The Invisible Army: A Campus Oral History Project

PrecariCorps is currently conducting oral histories with people affected by contingency and precarity on college campuses. One major focus of this initiative-in-progress revolves around how the Illinois budget impasse is impacting our public universities.

Our first interviewee is Karen Pope, a cook at Eastern Illinois University and a member of Support EIU Employees, a sister nonprofit seeking to help workers who have been laid off in the budget crisis. To date, 261 workers at EIU have lost their jobs.


Karen Pope, Eastern Illinois University food service employee, and member of Support EIU Employees

At this point it’s really kind of mind boggling how aware the legislators are of what the collateral damage is. You know, they’re seeing all of our state universities suffer. They had to have a court order to pay DCFS [Department of Child and Family Services] and other necessary social services.

In Charleston, the staff members of our rape crisis and sexual assault crisis services have taken a 25% pay cut since November. They haven’t received any funding. They’ve cut their hours. They’ve cut their staff. They are trying to make it from week to week. I would love to say, “Let’s put them out of business because they’re not necessary,” but that’s not the case.

What about the Autism Center at EIU?

The Autism Center is another one. It hits close to home because my degree is in communication disorders and sciences. The best thing about that program is that not only do you have to explore the barriers and obstacles that you have to overcome to communicate, but you’re also learning about strategies to make it easier, to make it better, and to improve people’s lives. That can make powerful changes in people’s lives. The autism program at EIU has funding that isn’t directly tied to state funding; however, if the university cannot support the Communication Disorders and Sciences program, there would likely not be an autism program on campus. Statewise, The Autism Program’s (TAP) Central Office closed on September 30th, 2015, due to the budget impasse. There are so many things you can do to help people on the autism spectrum be successful, but when you cut the funding, you are just setting people up for disaster later on in life. If we have the knowledge to impart these strategies and help improve people’s lives, why are we not using it?

As you’re talking, I’m really interested in the meaning behind the word “university”—the etymology, the universal aspects of it. You’re not talking about classes and faculty. You’re talking about rape crisis centers, childcare centers, and how this crisis is affecting the community as a whole.

I do see this affecting so many different areas of our community. It has a ripple effect that will be felt by more than just the individuals who have been laid off from the university. Local businesses are feeling the pinch as people are saving rather than spending their money. I own a small business where I am a freelance cook. This supplements my income; however, in this unsure economic time, I can’t rely on (nor do I expect) people to spend money on my services. My daughter attended a preschool on campus. She used to attend five days a week, but this past year it has been cut, due to budgetary issues, down to two days a week. Our local social services are worried about keeping their doors open. Healthcare providers have been waiting for over a year for payments from the state. There is so much more than I can even name. It’s a widespread problem that isn’t isolated to the university, but the university’s success and failures definitely have an influence. It’s devastating watching a driving force in our community let go approximately 261 people in total just this past fiscal year. People who were integral parts of making the campus such a wonderful place to grow and learn.

What’s your best understanding of how this happened? What I’m hearing lately, the most ridiculous thing thus far, is that Madigan and Rauner simply can’t get along, and they refuse to work together. I saw the YouTube clip of you addressing Rep. Shimkus [at 7:32] at the Stadium Bar & Grill, and I saw him feed you the line that the democrats have a super majority and could pass a budget and override the veto if they want, when in fact that’s not the case.

This is a complex issue that has many layers building to contribute to the problem. I feel a lot of items looked good on paper, but the math hadn’t been thoroughly examined. Several years ago, Blagojevich signed off on a bill where the state didn’t pay about half of its contributions to the pension funds for a couple of years. In addition to this, there was a major blow to retirement investments in 2008 when the market turned. Many people believe that the state has too lavish of a pension for its workers and that is why it’s bankrupting the state. What I wonder is if they realize the state has not been paying its portion in, and when you compound how much and for how long they have missed their contributions, which is a significant part of the problem. There’s more than that though—an overwhelming amount unfortunately.

In regards to the current “supermajority,” there are several representatives who have received large donations from Rauner’s camp. One of the Democratic representatives, Ken Dunkin, received $1.3 million from them. This is serious money that we’re talking about. He’s not necessarily playing along with the rest of the Democrats in that supermajority. When you’re looking at that much money, whose interests do you have in mind? The constituents’ that you are working for, or the Governor’s?

The Governor also holds the ability to line item veto items. He could have reviewed the bills sent to him and made suggestions and sent it back for review, if there were specific components that caused him to veto items previously approved by both the House and Senate.

I really don’t think it’s a partisan issue at this point. There should be able to be a clean bill passed for the remaining state funded entities awaiting payment.

Something else the two parties are working out is the components of the turnaround agenda that include the building blocks to take down unions. Rauner’s “empowerment zones” legislation allowed municipalities to pass these right-to-work clauses.

