More than 50 mid-managers at Triton College came a step closer to walking out after they voted overwhelmingly for their union to authorize a strike if negotiations with the college’s board and administration fall apart. The negotiations are currently in mediation.

During a regular board meeting on Oct. 15, Kay Frey, the president of the Mid-Management Association, said that 80 percent of the 53-person union — which represents 63 mid-managers, including health services directors, assistance finance directors and career services directors — voted in favor of the strike authorization. The mid-managers’ contract expired on June 30.

Talks between the college’s three-person negotiating team and the union have been tense since August. The workers have staged at least three mass action protests. On Aug. 22, for instance, around 100 workers presented petitions to Triton College President Mary-Rita Moore.

At the time, the mid-managers were protesting alongside the more than 130 classified employees — including financial aid specialists, catalogers, account clerks and library specialists. Those classified employees are represented by a different bargaining unit and have a contract separate from the mid-managers.

Charles Harper, a field director for Cook County College Teachers Union Local 1600, which has been bargaining on behalf of both the classified employees and the mid-managers, said on Oct. 15 that the classified employees’ contract was ratified roughly three weeks ago.

“They are not offering to pay mid-managers retroactively,” said Tony Johnston, the president of the Cook County College Teachers Union, said after Tuesday’s board meeting. “They are currently offering to pay classifieds back to Sept. 9, when they had their tentative agreement in place. And they are not asking for extra hours and extra work days from the classifieds. They are asking that from the mid-managers.”

Back in August, Harper said that the administration is asking the workers to “sell pieces of their contract and their time” for a 4-percent pay raise — something that’s still a sticking point, union representatives said.

“They’re acting as if they stopped doing the work,” said Harper, who explained that the mid-managers are demanding to be paid retroactively back to July 1, when their tentative contract took effect.

“We already put in 40 hours a week and some of us put in a lot more than that,” said Frey. “Now, they want to add to that 16 extra hours. They’re asking for us to do more.”

Frey said that 19 mid-managers have left Triton since the beginning of the year.

“And we have two more months to go,” she said, before adding that only three of them retired. “They’re going off and finding higher paying jobs.”

The union officials have also argued that the pay raises they’re requesting pale in comparison to the 14- to 20-percent pay raises they said administrators have received in the past. Harper said in August that during the last round of contract negotiations, administrators told the two groups of employees “to be team players and take less of a raise,” because of massive budget cuts to community college funding made under former Gov. Bruce Rauner.

“Now that the state has committed to restoring funding to community colleges, the administration is not recognizing [the employees’ sacrifice],” Harper said.

Mark Stephens, the chairperson of Triton’s Board of Trustees, said during Tuesday’s meeting that the board and administration “has always stood by the employees and stood up for them.” As an example, he said that the college set aside $11 million, from a $57 million bond issue, to put into operating funds during Rauner’s tenure as governor — a measure that staved off mass layoffs, Stephens said. 

“There were mass layoffs all over this state,” he said. “We didn’t have that at Triton. I am 1,000 percent comfortable with telling you we support our employees, but — with all due respect to our employees — we don’t exist for the employees, we exist for the students and the people who pay taxes in this district.” 

After negotiations between the two sides fell apart, union officials requested an independent arbitrator, who was eventually appointed by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, Harper said.

Sean Sullivan, Triton’s vice president of business services who is the college’s lead negotiator, said he thought that the two sides were progressing. 

“We had three sessions with mediation,” said Sullivan said on Oct. 15. “I thought we made progress. There was movement on both sides, but they decided that mediation was not for them and they’d want to abandon it. They don’t see the need to have a mediator there, anymore.”

“We told Triton we thought we could get an agreement without the mediator, even though we originally called for mediation,” Johnston said. “It was a necessary step, which they at first didn’t agree to. But the mediator was basically incompetent. He didn’t communicate correctly the proposal we’d given him to take to the administration.”

Both sides have said that they’re nonetheless working to get back to the negotiating table. Johnston said that if talks break down even further, the union will set a strike deadline.

Frey, who said that she’s worked at Triton for 32 years, could not recall a time during her tenure when employees went on strike.