By Aurora Quintero & Riley Cullerton
Tensions grew late last March as union workers from multiple employers threatened to go on strike against Illinois State University (ISU). Other rallies by the American Federation of State, County, Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Council 31, and the Graduate Workers Union (GWU) had taken place during the month of March, as well as within the past year in order to hold ISU accountable and get their attention for the low wages that have caused havoc amongst their workers.
On April 7, around 1:00PM there was a rally outside the Alamo II bookstore, in front of the administration building, Hovey Hall, on ISU campus. Hovey Hall is the center for a lot of essential and business work, and houses the President’s office, ISU Graduate School, Finance and Planning office, and the VP for Student Affairs, and other important units. Around this time, AFSCME filed a ten-day intent to strike which makes it possible for the union workers to legally strike on April 18th. The point of rallying in front of the administration building is to ensure that everyone in the building sees and hears their protesting. It is a strong effort from ISU, to rally in front of the building which holds so many important units that keeps ISU running.
DJ Jelinek, affiliate and Design Manager of White Noise accompanied Charlotte Steiger, editor-in-chief for White Noise and photographer for the Vidette in photographing and documenting the events that took place April 7th. They had been notified through social media outlets (Instagram and Snapchat) of the upcoming events.
“The turnout was relatively successful despite the turn out of rainy weather. A crowd of 100-150 people gathered outside Hovey Hall wearing matching green attire with cardstock signs reading “FAIR CONTRACT. NOW!”. Everybody was peaceful, and no major conflicts occurred within the crowd. We even caught Sociology Professor Dr. Richard Sullivan in the crowd with a homemade sign sourced from his students! The demographic of the participants was rather shocking, however. I expected 40% of the protestors to be college aged (18-25), but a vast majority of them were a little older than that. Most attendants brought their families with them, tugging red wagons with toddlers inside who toted crayon messages scribbled on printer paper for their parents. The police were also involved. Not only would they keep close tabs on us, the people with cameras, but they’d walk the perimeter in an attempt to keep protestors on the sidewalk. The moment they started off on their march, police cited head organizers for using megaphones on campus warning fines would soon follow. Charlotte and I were fairly worried about releasing most of the photographs we took that day. I caught a couple of people in my camera roll flipping me off and covering their faces with their signs, afraid of the consequences of being documented in this setting.” — Jelinek.
AFSCME is the largest union organizer, supporting trade employees of public employees in the United States. The union works to promote freedom and opportunity to make the workers’ voices heard in situations where a voice may not want to be heard, including the mention of better wages and working conditions. The union works to also inform people about their working rights and discuss problematic issues in the workplace that are not acceptable. Their website afscme.org talks a lot about what they do, so if anyone is interested in getting involved go onto the website and support the cause of this organization. This union has three-hundred and fifty people and counting. They have a lot of support not only from their large organization but the students of ISU. Those who are rallying at ISU are those of the dining, building services, and grounds work at ISU; however, there are more than three-hundred people in AFSCME that aren’t part of ISU.
Workers have continued to demand higher wages and more respect at the workplace. As per one of the signs the group held which stated, “ISU pays poverty wages”. The sign was to call out Illinois State on paying their workers below mean wages. The conversation between the board of trustees and the union workers has obtained a federal mediator which has caused the matter to be of a more serious level. This is due to the multiple negotiations sessions that the group has held with the board of trustees. It is important to make sure what is said from both sides. It is important to keep both sides accountable for what they promise and what they say in order to resolve this issue. The federal mediator is an attempt to resolve this wage issue as quickly and as morally well as possible.
The support from ISU students has been important and continued to allow the union to thrive. The support has helped workers accomplish their goals in raising wages for themselves. One of the food sanitation workers, Tia Reese, discussed, “To the students, we appreciate you. We don’t want to go on strike. We want to work it out because we don’t want to leave the students without anybody. To ISU, don’t make us do it” (Schoenheider 2022). Reese happens to be on the bargaining team and has direct contact with the board of trustees. She is a first-hand source on the progress of the rallies. That is a genuine comment from one of the workers of ISU. Without much support from ISU, the union would not be as strong. Thankfully, ISU continues to stay alert on the things going on around the campus. Students understand the role of being an active participant on campus. The more people who comment and get involved the bigger the problem will be and the bigger ISU would have to pay attention. ISU definitely does not want any problems that would help their reputation as an institution.
Upon concluding contract negotiations, some are left puzzled by what state that leaves the workers in. This is a restructuring of an ongoing plan that was put into effect a few years ago, and at the time was considered controversial by some. The new wage bumps are meant to adequately compensate the current workers based on current pay grade, each being designated a different level of a bump. Those making up to 14.50 an hour will be entitled to a raise of 6.5% and those with a wage of 14.51-16.50 are entitled to a 4.5% raise. The formal declaration of intent to strike set the date on or after April 18th which was narrowly avoided through the process of over 20 negotiations between ISU and the AFSCME Local 1110. Around the 11th negotiation on December 9, 2021, the union ended up passing its initial proposal on wages and certain higher priority items. This allowed for the compensation of previous wages after the final ratification for the time in between the two processes. There are still some who believe that these pay raises were not enough as there are many things in their way towards receiving better conditions in the future. Before the contract was finalized, a grad student union organizer was quoted saying “Instead of paying a fair contract for 1110, ISU pays Director of Labor Relations, Mike Kruger… $150,000 a year. Kruger’s entire job on campus is to make sure people do not get paid.” and I highly doubt that having staff still dedicated to positions such as this seems almost like they want to push back in the future. One thing that has to be said regarding this issue, reflected by many reporters of the issue, is that the administration at ISU does not even remotely respect their support staff, requiring months of pushback and heavy levels of involvement just to negotiate a wage that was well deserved. This is all while ISU shells out more and more money each year on thriveless spending without giving a single mind to paying the people keeping most of the school running.