In Charleston, it actually passed at one of the city council meetings. Well, when the town caught that, obviously, we were furious. At the next city council meeting, everybody was there. They filled the room, there was overflow, and there were still people out in the halls that weren’t able to come in and participate, and they were really upset. I remember holding a sign outside City Hall with others protesting before that meeting. It ended up being repealed.

Our representative is Reggie Phillips. He’s a Republican, and he, too, has received significant donations from Rauner—$53K. I was reading about the bubble—that people who have a lot of money and a lot of privilege tend to be removed from some of the problems that you face when you have less money. When people in the bubble are hearing about this collateral damage that is happening because of the budget impasse, it kind of seems that it’s just “people”—it’s not Joe, my friend, it’s not Lisa, my neighbor—it’s just “people.” It’s 25 people, it’s 200 people, and it doesn’t have that human aspect. I’m really excited about you doing this project because that brings it to life.

One of the people that was laid off in our area was our clerical. She has been working there for 13 years doing that job the whole time, so she’s like, “I think I’m almost halfway to retirement. I’m on track to be able to retire. I’ve put 13 years into our state pension system where I haven’t been paying into Social Security.” There’s all these financial implications that she has suddenly. She said, “I’m not going to look for a job right away. I’m hoping that at some point I’ll be recalled because they will need to hire us back.” These positions that they suspended are necessary staff.

I was reading a post that talked about how the faculty and staff who are left are the ones emptying the garbage cans because there are not enough janitorial staff to keep the premises clean at this point. The picture of abandonment that the post alone portrayed was something I hadn’t really considered.

I work in one of the dining halls. Our building service workers, or BSWs, have been reduced significantly. One of the the BSW’s was walking through doing his temperature checks of all the refrigerators, which is important because we have thousands of dollars in food on any given day, so if something goes wrong, it’s much better to catch it sooner rather than later. He said, “This is probably the last time you will see anyone doing this for a while because we’re going down from 16 to 6 people here.” I said, “Oh, man, that’s really rough,” and he started to walk away, and he stopped, and he looked back at me and he said, “You know, I’m an atheist, but I hope I am wrong, because everyone who was aware of what’s going on and has let it happen—I hope that they all go to hell.”

And we kind of laughed over it, but that’s powerful stuff right there. About the faculty and staff emptying their own garbage cans. This is work someone else would normally do, so it’s also taking away work from a viable position. So then, the university is saying, “Do we need these jobs back?” and those positions are taking on additional duties without pay just because they’re courteous people who don’t want to sit with an overflowing trashcan. There’s this level of decorum that’s missing unless they create it. It’s such an added effort to keep things just at a minimum.

What’s the predominant feeling across campus? You mentioned that one of the workers had hoped that she would be called back.

There’s quite a range. I think a lot of people do hope that they will be recalled because they know their jobs weren’t fluff. They were necessary staff. They think at some point, obviously, they’re going to be recalled. Other people have lost hope that we will have any payment this year.

I feel like there needs to be some resident protection for people who live here to prevent them from falling prey to stunts like this. Universities are still waiting to find out what, if anything, they will receive. A resolution could come soon or not. No one knows. There’s got to be a consequence for both negligence and a limited time frame where these types of standoffs can exist.

We have a huge amount of debt, and that’s part of the reason they can’t make a decision on how to spend the money. They’re saying we need to fund these things with the money we do have, but we also need to pass a balanced budget. We can’t keep just paying out whatever we have with no plan for how to make it better. Madigan holds some of the blame, in that he’s been there a very long time and has seen how the policies have played out and didn’t work sooner to redirect the problems. But when it comes down to it, hundred of representatives and senators within the House and Senate agreed on bills, and the governor vetoed the entire thing. That’s not negotiating, that’s not doing what’s in the best interest of the constituents. That’s being stubborn with little to no regard of the consequences, mostly because he won’t be feeling them.

I don’t agree with letting our public institutions go to pot because I think it’s going to be much more costly in the end when you’re talking about not maintaining what you already have. On top of that, you have all these people who are newly laid off and some of whom are applying for unemployment, so the state is now creating new debt and holding the keys to the funds to pay for it. There’s all this extra work that’s now being created without the jobs to manage it. It just seems so cumbersome.

Many student workers that work in our dining halls rely on MAP grants. They think at some point, obviously, they’ll be receiving funding. They were promised before they came to school in the fall that would have funding, and that has not come through. Eastern covered $9 million worth of MAP grants because they anticipated that some time before the spring semester, we would most likely have a budget. When that didn’t happen, it was a scramble. It really started to hit home. You could see the movement happen.

