Uni Faculty Organization informs parents of negotiation updates

On Sept. 7, the Uni Faculty Organization (UFO) hosted a meeting to inform parents of new developments in ongoing contract negotiations with the University of Illinois.

Held in Urbana’s Independent Media Center at 5 p.m, the UFO board — consisting of Matt Mitchell, Melissa Schoeplein, Phillip Ernstmeyer, and Juan Socorras, who was unable to attend — hoped to encourage Uni parents to support them in negotiations.

In several brief presentations, they discussed the UFO’s main concerns, which are salary compression, the lack of a transparent salary scale, disparities between salaries at Uni and salaries at other area schools, the lack of a definition of a full-time teaching load, and representation on the advisory board.

A crowd of parents, including Dana Rabin, a nonspeaking member of the negotiations team, and Steve Vaughan, who works with other local education unions, gathered.

“[The university] needs to feel this pressure from people who could make their lives uncomfortable,” said Vaughan, who has advised the union during negotiations.

The UFO held a similar meeting in May after the negotiations first began to receive parental feedback on their demands. Since then, eleven sessions of bargaining have taken place, with few results. As such, the Uni faculty has been operating without a contract since August. If negotiations continue to stagnate, the UFO may be forced to take drastic action, up to and including a strike.

History teacher Ben Leff gave a presentation explaining the salary discrepancies between Uni faculty and Urbana. On average, he said, Uni faculty make around $10,000 less than Urbana faculty with the same degrees and experience level. Another issue is salary compression; as Uni teachers spend more time at Uni, the issue worsens, with some faculty earning 40-50% less than their Urbana counterparts.

However, according to the Daily Illini salary guide, Uni director Jeff Walkington earns $170,000 a year, only $20,000 less than the superintendent of the Urbana school district. Whether or not Walkington’s work is comparable to that of a superintendent — who monitors all schools in the Urbana school district — is debatable.  

Further, Leff said, other area schools offer a salary bump upon earning an advanced degree. Uni, however, has no such policy. That means that when a teacher earns a pHd, their salary remains stagnant.

“There are a lot of things that are really valuable about working [at Uni], but in other ways it’s tough when the salaries are low,” Leff said. “There are people who’ve been here a very long time […] and throughout their whole career they’ve been making a very small salary.”

Uni also lacks a standard salary scale, making predicting career trajectories difficult. Uni also has no standard calculator for wages based on degrees or prior experience, so the earnings of new hirings can fluctuate.

Though Uni once had a salary scale, the Campus Salary Program — which raises salaries across campus by a set percent each year — replaced it in 2010. Raises, which once averaged around 7 to 8 percent, have fallen to 1 and 2 percent. They now average just 1.74% per year– less than inflation, meaning that salaries actually fall year to year.

The UFO proposed a set of salary floors. Every five years, the proposal holds, salaries should rise by 2% per year. However, the university rejected this idea, reportedly using the phrase “never going to happen,” according to Mitchell.

Instead, the university has offered a one-time adjustment of $23,000, to be paid out over the course of several years, to address the salary compression. However, this amount fails to meaningfully address the issue. It would only provide a bump of around $1,533 to each of the fifteen most underpaid teachers. But, in reality, these teachers would need a bump of around $17,000 each to make their salaries equal to those of other area schools.

“It’s hard to see how that would actually solve the problem,” said Mitchell.

The university will also raise the minimum salary at Uni from $40,000 to $43,000. This bump will actually increase the salaries of several current Uni teachers, many of whom hold advanced degrees and have taught at Uni for years. And, without an accompanying salary progression program, a higher starting wage would further contribute to compression.

“When we talk about salary issues, it’s not just ‘hey, we want more money’, it’s rooted in this fundamental issue that really needs university buy-in to address,” Leff said.

Mitchell agreed, calling the chronic underpayment of teachers “a longstanding inequity.”

Additionally, the UFO seeks a definition of a full-time teaching course load, currently constituted by four courses in a semester. This information is important because a teacher with a full-time course load earns more than one without. They also want to set a standard amount to be paid per extra course over the full-time load per semester.

The UFO also seeks teacher representation on the advisory board. Two Uni teachers, English teacher Elizabeth Majerus and former subbie science teacher Sharlene Denos, were present on the initial task force. Majerus believes that their presence improved the group, as few others were as educated as the two of them on the daily workings of Uni.

“Even if they were nonvoting, just having a faculty member presence on the advisory board seems like it would be so much more productive,” said Majerus.

But the university believes that a teacher would have a conflict of interest. However, Dr. Walkington is a board member, though he is ‘ex officio’, or non-voting. Still, it’s unclear why a teacher couldn’t recuse themselves from certain meetings as well.

The UFO feels that the university has been unfair in negotiations, citing several incidents where they ignored evidence and were inconsistent in their policies.

“This UFO team has been amazing,” Dana Rabin said. Rabin is a nonvoting member of the negotiations team and mother of two Uni students. “They have presented thoughtful, reasonable, evidence-based information-rich proposals at each of our meetings […] The university has not responded in kind.”

Rather than allowing a separate union, the university initially demanded that Uni faculty join the same union as other non-tenured faculty. They first took the case to the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, which ruled in favor of the Uni faculty. In 2015, they then took the case all the way up to the Illinois Appellate Court, where the UFO again prevailed.

The university has also attempted to bring in committees outside the bargaining team multiple times.

“We were trying not to laugh at the table,” Mitchell said.

These outside committees, Mitchell said, have been formed in the past, with few results. Their recommendations are not legally binding, and the UFO is already a committee- and one that isn’t beholden to the university.

As such, the UFO hopes that parental involvement will increase pressure. Parents who wish to support them are encouraged to email the Provost. The UFO also hopes to host a panel at the Uni library in the near future to further educate students.

“The working conditions of our teachers at Uni are the learning conditions of our children at Uni,” Rabin said. “So I think the stakes are pretty high.”