August 2019 Top Stories

#FightingForWright: Our Strike to Preserve the Academic Mission of Our University

The most gratifying and telling support that we received during the strike was from students.

By Marty Kich

Wright State University is located in Dayton, Ohio. Its enrollment is currently between 13,000 and 14,000 students, the majority of whom are still commuters. In early January 2019, the Wright State Board of Trustees imposed a contract that would have gutted the collective bargaining rights of the faculty. The contract came at the end of a two-year impasse and the administration’s refusal to resume negotiations after about 98% of the members of the Wright State chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP-WSU) had rejected a fact-finder’s report in early November. That percentage is even more impressive when one considers that our membership included about 88% of the full-time teaching faculty at the university, all of whom are represented by our union.

The pretense for the imposed contract was an almost entirely self-created financial crisis at Wright State. The administration and Board of Trustees ran through more than $130 million in financial reserves in about four years—almost all of it expended on non-academic initiatives and enterprises that were supposed to produce additional revenue streams for the university. These initiatives, which included the creation of two dozen “affiliated entities”—such as a real estate and property management firm— were meant to get around state restrictions on reckless spending by public institutions and agencies. The Board promoted these entities as a means of offsetting reductions in state subsidies, but each measure was so driven by cronyism and self- interest that none of the promised revenues ever materialized. The administration claimed that the contract needed to be gutted to save the University from financial ruin. In reality, the administration and the Board saw the crisis as an opportunity to break the union– the one group on campus that consistently and publicly opposed to cutting academic spending. The conflict resulted in the second longest faculty strike at a public university in the U.S., lasting 20 days.

At the end of the strike, about 70% of our members remained on strike. Appended to this article is a chart showing the major elements of the contract that our administration and Board sought to impose and what ended up in the contract after the strike forced them to renegotiate those elements.[1] Perhaps the most important change was one initially left out of the imposed contract, but recommended for eventual imposition by the fact-finder—new retrenchment language that would have made tenure and continuing contracts meaningless. Effectively, the proposed language gave the administration total authority to dismiss faculty, regardless of rank, seniority, or tenure, if they deemed an area of expertise unnecessary. When we continued to draw attention to the language, the chair of the Board became noticeably exasperated and said that it was not an attack on tenure because everyone who was not “culled” would still have those protections. If the union had accepted the imposed contract without striking, that retrenchment language would almost certainly have been in the next contract. The faculty who struck did take a major financial hit as the administration refused to pay faculty to make up the work that was missed during the strike (about a 7.5% salary reduction for the year).[2]

This reduction, however, was not nearly as big or as open-ended as the hit faculty would have taken under the imposed contract. Importantly, our strike rolled back every element of the imposed contract that would have undercut the union’s ability to negotiate a fair contract in the future.

Marie Thompson
Wright State Picket. Photo by Marie Thompson. 

So how did the union manage to successfully win a strike vote and sustain a three-week strike that involved picketing in all sorts of terrible weather? When the union was initially certified in the late 1990s, neither action would have been possible. The faculty voted to unionize by only the very narrowest of margins. But over the next decade and a half, the union gradually increased its membership by demonstrating three things: the value of the union to the faculty, individually and collectively; the union’s consistent, reasonable, and fair stance on issues; and the union’s ability to work constructively with the administration to resolve issues. The leadership also increasingly sought ways to make engagement in union-related activities part of our faculty’s professional service.

By the early 2010s, membership in the chapter had increased to just over 80%, but our bargaining unit did not include non-tenure-eligible (NTE) faculty. After several abortive attempts to organize those faculty, the union finally succeeded, and we were able to negotiate not only a fair workload agreement for those faculty, but also continuing contracts similar to those of the tenured faculty, rather than at-will annual contracts, for any NTE faculty with more than six years of service to the university. Since the NTE faculty constitute about a third of the faculty, a strike would not have succeeded without their support and commitment to the union.

