Workers such as Jennifer Jeffries say they have not gotten pay increases in years. Jeffries started at NIU in 2011 making $10.78 an hour – just more than $21,000 a year – as an office support staffer. Three months ago, she moved into a new position where she now gets $15.68 an hour – $30,576 annually. Along the way, Jeffries said, she was denied merit raises and says she’s only at her current rate because she changed positions. Merit pay offers bumps in pay for doing a good job in your position.The state has been stingy for years, but even in relatively prosperous years the university has been able to hire support staff relatively cheaply. Some people have pinned their hopes on the extension of Metra service to DeKalb (no closer today than it was in the summer of 1986 when I hired out) although the long running times are likely to limit the arbitrage opportunities for DeKalb residents seeking to participate in the downtown Chicago labor markets. But asking the remaining workers to do more and calling it productivity also has limits.
“Forming ourselves as a union is at least an option to get us better pay,” Jeffries said. She also credits the unions for preserving her state pension. In May, the Illinois Supreme Court struck down the state’s 2013 pension overhaul calling the changes unconstitutional.
Angie Dybas started in her new office administrator role July 1. The 10-year NIU employee is a supervisor in the Department of English, the fifth position she’s held at the university since she started working there. Dybas said taking different positions is the only way to get more money because the university does not offer cost-of-living or other increases.
“I started here as extra help and just worked my way up. That was the only way I could get any money here,” said Dybas, who started out at $8.25 an hour. “I’ve been very concerned over the years that more and more things have been taken away from us. Our health insurance costs have gone up. We actually lose money when that happens, because we’re not getting raises. When they start increasing [the cost] of other things, that makes our paycheck go lower.”
NIU spokesman Bradley Hoey said university officials are aware of the workers’ complaints about pay: wage rates compared to other state university employees and going years without a raise. But money is tight.
In addition to pay, the unionizing workers say they want to be heard and responded to more by university leaders. With staff reductions, on top of not receiving more money, their workloads have increased, they said.Thus far into the Illinois emergency, the university has managed to meet payroll and avoid layoffs, perhaps by limiting or forgoing pay raises. There are, evidently, limits. Union organizers are also making headway among faculty.
“It’s going to give us a way to talk to the management about how important we are,” Dybas said. “It’s about time we are like the rest of the state universities and have that voice with administration where we can look at the budget numbers and tell them ‘this is what we think we deserve.’ ”
The workers are unionizing at a time when the state’s new governor has vilified unions as antagonists of Illinois’ fiscal crisis, and pushed for Illinois to a be right-to-work state. Gov. Bruce Rauner has said labor unions and their collective bargaining might fiscally doom some municipalities and school districts, including Chicago Public Schools.
NIU, with more than 4,000 employees, is DeKalb County’s largest employer. The university is facing a 31 percent cut in funding from the state, which university officials have said could impact personnel.
I doubt, though, that headquarters will look seriously at raising admission standards, reducing entering class sizes commensurate to what the faculty and staff can work with, and reducing the financial burden on incoming students by eliminating the mandatory athletics fees.