Around 60 middle managers and labor activists picketed outside of Triton College, 2000 5th Ave. in River Grove, on Wednesday afternoon during day one of the first strike at the 55-year-old community college in at least 30 years.
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 entrance 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.
The union also opposes the board's proposed 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. work day, which includes an hour of unpaid lunch. Union members said that the proposed schedule is "out of alignment with the variety of tasks performed by mid-managers that serve the assorted needs of the college." They said that many students attend school at night and require help from mid-managers outside of typical business hours.
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 4-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 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. He added that 22 mid-managers who are part of the union reported to work on Wednesday.
"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."
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, such as the Teamsters, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Chicago Federation of Labor and the American Federation of Teachers.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the country's second largest labor union, embodied the day's significance and laid out the local strike's national subtext.
Weingarten, whose offices are in New York, has 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, before referencing the surprising results of the Kentucky gubernatorial election on Nov. 5.
The state's Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, who was a well-known critic of teachers in that state -- even once blaming the death of a 7 year old on a teachers' strike -- narrowly lost his reelection bid to Democrat Andy Beshear.
"You can see from what just happened in Kentucky that something is happening across the country," Weingarten said. "The public is seeing teachers more and more as the champions they are for kids. The dilemma is that a lot of our bosses, rather than problem-solving with teachers, are forcing teachers to go on strike."
Weingarten added that the mid-managers's 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."
First District Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, whose district overlaps with much of Triton's taxing district, joined the mid-managers. Roughly two weeks ago, Johnson stood beside Weingarten and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren in Chicago's Austin area to support striking teachers in Chicago.
"The fight for the interest of the working class is a fight that is worth having," said Johnson, himself a former teacher and Chicago Teachers Union organizer. "When individuals who are in power, who have the ability to actually do right by workers, don't do it, it's our responsibility to make them do it … Maybe it's about time a few folks start running for the Board of Trustees here at Triton."
Harper said that "at the moment" the mid-managers only plan on striking for a day, but that could change, depending on the negotiations. The union plans on demonstrating at the Triton College Foundation Board of Directors' annual Foundation President's Reception, which is scheduled to take place at 5 p.m. on Wednesday.