For most of its existence, the union depended on a small group of faculty doing the bulk of the day-to-day work. All of that changed dramatically in 2015 when changes in the calculation of faculty pensions led to a wave of retirements. Overnight, the union lost half its leadership. To soften the abruptness of the leadership change, the union hired two of the new retirees as chapter advisers. But the real success of the transition came largely from a group of women who had established themselves as engaged and effective faculty advocates, enabling the union to start recruiting even more women and younger faculty into its leadership. One of the union’s signature achievements had been the creation of defined measures, by department and college, for promotion and tenure—with the result that women began to be promoted at much higher rates. For the first time, our leadership engaged a broader network of women in ways and at a level that was entirely new and very critical, ultimately, to the success of the strike.

Marty Kich Wright State
Photo by Marty Kich.

Our chapter managed to recruit almost five dozen chapter liaisons— members who would be responsible for communicating with and getting feedback from seven to ten colleagues. With the worsening budget crisis and then the contract impasse, there was a great deal to communicate, and the personal contacts insured that our very regular chapter communications did not go unnoticed. In addition, several new officers very much enhanced our presence on social media, making a very determined effort to do almost daily Facebook posts and adding Twitter and Instagram accounts. We also eventually updated our chapter website to make it somewhat more visually appealing and easy to navigate. All of these things not only increased the engagement of our members but also enabled us to reach allies within the university and the wider community. Thus, when we began to be a regular presence at Board of Trustees meetings and campus forums, we were able to ensure that we had a large presence at those events. The union invested in blue t-shirts that made its presence very visible, and gradually developed a media strategy that was increasingly professional and effective.

In the first week of the strike, the administration claimed, and the local media reported, that 80% of classes were being covered and that 60% of unionized faculty had crossed the picket lines. Instead of resuming negotiations, the administration petitioned the State Employment Relations Board (SERB) to declare that the strike was unauthorized. At the hearing held one week into the strike, not only did SERB reject the petition, but when the university’s attorney claimed that the majority of classes were not being covered at all, never mind covered adequately, the local media began to question any statistical assertions that the administration made about the strike. The victory in the SERB case was extremely important for members’ morale, helping to offset the next administrative strategy to sow uncertainty—the supposed creation of a “B term” that would allow them to let the strike drag out for half the semester and a mix of confusing announcements about classes being reconfigured, suspended, rescheduled, canceled. They also began to push back deadlines for receiving full refunds for dropped classes and to cancel classes, ostensibly for weather-related reasons.

The weather may not have been bad enough to warrant canceling classes, but it was often very grueling for picketers. When members were getting ready to leave the strike headquarters to picket in the bitter cold, wind, rain, sleet, and/or snow, they usually wore very grim expressions. But when they finished their shifts, they typically received an ovation from everyone at strike headquarters and looked absolutely triumphant. That sense of persisting, along with the increased camaraderie across departments and colleges created on the picket lines and in the strike headquarters, offset much of the uncertainty that the administration sought to create. When the weather was especially brutal, picketing was compressed to several hours in the late morning and early afternoon—turning the circumstance to our advantage by creating the “world’s longest picket line” from one campus entrance to the other.

Late in the strike, the focal issue very pointedly became healthcare, with the administration and Board insisting that the union give up any right to negotiate healthcare costs. The administration and the Board attempted to argue publicly that the strike was mainly about our salary and benefits—and not about preserving the academic mission of the university. But for a year ahead of the strike, the union had been using the hashtag #4faculty4students and we were able to present a convincing to students and the public that losing the right to negotiate over healthcare would mean that we would lose the ability to negotiate meaningfully over wages. Certainly, in a post-Janus environment, the resulting ineffectuality would have eroded our membership and therefore undermined our ability to contest the administration and Board’s skewed priorities.

During the third week of the strike, the union, in coordination with the Ohio Conference of the AAUP (OC-AAUP), organized a rally at the State House and the offices of the Ohio Department of higher Education. The speakers at the rally included several supportive members of the State House and Senate, as well as the more neutral new Chancellor of Higher Education. Because of the size of the rally and statements of support issued by the Democratic caucuses in the State House and Senate, the event received a great deal of positive media coverage.

