor Rahm Emanuel wanted the vote swiftly because it was convenient for him in the current climate. Recognizing substantial opposition in our college, Buckley admitted that the contract "sucks" (his word). Buckley insisted that there was nothing we could do because rejecting this bad deal would lead to an even worse contract. The basis of the refusal of the leadership of Local 1600 to reject this contract was fear. The membership found itself like a deer caught in the headlights. The leadership affirmed its incapacity to lead an honest resistance to a draconian contract. The Mayor got his deal.

The agreement was approved by about 75 percent of Local 1600 members. The leaders of the union chapter at HWC and the Faculty Council at Wright College took an unequivocal stand against the agreement. In all likelihood the bulk of the votes rejecting the contract came from these two colleges. Unfortunately, we had no established links to the membership of the other colleges. Once the Mayor got his prize, he didn't waste any time in using it against his main target, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). He told NBC News Chicago: "I commend the leaders of both Local 1600 and the City Colleges of Chicago for this progressive agreement – a solution that helps keep our City Colleges students and teachers in the classroom..."

The Chicago Tribune then added insult to injury through a ruthlessly sarcastic editorial that began this way: "We interrupt preparations for a Chicago schools strike - union members chanting, 'Enough is enough,' district officials conjuring alternative activities for children - with a bulletin: The teachers have a new five-year contract - ratified by more than 80 percent of professional staff members! And it sounds like a sensible pact for all involved... No, no, it's not the teachers in Chicago Public Schools who have this new contract. We're describing the pact covering 1,483 union faculty, training staff and other professionals at the City Colleges of Chicago."

Therefore we became patsies in the crusade of Rahm Emanuel against the CTU, but at a very high cost to our membership and higher education in general. Regressive Precedent

Consider this: the CCC system is one of the largest community colleges systems in the U.S. Therefore the nature of the concessions in this contract has garnered AFT Local 1600 the dubious distinction of becoming a national trend-setter in the degradation of higher education.

Among the key concessions were:

  • Faculty will lose the use of steps as legitimate indicators of their experience in the establishment of pay scales. Pay raises will take place under the rubric of a cost of living adjustment (COLA) scheme. After the first year of the 5-year contract, the COLA will be 2.5%. Not much above the inflation rate, which will also be diminished by increased health insurance contributions. This is exacerbated by the forced incorporation into the Mayor's "voluntary" Wellness Program, which will result in the increase of health insurance premiums by $600 per year for those who either don't join or don't keep up with the prescriptions of the program.
  • Faculty (and professionals who work directly with students) will participate in a group performance pay, labeled "student performance pay." Only this fraction of the union membership will become eligible for a 1% non-recurring bonus at the end of the year. This bonus depends on compliance with district-wide performance indicators such as graduation and transfer rates, the percentage of alumni employed in the fields for which they received training, and their median earnings.
  • Shrinking of the lanes structure from four to three. Under the current contract, faculty with a Master's degrees could move up to Lane 2 after earning 15 graduate credit hours and could make their way into Lane 4 after enough graduate courses and years of experience. Under the new contract the graduate credit hours required for lane advancement to Lane 2 have been increased to 45 and Master's level faculty will never be allowed to reach Lane 3.
  • A number of significant and detrimental concessions pertaining the loss of sick days and retirement healthcare benefits.
  • The long-standing needs of our full-time and part-time professionals were completely ignored.
Interviewed by Inside Higher Ed, the president of the AAUP, Rudy Fichtenbaum, addressed the negative role of performance pay in the contract: "What happens in the classroom is just one small factor in determining graduation rates.... [B]onuses will simply provide an incentive to lower academic standards." As to the far-reaching consequences of this deal, Richard Boris, director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York, "said that the ideas in the Chicago contract may soon be seen at more colleges," according to Inside Higher Ed.

After such a profound setback, the faculty and professionals at the CCC have no choice but to rebuild our union. In addition to the burdens of this new contract, we still need to deal with the so-called Reinvention campaign of the CCC, which the union leadership has failed to confront for the past two years. Much has been eroded in the way of academic freedom and morale by an administration that chose to publicize its Reinvention by humiliating our long-standing professional efforts.

What should be our model to defend community college education and our working conditions? I propose that it be the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), which succeeded in turning the Chicago Teachers Union into the solid force it is today.