Cary Nelson offers an inside look at the faculty strike at Eastern Michigan University.
It was Monday, September 4th. The faculty at Eastern Michigan University had been on strike since September 1st. Picket lines were up at a dozen places on campus -- before the administration building, at all campus entrances, at loading docks, construction sites, and elsewhere. There was an inevitable, fluid conversation ongoing about what to do the next day. Should there be a mass meeting, a rally? Where should it be held? Events could derail any plans, but classes were scheduled to start on Wednesday, and it did not look like the administration would put an acceptable contract offer on the table. So people almost certainly needed to assemble the day beforehand.
Other Michigan public universities had accepted offers of raises ranging from 3-4 percent. Despite realizing that their faculty members were already at the low end of the Michigan pay scale, the Eastern Michigan administration had offered 2 percent and combined it with a new premium to be assessed for health care that amounted to 1.6-1.8 percent of salary. The package was a wash. The union was also looking to help the students, who were unsurprisingly agitated that some classrooms had deteriorated to the point where neither heat nor air conditioning worked properly. Heavy coats worn in winter classrooms did not help note taking. So Eastern Michigan's faculty union, a unit of the American Association of University Professors, asked if the administration would be willing to receive an annual report recommending priorities for classroom repairs. The administration refused.
Their offer was an overt challenge to the union. Then the administration ramped up the pressure by adding that it would walk out of negotiations if the strike was not called off by 10 Tuesday night, the evening before classes were to begin. Late Tuesday morning consensus was reached that, save two pickets per site, everyone should gather that afternoon. Time and place were still in flux. I was in town, as national AAUP president, to offer my support and speak at the meeting. I was worried that no one would show up and said so. "They'll be there," union president Howard Bunsis replied with a smile. I cannot say that I was reassured.
What I had not calculated was how an extraordinary level of faculty solidarity would mesh with new technology. My previous experience with multiple picket sites had involved quite a bit of sending messengers running back and forth across campus. Now there were people with cell phones at every site. This was especially helpful when particular locations required additional troops, as when people needed to work at turning away delivery trucks. On one occasion I persuaded a Teamster member delivering hamburger buns to call his office, which agreed to cancel the rest of the week's deliveries. At a major university construction site, the concrete trucks had nonunion drivers. A cell phone call reached the concrete supplier, whose union loaders agreed not to load more concrete trucks. Other activists were taking cell phone messages in their cars and delivering water, picket signs, and modest edible treats as needed. Several retired professors took particular pleasure in running these on-demand delivery services.
I spent several hours on Tuesday morning visiting picket sites, introducing myself and talking with faculty, students, and university workers. The faculty were unvaryingly determined, though also anxious. False rumors abounded, as usual, but cell phone calls kept them under control. I hadn't thought of cell phones as rumor control devices, but they enable members involved in job actions to make rapid contact with the leadership. The deeper anxiety was centered on the disruption of their faculty identities. They wanted to meet their classes on Wednesday. Most simply asked to be treated the same way other Michigan employees were being treated. A few said they'd settle for any offer that wasn't blatantly insulting. But because they were faculty they could not just picket; they had to talk these issues through. Happily, it was a bright Midwestern day. Spirits overall were more than high; they were stratospheric. Professors of English and engineering were one; they had shed their disciplinary skins. They were now part of that universal faculty that now and again focuses on their common destiny and mission.
At lunch time I made my way back to the negotiating room where I had first arrived the day before. It was a busy space. The union had been asking the administration for health care statistics for a year to no avail. Suddenly, at the penultimate moment, the data had arrived. Ordinarily this would have been a disaster. In the past, interpreting the numbers with sufficient mastery so as to suggest alternative solutions would have taken weeks. But the chapter president is a business faculty member more than comfortable with spread sheets. What's more, the days of the smoke filled bargaining hall had long disappeared. Each member of the bargaining team sat in front of a computer. A ten foot high projection screen let everyone see spreadsheet proposals.
Meanwhile it had been decided that a large campus auditorium was the right place to meet. PowerPoint demonstrations were being prepared. E-mail messages went out to faculty. A phone tree got to work. An hour later we walked into an auditorium packed with hundreds of faculty. Scores of red AAUP caps dotted the room. There was applause, laughter, cheers, and pointed questioning, all echoing sharply against brick walls. My own presentation was easy. I assured everyone of continuing support from the national AAUP, and I emphasized that they were not fighting for their own interests alone. A highly conservative governing board was seeking to deny faculty any influence over their terms of employment or working conditions. This was a battle we needed to win for the country as a whole. Over 40 years in the academy I have never seen a faculty so unified and determined. It was astonishing and exhilarating. Certainly the administration had a hand in inadvertently unifying the faculty. But constant communication between the leadership and the members helped turn anger into collective action.
The overwhelming majority of faculty contracts are, of course, negotiated without a strike. Both parties ordinarily prefer a solution and, despite competing financial aims, are willing to work toward one. The Eastern Michigan administration's determination to break the faculty's will is not unprecedented but surely atypical.
As we left the hall a huge storm broke. Nothing less could have kept people from the picket lines, though when the skies cleared faculty were out on the streets again. A hundred of them were still there at 10 p.m. that night, chanting "Talk, Don't Walk" before the administration building.
Meanwhile we were back at negotiations. There I got to see a master at work. Ernie Benjamin, a 30-year veteran of collective bargaining, was in town from the national AAUP office to advise the campus professors. He would quietly predict every administration action before it happened. He estimated they would deliver a "last and best" offer minutes before they broke off negotiations, just so they could claim we hadn't responded to it. We decided to draft a counter offer without seeing their terms, though Ernie, as it happened, predicted exactly what they would propose. The team reduced its demands somewhat, printed out new spreadsheets, and delivered them to the administration negotiators at 9:58, immediately after receiving their's. At first the administration representatives refused to accept our proposal, claiming it was already 10 p.m., but our people proved otherwise.
The following morning, more than 90 percent of faculty members honored the strike and did not attend their classes. Students picketed the administration the rest of the week. The union had advised new faculty to meet their classes, since they would otherwise not have health care coverage initiated. But the faculty had spoken with one voice, though a strike carries a special emotional burden for them. They would prefer to be partners with the administration. They cannot leave their classrooms, their offices, and their labs without psychologically leaving much of themselves behind. It is not just a job; it is who they are. At Eastern Michigan the administration decided to exploit that special loyalty. The faculty stood together in support of shared governance and fair practices. When nearly 400 faculty met again on Friday, not one suggested calling off the strike. Sometimes solidarity deserves to be remembered forever.
Cary Nelson is president of the American Association of University Professors and a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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