In 2011, Governor Kasich signed Senate Bill 5, which neutered the rights of Ohio’s public employees but completely eliminated them for faculty. To that time, OC-AAUP had been an entity with a rather limited, even ambiguous function. But by the end of the campaign to repeal Senate Bill 5, OCAAUP had been transformed. The work done by AAUP members to protect collective bargaining for all public employees was recognized by the entire labor movement in Ohio and OC-AAUP was offered a seat on the executive committee of We Are Ohio, a statewide coalition of labor unions and progressive groups. When the union at WSU went on strike, faculty from across Ohio joined our picket lines. Several campuses even held solidarity picketing on their own campuses, demonstrations that received statewide media attention.

The Ohio Conference’s engagement with allied groups had a parallel at our local level. As the union prepared for a strike it also affiliated with the Dayton-Miami Valley Labor Council AFL-CIO. The leadership of the AFL-CIO not only attended several major events ahead of the strike, but they also joined us repeatedly on the picket lines. Moreover, the fact that members of other unions—from pipefitters to firefighters to teachers—were a visible presence on the picket lines making a tremendous difference in the community perception of the strike as well as boosting in members’ morale.

Indeed, the union also had tremendous support from its national affiliate the American Association of University Professor (AAUP). The national office of AAUP, with several staff members on the ground in both the months ahead of the strike and during the strike, worked tirelessly with members and chapter leaders. The union had support from progressive groups, alumni, retirees, and individual community members. Every day, a half-dozen tables at strike headquarters were piled with donated food. Several churches repeatedly brought lunch platters, and people regularly stopped their vehicles along the picket lines and handed out coffee and chili. On the first day of the strike, several members were pushing a picketer in a motorized wheelchair along a snow- covered sidewalk, and two guys in a pick-up truck stopped and shoveled a block and a half of sidewalks, wished us well, and went on their way. Those kinds of things are simply unforgettable.

Linda Farmer Wright State
Students in support of striking faculty. Photo by Linda Farmer. 

But the most gratifying and telling support that we received during the strike was from students. Ahead of the strike, several student organizations and clubs had joined us at Board of Trustees meetings and other campus events. And the union had been working on ways to coordinate with students on issues specific to the University as well as on broader issues such as student debt. But no one anticipated that students would organize themselves in the ways that they did to support the union during the strike. Some volunteered regularly at strike headquarters, and every day dozens joined, in all sorts of inclement weather, on the picket lines. They began to organize supportive marches across the campus, and following a “Take Back Our Campus” demonstration that was organized in the middle of the third week of the strike, they occupied the hallways in the main administrative building on campus, refusing to leave for several days. The story dominated the local media, and its impact was pivotal. After all, the students were sleeping in the hallway outside the president’s office, not outside strike headquarters.

When the strike was over, a reporter with Bloomberg News asked me what I thought about the contract that resulted from the strike. After thinking about it for a moment, I answered that if one were comparing it to the contract that had been in force from 2014 to 2018, the new contract really sucks. On the other hand, if one compares it to the contract that the administration and Board tried to impose on us, it is a great f***ing contract. When he stopped laughing, I gave him permission to clean it up a bit.

——-

Marty Kich is a Professor of English at Wright State’s Lake Campus. He is not only a generalist in terms of my discipline, but he has published on a wide variety of topics related to politics, history, and popular culture. He has written a book on Western American novelists and co-edited a book on postcolonial studies. A co-authored retrospective on the popular culture of the 1960s is in press, and he currently has contracts for books on Western films and the Trump administration.

As part of his service efforts, he has contributed more than 2,000 posts to the Academe Blog of the national AAUP, and he has been very honored to have received both the Marilyn Sternberg and the William S. Tacey Awards from the national AAUP. He has also received the Trustees Award at Wright State, which recognizes extended excellence in teaching, service, and scholarship, and the Distinguished Service Award from the Association for the University Regional Campuses of Ohio.

Further Reading

[1] Comparison of Imposed and Successor Contracts

[2] After the strike, the administration sent notices to every striking faculty member, reducing his or her salary by 1/195 for every day he or she stayed out on strike. For faculty who stayed out the entire time, it comes out approximately 7.5%. The 1/195 is how sick time is calculated for faculty getting paid for nine months over 12 months.

Featured Image: Photo of marchers at Wright State’s main entrance. Photo by Marie Thompson.

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