I write this on Monday, April 9, the day that the Lecturers’ Employee Organization was initially going to begin its work strike, protesting the University of Michigan’s hypocrisy and greed in their ongoing bargaining negotiations.
Before I provide my take on this movement, with which I have become pretty involved over the past several weeks, I want to provide some statistics. Right now, the minimum salary for a lecturer is $34,500 in Ann Arbor, $28,300 in Dearborn and $27,300 in Flint. Lecturers frequently work second and third jobs — as baristas, Uber drivers or teachers at other schools — to make a livable wage.
On Feb. 12, in its first salary counterproposal, the University offered a $1,000 increase in 2019, a $750 increase in 2020 and a $500 increase in 2021. On March 23, in its second counterproposal, the University offered to increase minimum salaries by $2,000 in 2019 and 2020, providing 2.25 percent annual raises over three years in Ann Arbor, but giving nothing at all to lecturers already making above the minimum salaries. Finally, in its third counterproposal March 28, the University offered a $5500 starting salary increase for lecturers only in Ann Arbor, while offering no new negotiations for either of the University’s other two campuses.
And then, last night, the University offered a $10,000 increase in minimum salary wages in Ann Arbor and a $7,500 increase in Dearborn and Flint. This was the most significant movement with respect to salary so far, so LEO decided not to strike and to continue bargaining, with the hopes that they now have the necessary momentum to move forward.
I provide this timeline to convince you of one crucial fact: The University’s ostensibly benevolent move Sunday night was not anything besides it realizing it cannot continue to disrespect its lecturers. A strike would make bad optics at this school, which loves more than anything else to tout its legacies and its traditions, as it prepares to celebrate the annual Commencement ceremonies. This shift in the bargaining only took place because of the tireless efforts of LEO and its allies who have consistently packed bargaining rooms and organized a substantial campaign effort on all three U-M campuses. Please, in trying to understand why this happened, focus on the grassroots work that has happened to force the hands of our administrators.
Now, a few reflections on my experiences as an ally working with LEO. These bargaining meetings are incredible affairs to take part in. Here’s why: The work going on at the bargaining table is extremely boring. We, the allies — lecturers, people’s families, etc. — sit in chairs set up for us with our computers and notebooks in hand, passing the time, looking up now and then to see what’s going on, feeling frustrated that we cannot hear anything or, even when we can, that we cannot understand the bargain jargon, inhaling a rush of body odor pouring off of us in this humid, disgusting room, wondering why someone can’t just open a window and then ultimately returning to our homework with a wry smile as we look around at all of the friends with whom we sit, knowing we are in solidarity, knowing we are on the right side of history.
My experiences at these bargaining meetings — along with the gradual progress the various grassroots protest demonstrations have created — have furthermore taught me another crucial fact: Protest is often boring. It often takes place in crowded, sweaty rooms where nothing is officially happening. Where the task is to wait — nothing glamorous or loud or spectacular to show for it. Just a bunch of smelly people crowded together in a bland, fluorescently lit room who have decided to attend this meeting out of a sense that how we treat our lecturers represents how this University, in practice — as opposed to all of the chit-chat about the Leaders and Best — fosters inclusive, egalitarian, participatory community.
Family members shared stories about why they need their spouses to earn more money for their newly-born child. Tenured professors offered heart-wrenching testimonies about their colleagues. Students whose University experiences have been fundamentally transformed by lecturers told their own stories. And, of course, lecturers themselves described the everyday struggles into which the University has forced them.
For all skeptics of this movement, I suggest going to an open bargaining meeting. I suggest speaking to these lecturers and their allies about this movement, about what it means to them. I suggest hearing their stories, so as to humanize the people whose lives are at stake.
This is my last column for The Daily, because I’m graduating in a few weeks, and I would just like to say these experiences have made me proud to be part of this community. They’ve taught me education does not need a classroom or a university to support it; in fact, these deeply educational experiences have taken place as a university specifically tries to suppress them.
We can make our own education in small, unexpected (humid, sweaty) pockets. We can form our own communities, working against or outside of any institutional affiliation. It seems like this is the direction life heads toward now: finding solidarity and community on our own terms, knowing it can take place and grow in surprising ways and places.
Living life curiously, open to this possibility. It all comes back to perception: As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of (a person) to elevate (their) life by conscious endeavor.”
Join a movement you believe in, invest in the community that movement creates, look around and, despite the sweat and the humidity and the stubborn, cruel administrators trying to stamp you out, that community will not falter. And you will grow into yourself, as an individual, as a social being, as a thinker and a writer and a citizen of the world, all the time.
Isaiah Zeavin-Moss can be reached at email@example.com.