When Valeria Davis returned to work at Olive-Harvey College on Chicago’s Far South Side earlier this month, she and her colleagues said they were shocked by the working conditions they witnessed.
It was just a few days after the colleges reopened amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But already she saw students move plexiglass barriers to the side when speaking with counselors. Touchless hand sanitizers, promised by school leaders, were nowhere to be found, Davis said. People wore masks improperly or not at all, even though reopening plans said masks are mandatory.
“There’s just overall no accountability, no follow-up for measures to ensure we’re safe,” Davis, an administrative assistant, said at a virtual press conference in early August that was organized by her union, The Federation of Clerical and Technical Employees - Local 1708. “It’s sad we’re not valued.”
As colleges and universities prepare to start next week, faculty and staff said they remain skeptical that school leaders can adequately implement reopening plans and keep those who must return in-person safe. Now, unions representing faculty and staff are pushing back.
This comes as COVID-19 cases in the Chicago area are increasing and already forced some local universities, including DePaul, Loyola University Chicago, University of Illinois at Chicago and City Colleges, to make last-minute changes that shift more classes and services online this fall.
Two of the most contentious situations are at City Colleges of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
On Monday, City Colleges faculty and staff issued a unified vote of no confidence in Chancellor Juan Salgado. Meanwhile, staff at UIC are taking a strike vote through the rest of the month over stalled contract negotiations that have morphed into concerns about health and safety on the job.
“What we’ve heard from the board of trustees is that they believe people will come to campus with the virus and they believe they are ready to respond and keep everybody safe,” said UIC Professor Aaron Krall. “We’re not confident in that approach, and because we don’t have any agreements they’ve reached with us, we have no tools to keep them accountable on any of that.”
Union leaders at City Colleges of Chicago have pushed administrators to remain fully remote this fall.
On Aug. 3, some staff returned to campuses and, since then, the community college system has reported four positive cases of COVID-19.
Last week, Salgado announced student services would shift back online at the end of this week, which is considered a peak enrollment time for the fall semester, but said City Colleges campuses will remain open for students to use computer labs, study spaces and some in-person classes. About 80% of classes will be taught online.
Union leaders said the no-confidence vote was necessary because administrators are not adequately responding to their concerns. It’s the first time all four unions have issued a vote of no confidence as a united front.
“Once again this administration is tone deaf to the COVID[-19] reality in Chicago,” said CCCTU President Tony Johnston. “Chicago Public Schools realized reopening was too risky and went all remote. Unfortunately, Juan Salgado and his administration has determined that we are expendable.”
But City Colleges officials are defending the reopening plans for each college, which were reviewed by city and state health officials.
Also, on Monday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the board of trustees reiterated their support of Salgado, and a City Colleges spokesperson issued a nine-page statement reiterating their safety plans and largely denying the unions claims.
“While most of our students can be served remotely, we must recognize that the remote offerings do not always effectively support every student,” said spokesperson Katheryn Hayes. “A subset of our students is best served in-person. These students may be entering college for the first time, have language barriers, or limited technology experience. … As an open access institution, we are committed to serving every student who comes to us. Our plans for limited in-person services seek to provide these students access to college in a safe manner.”
“Doing the minimum”
Faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago say they’ve been meeting with the university’s labor relations team since the pandemic began, but their safety proposals have largely been ignored.
“They treat them as advice or suggestions and then they go and unilaterally implement policies without actually negotiating them at the bargaining table” said Krall, who is also a member of UIC United Faculty union.
Faculty at UIC have filed multiple unfair labor practices against the university over bargaining during the pandemic. Faculty union leaders say they’re still unclear as to what the actual plan to return is as administrators make last-minute changes. They’re frustrated with the lack of faculty involvement in reopening discussions over the summer.
A UIC spokesperson said the administration continues to meet with UIC staff and hopes to resolve issues over the stalled contract negotiations. Meanwhile, the spokesperson said administration has met with the UIC faculty union nine times as of Aug. 14.
“Overall, we have resolved the vast majority of the union’s concerns and will continue to work through the remaining issues,” said spokesperson Sherri McGinnis-Gonzalez. Faculty union leaders disagree with that assessment.
“They’re usually doing the minimum that they think they can get away with and even in those cases, there’s not anything we can hold them accountable for,” Krall said. “They are things that can change at any moment, as soon as they have another idea or as soon as the wind blows in a different direction.
UIC administrators also provide the whole community written updates every Thursday morning. But faculty and staff say the continuously changing plans are adding to their unease.
In fact, just over the weekend, UIC administrators changed course and are now allowing some faculty to opt out of in-person teaching this fall. In early August, the university also shifted all in-person freshman seminar courses online. Overall, faculty feel if they were more involved in fall planning from the beginning, the situation would not be changing so much.
“Everyone on campus would’ve been better served than getting a new policy about something as important as health and safety every Thursday at 10 a.m.,” said UICUF communications chair and English professor Charitianne Williams. “With faculty input, these decisions could’ve been made a long time ago and we could’ve got down to business.”