Around 60 middle managers and labor activists picketed outside of Triton College, 2000 5th Ave. in River Grove, on Nov. 6 during a daylong strike at the 55-year-old community college — the first strike at the college in at least 30 years. The employees went back to work the next day with their contract issues still unresolved.
Although the historic work stoppage did not appear to significantly impact the college’s day-to-day operations — classes, for instance, went on as usual — the strike is nonetheless part of a pattern of recent labor unrest that has national implications and Wednesday’s demonstration attracted some powerful labor allies.
At the college’s main intersection at Fifth Avenue, on the south side of Hemingway Drive, an inflatable Teamsters fat cat bobbled in the 40-degree wind. On the north side, a few dozen union members paced the sidewalk chanting (“One, two, three, four, we won’t take it anymore! Five, six, seven, eight, come on Triton negotiate!”) and solicited honks from passing motorists.
In October, 80 percent of the 53-member Mid-Management Association — which represents 63 mid-managers, including health services directors, assistance finance directors and career services directors — voted in favor of a strike authorization after talks with Triton’s negotiating team fell apart.
The mid-managers are seeking a 4-percent pay raise and retroactive pay dating to July 1, since their old contract expired on June 30. They’re also demanding to have more power over determining extra duty hours and that the college not require them to work 16 additional hours in return for contract gains, among other issues.
But talks between the union and the college have been stalled since Oct. 24, when the union overwhelmingly rejected the college’s last offer that didn’t meet those demands.
As previously reported, in an Oct. 31 email statement, Triton spokesman Derrell Carter said that the offer included a “three-year contract with four percent pay increases per year. The contract includes retroactive pay back to September 30.”
Carter stated that the mid-manager’s claims about being asked to work more hours “is simply not true,” adding that if “a mid-manager works on a Saturday, they can switch these hours worked for time off in the future, hour-for-hour, resulting in no additional time worked.”
A mediator that was appointed by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board is no longer involved in negotiations, Carter said on Nov. 6.
As tensions between the mid-managers and the college ramp up, the union is fighting to maintain leverage in an increasingly lopsided fight.
Back in August, the mid-managers were joined by 145 classified employees. Those workers, who include financial aid specialists, catalogers, account clerks and library specialists, are members of a separate bargaining unit that has since ratified a new contract, which includes retroactive pay.
And late last week, the college listed 59 mid-manager positions as vacant, prompting union officials to file a complaint with the Illinois Labor Relations Board. Charles Harper, a field director for Cook County College Teachers Union Local 1600, which has represented the mid-managers in the contract negotiations, said on Nov. 5 that the postings were “a clear effort to intimidate and suppress union activity.”
Harper also referenced an FAQ that the college emailed the mid-managers ahead of the strike notifying them that striking employees aren’t eligible for medical coverage if they don’t work at the start of the month, that they won’t accrue pension service credit during the strike and that they aren’t eligible for holiday pay, among other reminders.
Carter said that the college posted the positions not as a threat, but to “make sure our students are taken care of in a supportive environment.” He also said that the college’s operations would not be significantly impacted by the mid-managers’ strike — even if it lasted for multiple days or weeks.
“We want to make sure that things are fair and equitable on both sides,” Carter said. “The good thing is we’re still negotiating and still at the table.”
He added that 22 mid-managers who are part of the union reported to work on Wednesday. Kaitlyn Skoirchet, the Cook County College Teachers Union, Local 1600’s chief of staff, later said that 16 of those 22 mid-managers weren’t eligible to be in the union.
“These employees aren’t covered by the contract and thus weren’t even able to strike,” she said in an email. “The administration included them in the number to make it appear that more employees crossed the line than actually did.”
Carter said that the strike has not affected the college’s day-to-day operations. As the teachers chanted, students like 19-year-old Matt Skinner and 26-year-old David Salgado walked to class.
Skinner, a part-time engineering student, and Salgado, who takes continuing education classes, were both unaware of the contract negotiations and didn’t have any opinion on the matter when asked about the strike.
If the mid-managers’ struggle has not yet resonated deeply on campus, it has nonetheless garnered the attention and support of prominent labor organizations.
Randi Weingarten — the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second largest labor union, whose offices are in New York — had been virtually camped in Chicago at least since the start of the 11-day Chicago teachers’ strike, which ended last week.
“This is the sixth time I’ve been in Chicago probably in the last two-and-a-half weeks,” she said.
Weingarten added that the mid-managers’ issues “are conditional issues and respect issues. Middle managers at the college are basically saying this is what we need to do to help kids,” she said. “We need to actually have advisers so that there’s not one adviser for 1,000 kids and we need to actually have a work schedule that aligns with when kids are taking classes.”