Fifty years ago, none of our colleges were unionized. Tenure didn’t exist, management could determine work load however they saw fit and there was no grievance procedure to protect workers against unfair treatment. Prior to collective bargaining in our colleges, the administration would often “meet and confer” with groups of employees, agree to handshake deals, and then proceed to do whatever they wanted without consequence.
Everything changed starting in the mid-60s. A teacher’s union movement was starting to take hold in the country. In New York there was a historic teacher’s strike that resulted in an actual contract for teachers—something unheard of before. Here in Chicago, teachers and administrators took notice.
In 1964, our local didn’t yet exist. Some of the faculty at Chicago’s City Colleges were represented by a college functional group that was under the umbrella of the Chicago Teachers Union, but there was no exclusive representation at the City Colleges. Multiple unions claimed members, but no actual negotiating took place. The founders of what became Local 1600, inspired by the actions in New York, determined that if City Colleges faculty were to receive the rights they deserved, they would need to rally the faculty behind a new, strong union.
In 1965, with the support of the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago Federation of Labor, City Colleges faculty led by Norman Swenson officially split from the CTU and formed Local 1600. With 250 initial members, Local 1600 received its charter on December 1, 1965. Union leaders immediately demanded the administration at City Colleges authorize an election for the faculty to vote to select the union who would represent them exclusively. The faculty, eager to obtain rights in the workplace, overwhelmingly chose Local 1600.
But exclusive representation was only the first step. The administration, while they recognized the union, declared that there would be no contract. The faculty had to go out on strike – an action against the law at the time – in October of 1966 and again in March of 1967 before the union and administration were finally able to agree on a first contract for employees. The contract was the first of its kind in Chicago, providing a grievance procedure, 12 contact hour load, and a 1 to 1 lab to lecture ratio. Union President Norman Swenson was sentenced to jail for leading the 1966 strike. The judge convicted him of violating a court injunction against the strike and he had to serve 30 days in jail in 1971. A few years later, Norm would again be sent to jail for violating a court injunction – this time for the City Colleges strike of 1975.
The newly acquired City Colleges contract proved to be a rallying cry for other colleges in the Chicago region. Soon faculty members at other colleges wanted what Local 1600 was able to negotiate for its members, and through organizing efforts, campuses began voting to join Local 1600. Moraine Valley Faculty had its first strike in 1974, South Suburban Faculty in 1975, Morton Faculty in 1984 and Triton Faculty in 1985. With every strike a fair contract was reached with the administration, leading to fantastic work protections and benefits for our growing ranks of members.
In 1984, Illinois passed a collective bargaining law that finally made it legal for employees to strike. This law enabled classified employees to fight for their work rights and expanded the efforts of local 1600 to organize. At our campuses where we already had faculty unions, local 1600 worked to organize classified divisions and negotiate fair contracts to extend job protection and benefits to classified and support staff employees.
Throughout our Union history, as our membership has grown, our strength and power has grown. We now represent more than 5,000 members at 14 colleges across Cook County. Our challenges have changed over the years, yet many of our fights remain the same. With every contract negotiation we face threats to our working conditions and benefits, but our biggest fight may be just around the corner.
Governor Bruce Rauner has declared a war on Unions. He wants to end collective bargaining, threatening to take Illinois back to the 1960s. If Rauner ends collective bargaining rights, we will need to rally together and fight for our rights like our founders were forced to do. We will need to recall the fierce activism and dedication displayed by our founders if we are to defend our rights and survive.
The Strike of 1966
“…and we were in front of the judge, the whole negotiating team, and Swenson, he maneuvered to take the brunt of it on himself. So Judge Covelli sentenced him to 30 days in jail for our refusal to call off the strike.
Norm Walker, a humanities instructor at Daley and a member of the first negotiating team, recalls a courtroom scene in early 1967 following the first strike in our history. We had recently won the most comprehensive contract in the nation. It wasn’t cheap: four days on strike and a jail term for our president.
Yet looking back one is amazed at the scope of the achievement.
In 1966 the junior colleges were an almost forgotten appendage of the Chicago Board of Education. We were 800 teachers out of the 23,000 employed by the Chicago board. Daley was then Bogan Junior College operating out of Bogan High School as an evening college. There was no faculty governance, no voice in determining working conditions, no grievance procedure.