As the semester went on and we didn’t have a budget, it started to get more serious, and we started to see people calling for letter-writing campaigns and paying more attention to what bills were being put up on the floor and talking about them more actively. Right before they were voting on the MAP grant bills, Support EIU Employees said, “We need to get together and do something. We have to help our employees in any way we can, so let’s start pushing. Here’s the information you need to know. Here’s how to contact your legislators. This is what the bill contains. You should let them know how you feel about it, you know, whether you agree with it, whether or not you wanted it to be amended. Your voice is important, and the more they hear you, the more important they’re going to feel it is.” I think that worked, a bit.

A group created FundEIU, so there was a big rally on campus, and Reggie Phillips is getting a lot of flack that day for not being present for a vote on a bill for higher education. There’s actually a video of him yelling at a student who had asked,”Why didn’t you vote for the MAP grant bill?” and he goes, “It’s a sham bill! What are you asking me?” He’s yelling at his constituents on the quad! You would hope that he would have the ability to maintain composure.

What can I/we do to help? How else can other people across the country who care about higher ed pitch in?

Several local groups tried to push for change in Springfield. They said, “Here are the news articles. Here’s this bill. Here’s what it contains. Here are your representatives’ phone numbers. Here’s how you can contact them. We’re going to march on the capital on this day.”

Support EIU Employees is a local nonprofit that was formed. They are creating a relief fund for laid-off employees to serve as a sort of safety net until a budget is passed. There’s a way for people to donate financially. They are planning a big festival, FUNdFest, out at the fairgrounds on April 30. It’s an all-day festival. There will be music, games, silent auctions, raffles, and food vendors. Some of the art professors agreed to have their work for sale.

We have seen this really great outpouring of support from the community. There have been people who have said, “I know how to write resumes. I’m going to be at this location at this time. You can come and we’ll help you update your resume.” You get people who have worked the same job for 17 years, that haven’t been on a job hunt, and shouldn’t be. We’ve been seeing all of these people come out of the woodwork to say, “I can do this.” It’s amazing.

Yesterday, I invited a friend over for a cup of coffee. He had been one of the people laid off on March 11th. We were sitting there, and he relayed how he was starting to feel isolated. That he had plenty of work to do around the house, but he was missing the interaction with his coworkers. He said, “I am ignoring social media because it’s really depressing. I’m not seeking people out. I’m having all these other emotions that are coming out and I just don’t feel like being social, but I’m starting to feel lonely.” Reaching out to the people who are around you and saying, “Hey, let’s get together,” is a really small, but kind and important step.

There is a push for voter registration and for people to try to pay attention to what is being presented and voice their opinions. My friend told me it was still too much and he needed more time before he felt like he would be able to be politically active.

I love the idea of finding a space to rebuild a community that was disrupted, how a new one might arise from this. How were you first made aware of the systemic nature of these problems?

Occupy Wall Street is the first time that I really became aware of what’s happening. We ended up in a bad situation because of the housing collapse and that’s when I started to take notice. Because it affected me.


Food insecurity is another thing that’s in my sights because I deal with food. It’s really important to me to make sure that people know how to cook properly so that they don’t rely on processed foods as much. It’s so much healthier when you’re able to put whole foods in your body. I’m finding more and more that people don’t even know how to do that—especially when I talk with students. I’ll ask them, “What do you cook for yourself?” and sometimes they’ll say, “I never cook. I just eat out,” or “I buy microwave dinners,” or whatever. There’s a lot of them that don’t know how to cook meat, so they never do. One student said, “Well, I don’t cook,” and I said, “What do you do, just live off of mac and cheese?” She said,” I would love to know how to make mac and cheese!” and I said, “The homemade kind?” She goes, “No! Even from the box.” and I was like, “Girl, you don’t know how to boil pasta? I’m just gonna come show you that. You need to know how to boil pasta.”

So I was reading some of the national statistics about food insecurity. What I’ve noticed is that in 2000, there were 17 million cases per month of reported food insecurity. In 2011, it was 44 million per month. And that’s nationwide. Food insecurity means not having enough to have three meals a day or to feel full—there are days when they are going hungry. In 2011, that means that 15% of the population was receiving food stamps. That’s one in every six. So I thought about it this way: 44 million people being food insecure is not okay in any regards. And I thought, How can I make this more humanized, so it’s not just “people?” So you can see it? So I thought, If you have a group of 36 people standing together and you separated six of them out—I would love to stand in front of any group of people and say, “Is it okay for this group of 30 to have food but not these six people?” I can’t tell you one person who would say, “Yes, that’s okay.” If it’s not okay for six people, how is it okay for 44 million people in one of the richest nations in the world, where obesity is a problem? There’re people who are overeating while we have 44 million each month who are not eating enough.

