In the rush to reopen college campuses nationwide and in Illinois, the safety of students, faculty, and staff who teach and learn in our institutions is being overlooked. This is particularly true at Western and Eastern Illinois Universities, where the administrations have moved forward with plans for in-person learning without having adequate safety precautions in place or bargaining in good faith such plans with the union, as required by law.
“We have filed Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board requesting an injunction against the administrations of both Eastern and Western Illinois Universities,” said University Professionals of Illinois (Local 4100) President John Miller. “We had hoped to avoid taking such action, but their unwillingness to faithfully bargain with us to develop comprehensive safety plans on these campuses left us with no other choice.
“The safety of our students, faculty, staff and their families must be the top priority, and these universities are showing a blatant disregard for our well-being and that of the communities they serve,” Miller said.
The disregard for safety is particularly concerning in Coles County, where Eastern Illinois University is located. This week, the county was put on the IDPH warning list due to rising numbers of cases. Bringing students to live on campus will undoubtedly worsen the situation.
With that in mind, Jeannie Ludlow, president of the Eastern Illinois University Chapter of Local 4100, explained that EIU’s so-called safety plan is not comprehensive. “EIU’s return to campus plan focuses on individual actions like mask wearing but does not address larger safety considerations like systematic testing or air purification,” she said. “In other words, EIU’s plan puts the responsibility for safety on our students, faculty, and staff and not on the institution. We want to give our students the best possible chance for success this school year, and that means reducing potential COVID exposure and allowing everyone involved to determine what safe work and learning looks like for them.”
Bill Thompson, president of the Western Illinois University Chapter of Local 4100, said the situation is just as concerning at WIU. “The university has asked me to pledge to wear a mask, maintain social distancing, and clean frequently used surfaces, but in return they haven’t pledged to provide students and employees with safe places and ways to work, to test everyone adequately, and to provide a metric so that we can see whether WIU’s plan is working. That gives me no confidence in how my students, myself, and my colleagues will be kept safe.”
The IELRB will now review the charges in the ULPs. The universities will be given time to respond; the union remains hopeful that the administrations will choose to bargain an acceptable plan with the faculty for a gradual and safe return to in-person instruction. If not, the IELRB can request the Attorney General seek an injunction requiring the universities to continue remote learning until they have bargained in good faith with the union or until an arbitrator has resolved the issue of whether the universities’ reopening plans violate their duty to provide a safe workplace.
“We are hopeful that WIU and EIU administrations will sit down with us to negotiate in good faith a truly safe path forward for the start of the upcoming semester. Short of that, our union stands ready to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure the safety of our members, their students, and the communities surrounding these campuses,” Miller said.
“Our lives are not a social or laboratory experiment, and even one death would be an unacceptable outcome.”