‘Standing Up for What’s Right’

Lessons learned from the Wright State strike: professors will fight against an imposed contract, for their right to bargain over health care -- and for basic respect.

February 13, 2019
 

After striking for 20 days, Wright State University’s faculty union won some modest gains in a tentative agreement reached Sunday.

Professors were back to work Monday, trying to put things back in order.

Was sacrificing three weeks’ pay, braving picket lines in the polar vortex and now dealing with classroom chaos worth it?

Yes, striking professors and their supporters say. To many, it comes down to a few key issues -- namely retaining the right to bargain over health care in the future, even if this deal moves professors onto a single, universitywide employee benefits plan that they initially resisted. At first, the university wanted to remove the right to future bargaining.

Other key wins: keeping workload agreements, reasonable timelines for continuing contracts for professors off the tenure track, clear merit raise standards and summer teaching rights -- all of which the university sought to scrap. There are additional limits on retrenchment and furloughs in the deal.

The set of two, two-year agreements also includes 2.5 percent raises for the last two years.

Summer course pay was cut 15 to 20 percent, however. The battle over faculty contracts at Wright State, after all, took place at an institution that all sides agreed had not been adequately funded by the state.

Perhaps more than anything, the strike was about respect, including in future negotiations.

“Our faculty have taken an immediate and longer-term financial hit on this new five-year contract,” said Martin Kich, president of Wright State’s American Association of University Professors-affiliated faculty union and professor of English. “But we have reasserted our right to bargain, and we have preserved important safeguards on the conditions under which we are doing our work.”

It would be “naïve to think that such a strike will not have some very negative repercussions, especially in the shorter term,” Kich said. But the strike could be a deterrent against another “disastrous situation,” or insurance that subsequent contract negotiations are “more genuinely aimed at meaningful compromise.”

Imposed Contract

Wright State’s faculty union went on strike last month after the university’s Board of Trustees imposed a contract following protracted negotiations. Not only did the union not agree to the terms, but Wright State’s “last best offer” included major red flags for professors: no pay raises and a continuing-appointment timeline for non-tenure-line professors that the union argued would have almost doubled the current eligibility period, to 12 years.

And there was no ability to bargain for health care -- an important form of compensation for professors who haven’t received a raise in five of the last eight years. Professors also argued that that right was theirs under the Ohio Revised Code. This issue alone accounted for the last week of the strike.

Crystal B. Lake, associate professor of English, said imposed contract terms such as the health-care clause “seemed like they were less about saving money and more about achieving something political.”

That struck a nerve because she and most of her colleagues work at Wright State, a regional public, because they’re “passionate about making sure that a wide range of students can benefit from the advantages conferred by an affordable and high-quality college degree,” she said. The board's contract “threatened to undermine the value and quality of the education we could offer” students.

Professors also took umbrage at the university's insistence that it could not solve its financial issues without targeting the faculty contract. While Wright State is not a wealthy institution, the union pointed out that faculty compensation is just 17 percent of its budget, and that noninstructional expenditures and poor administrative decision making -- such as an unsuccessful bid for a presidential debate and million-dollar settlements in federal cases alleging that Wright State secured student visas for nonstudent area employees and paid loans to nonconfirmed students -- drained $130 million in university reserves in five years.

Drawing parallels to arguments behind recent K-12 teacher strikes in other states, Kich said faculty salaries and benefits are a relatively small share of the budget, “yet we produce the bulk of the university's revenue, and just about all of its net revenue.”

Wright State declined immediate comment on lessons learned. It's said repeatedly that it's happy to have the faculty back, and to return to serving students.

Not Bluffing (?)

Many times faculty strikes are threatened but don’t actually happen because a deal is reached at the last minute.

That wasn't the case in Ohio: the university did not withdraw its imposed contract on the eve of the strike, publicly insisted that things were under control during the strike, challenged the legality of the strike in a state process (and lost), and posted jobs ads for replacement adjuncts in dozens of fields -- even offering them housing.

Silvia Newell, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences, said the job ad came as a surprise, but that the faculty “largely interpreted it as a scare tactic to get faculty to cross the picket line.” The ads weren’t posted until only the ability to bargain for health-care terms remained unresolved, she said.

Despite Wright State's actions and rhetoric, Kich said, its lawyer admitted during the hearing about the strike’s legality that “they could not operate the university without us. That admission alone is a significant thing.”

“While [the board] did not rule this strike unauthorized as we had asked, the union’s actions to prevent the university from operating are having a significant toll,” President Cheryl B. Schrader said at the time.

Kich said that "some more evident sense of mutual respect has to be the result of all of this contention.”

Certainly the strike was unpleasant for all involved. While many students supported the professors with sit-ins and on picket lines, they and others had to deal with tentatively canceled courses and missed class time. Professors on the picket lines were visited by other local unions, hosted a “beard challenge” and welcomed animals to keep up morale. Lake said the solidarity she experienced was a kind of “kismet, but in all honesty, the strike was also hard and long, and I would say that I felt more urgency and seriousness than I did chemistry.”

As the strike wore on, she said, the “university used a variety of tactics that appeared like they were designed to do anything to avoid having to negotiate a fair contract.” And she and others “became increasingly convinced that the strike was necessary to restore a balance of power in our institutional culture -- to make sure that someone was holding our administrators accountable and that they adhered to best practices, as well as rules and regulations that define public higher education.”

Lake added, “I think the last three weeks at Wright State were just the beginning, in both good and bad ways.”

Resentment Remains

Newell said there remains “a lot of resentment on the part of the faculty and the students on the [board] and the upper administration for forcing this to drag out in an effort to break the union.”

William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York, said that move to hire replacement instructors might have been prompted by a “quirk” in Ohio law that prohibits part-time faculty members from collective bargaining -- and therefore makes them "most vulnerable.”

Over all, Herbert said, the strike at Wright State is “another sign that strikes are growing in higher education," as well as in primary and secondary schools.

There were a total of 11 strikes in higher education in 2018, compared to five in 2017 and seven in 2016, according to center data. Fifteen of the strikes in 2016-2018 involved faculty or graduate assistants.

Timothy R. Cain, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Georgia who followed the strike from afar, via news reports, said he wasn’t surprised that health care was such a central concern, considering “the broader societal issues about and problems with how we fund health care.”

It has become “such a large portion of compensation for both individuals and employers that it necessarily is a key negotiating issue,” he said.

Health care was at play in another recent faculty dispute and threatened strike at City Colleges of Chicago. The faculty union there said the administration tried eliminate a health insurance benefit for new hires that allowed for 10 years of coverage upon retirement, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Howard Bunsis, a national AAUP Council member and professor of accounting at Eastern Michigan University, said the significance of the Wright State strike “is that a group of faculty stood up for what was right -- maintaining quality public higher education for their students.”

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