Protesters gather outside president’s office

Diana Swanson, women studies and English associate professor, holds up a sign at a Nov. 20 labor union protest outside Altgeld Hall. The sign quotes acting President Lisa Freeman’s State of the University address in which she proposed a three percent wage increase for qualifying staff. 

DEKALB — Protesters chanted and marched outside of Altgeld Hall Nov. 20 to protest a contract negotiation process they feel has been unfair because of actions carried out by NIU’s bargaining team.

The rally was organized by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District 31 Local 1890, which represents support staff. Members of the union have been negotiating with NIU for a new contract since February 2016, according to a Nov. 10 letter from union spokesperson Sara Dorner to Jesse Perez, NIU Labor Relations director.

“The workers would like to be heard by the administration,” Dorner said. “Right now, the administration is simply not listening to them.”

Dorner said the goal of the rally was to encourage the university to negotiate a deal.

“We would like the employer to sit down, negotiate a fair contract in good faith, to follow the law and respect workers,” Dorner said.

Dorner and several others spoke at the rally, during which Dorner said the frustrations between the school and the union have grown personal.

“Given the fact that many of them have not seen wage increases in over seven years, it’s getting difficult for them to stay at NIU, which means NIU stands to lose experienced workers with talent and dedication that contribute to the success of the university,” Dorner said.

Several protesters carried signs calling for NIU to bring new negotiators to be involved in the bargaining process after Dorner accused Perez and the university of showing a “lack of respect,” according to the Nov. 10 letter.

Perez has often come to bargaining meetings on his own, with the exception of his assistant joining him at recent meetings, Dorner said. Dorner believes the solution is for NIU to bring more negotiators to the table to meet with the union’s bargaining unit.

“We would like him to bring someone else to the table that he can defer to,” Dorner said. “Often times, he doesn’t seem to understand his proposals or he can’t answer to our proposals because he doesn’t have the authority to negotiate on behalf of NIU.”

Protesters also called for acting President Lisa Freeman to stand by her statement saying NIU works “from the bottom up,” as she said during a Sept. 20 State of the University Address. Dorner said the union respects Freeman for her initiative but wants to see an execution of her statements.

“We respect Lisa Freeman, and we’re very happy that she came out with a speech saying NIU employees need wage increases,” Dorner said. “While it’s fun to stand up and say workers need wage increases, she has not followed through by participating in the negotiation process or maintaining fair and legal negotiation processes.”

Freeman proposed a 3 percent wage increase for qualifying staff members during her Sept. 20 State of the University address. The proposal was passed by the Board of Trustees Oct. 19. However, the union was not immediately eligible for the increase, as represented members were subject to a bargaining process between their union and the university.

Protesters like Diana Swanson, women studies and English associate professor, said they are not happy with wages for hourly employees. Swanson and others marched in solidarity, as they were not directly affected by the union’s negotiations.

“Their wages are not living wages,” Swanson said. “They are professionals who do really important work for the university, and they should be getting decent living wages that recognizes and respects their work.”

Karin Lichtman, foreign languages assistant professor, said the high turnover rate for the university is in part because of low wages.

“I’ve been here only six years, and we’ve had something like 300 percent turnover in the teacher licensure placement office and 200 percent turnover in my office,” Lichtman said. “You can’t get anything done when people are constantly leaving their positions because they get such low wages.”

Dorner was not the only one at the rally representing the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, as several other local groups and council leaders spoke at the event.

“You deserve an administration and a university president that values you and treats you decently,” said union associate director Tracey Abman at the rally. “Not a president or administration that disregard labor law. Not an administration who refuses to bargain in good faith.”

Spokesperson Joe King declined to comment on the assertions made by Dorner in her interview with the Northern Star. However, officials provided a press release in response to the demonstration.

“NIU supports the right of its employees to collectively bargain, and as a campus community we encourage everyone to exercise their rights to free speech and assembly,” according to the Nov. 20 statement. “The university has made every effort to bargain in good faith with Local 1890 and we are prepared to continue working with them to arrive at a fair and equitable contract for their members.”