Our leadership knew we would be lost within that bureaucracy. Encouraged by a recent master plan for higher education, we threatened to strike in 1965 unless we were separated. We were. In July 1966, District 508 was formed. We immediately pressed for recognition and collective bargaining.
The new board had absolutely no interest in doing that. It delayed a collective bargaining agent election, then granted it. We won with 90 percent of the vote. By then it was October 1966.
The board appointed a bargaining team of several lower- level administrators and a lawyer-teacher, Alfred Kamin. We presented a comprehensive list of demands to them; they gave us three months of stall, disrespect and threats. They made no counter-proposals.
The board’s team insisted on meeting only at the board offices, it wanted a court reporter present, and it insisted that the negotiating sessions be scheduled to accommodate Mr. Kamin’s teaching schedule at Loyola.
Even worse was its insistence that we agree in advance that:
- The board would retain all final authority in all disputes.
- The results of the negotiations would be no more than recommendations to the board.
- The union must agree not to strike, and should a strike occur, the board would fire all participants. Some 13 other stipulations were made.
Lawyer Kamin also began a song that we have been hearing with varying verses and choruses ever since: The board would not be bound to any contract since it would be an unlawful delegation of authority.
So on Nov. 29, 1966, after two months of futile negotiations, the union demanded that the board withdraw its preconditions. It also asked that the board president, Dr. Taylor, and its chief administrator, Oscar Shabat, become directly involved. They refused. The union took a strike vote that day. The very same day Dr. Taylor went to court and obtained an injunction against the strike.
Nevertheless, on Nov. 30, 1966, the largest strike to ever hit a junior college system, and the first by public employees in Chicago, took place. That day, 725 teachers, including 100 non- union members, failed to show for work.
Picketers were in front of every door at every campus. Many deliveries were never made because union drivers refused to cross our lines.
Noel Johnson was at Wilson Junior College (now K-K).
“We picketed from before 7 a.m. ’till 10 at night. It was very cold. We really didn’t know what the hell we were doing. But we had fun, too, parties, laughs. You know, that’s where I met Phil, on the picket line.”
The evening of the first strike, Norm addressed the union members at a rally: ‘the injunction is a typical union-busting device. We will not return to work Thursday, Friday, or next Monday. Not until we have an agreement will we return.”
On December 1 the Chicago Tribune blasted the union:
The underlying basis for the public policy against strikes by public employees is the sound and demanding notion that government functions may not be impeded or obstructed as well as the concept that the profit motive is absent in the government function.”
The next day the Tribune hit us again, calling for striking teachers to be fired, and if necessary, the shutting down of the schools for a semester “until law-observing replacements can be recruited.”
Faced with non-functioning schools, the board got serious. Mr. Shabat and Dr. Taylor appeared and signed a memorandum of understanding that serious negotiating would begin without preconditions. More progress was made during the four-day strike than in the preceding three months. We returned to the classrooms thinking a settlement was imminent.
But when we returned to the table, it was the same old song and dance. The board said it didn’t want to use its taxing power to pay for our benefits; the board wanted it for expansion.
On Friday, Jan. 6, 1967, we went out again. Once again the board got serious. Norm Swenson: ‘The only way we ever got anywhere in those days was to go out on strike. Ninety percent of what we got was while we were on the picker lines.”
Over the weekend Mayor Daley became involved. he called both sides into his office and wouldn’t let them go until they had an agreement. At one-thirty in the morning on Monday, January 8, we called off the strike and announced what we had won. We achieved:
The class size limits we have today. Before the contract there were no class size limits.
The 12 hour load. We were the first junior college system in the nation to get this breakthrough.
1:1 laboratory-lecture ratio. Some science and typing teachers were working up to 21 hours per week.
A $500 raise. This amounted to about 8 percent.
Paid medical and term life insurance.
Indefinite accumulation of sick leave. There used to be a 180 day cap.
The school calendar was reduced to 38 weeks.
Most important of all: A grievance procedure with binding arbitration.
From January 1966 to January 196S, the board granted Chancellor Shabat raises that increased his salary by 92 percent. (That’s right. Ninety-two percent.)
On Nov. 30, 1971, after appealing to the U. S. Supreme Court, Norm Swenson entered Cook County Jail to serve a 30- day sentence for contempt of court.