I can’t imagine that that is not a higher priority for the people who have the ability to take the money and do something about that. It connects to the food industry to some degree. Processed foods are cheap to make. Things that have these cheap ingredients, corn syrups and things like that, rather than whole ingredients, they last longer so they can ship them farther so they can sit on the shelf longer. But what are you putting into your body? It’s not really going to give you the best nutrition, and then it just kind of compounds issues all around. For kids, when you’re hungry and you go to school, you’re not going to sit still and learn. You’re going to have so many other issues.

Can you tell me a little bit about how the kitchens in the dorms at Eastern function? Are there any companies that Eastern outsources to? What is the infrastructure of the food situation there?

We offer fresh fruits and vegetables in the salad bar. You can have a variety in your diet. As the cooks, though, we don’t have a lot of control over that. There are menus already in place for us, and we just have to prepare the foods. For me, it’s a little difficult because I want to take it and run with all my ingredients, and I can’t. We have to follow the menu and make sure that everything is portioned out, and then we have recipes that tell them how much to order and how much they’re spending. We get creative when we can, but we stick to our budget and try not to waste anything. There’s a lot that goes into that.

Something else that I found when I was reading through those statistics is that since 2007, there has been a huge increase in the number of people with higher education degrees that have received services. The percentage of degree holders he received food stamps and other aid from 2007 to 2010, which is three years, doubled. That’s wild to me. We are talking an increase of 200,000 people who had Master’s degrees and an increase of about 24,000 for people who had doctorates. I can’t imagine that any person who took the time to seek out a doctoral degree to study so hard to become an expert in any area would not have the support in place to make ends meet enough to be able to just provide food for themselves.

I didn’t get a PhD, but a lot of my friends did. When I talk to people considering going into academia now, I always ask them, “Are you already privileged? Do you have someone to fall back on if it doesn’t work out? Because you should, as it’s likely not going to work out for you.”

There is not an incentive anymore financially to seek this out.

There is not. And you’ll get people saying, “Someone needs to be in the classroom with consistent ethics who is willing to fight for the cause,” and my response is, “Only if you you have another way to feed yourself, otherwise don’t even bother because it’s in such dire straits.” Maybe you’ve seen the statistics—75% of the professoriate are not tenure-track. 25% of those are contingent, meaning they are full-time, but they make maybe around $38,000, like in the lecturers at UIC who are full-time, but that’s pretty much it. It’s pretty much capped. Not only did they teach, but they have administrative duties as well. The other 50% are people like me who are adjuncts paid per course per semester who—even when we have unions (I’m in one of the oldest adjunct unions in Chicago, for instance)—often do not have work that provides us with a decent living. A study done by SEIU’s Faculty Forward campaign found that one in four adjuncts qualifies for assistance.

What we are seeing is a general tendency toward privatization and corporatization of education, so whereas we, as ethical creatures, think of higher education and food and healthcare—not even to get into healthcare—as human rights, other people see these services as a privilege or a poor investment. I have found myself becoming so skeptical about these systemic issues that I believe the disintegration of the university was planned. Rauner wants unions out. Rauner wants charter schools in. Maybe this will be used as a template for the rest of the nation. Scott Walker is trying to abolish tenure, in addition to unions. There’s something bigger at play here. This is unethical. How is this okay?

It is a struggle and you know I have had those thoughts. One of the things we have been paying attention to around here is where the donations are coming from, who is giving them, and how much is being spent. When you look at the millions of dollars (literally) at this point that we just spent on the primaries, I’m going, “Man! You guys spent over $6 million on advertising and campaigning. We would have gladly taken that and saved people’s jobs.” Why would that become more of a priority? Billboards and negative ads and phone calls take precedence over people.

You know the band Tool, right? There is a song that stuck out, and I was looking at some quotes from Maynard James Keenan, the singer. This stuck out to me. He said, that any government, historically, hasn’t really wanted its people to be educated because then they couldn’t control them easily, and it’s very obvious. I think people in general have neglected to learn about history.


Karen Pope, Eastern Illinois University food service employee, and member of Support EIU Employees

Take Jane Addams of the Hull House (1889). They had a lot of immigrants who were unable to take care of themselves, and Hull House became a community that provided social and educational opportunities for working-class people and their neighborhood. They were just focusing on their neighborhood. They held concerts for free, and they held lectures on current issues, and that’s something that we have started to do. The way she brought about change was through what she called the three Rs. Residence, so making sure people had a safe place to live and can take care of themselves (I’m assuming that food security falls under that). And then Research, let’s see what is happening in this area so that we can track it and we can go to the establishment and say, “Here’s what we are seeing. Let’s work together for success.” That was the way that they brought about Reform. I think eventually that we will be able to partner with the establishment and design and implement programs to provide that safety net.