The Lecturers’ Employee Organization is in the middle of a long and arduous bargaining campaign with the University of Michigan. As the fall semester begins, the University remains obstinate on a number of key issues. LEO members are preparing to take action. Graduate students should be prepared to stand with them.
Lecturers are a critical part of the University’s faculty and teach a majority of classes at U-M Flint and Dearborn, as well as nearly 40% of classes in Ann Arbor. Despite this, lecturers are paid far less than tenure-track faculty and have far less job security. LEO working conditions should be of particular concern for graduate students because, with the ever-decreasing proportion of University faculty on the tenure track, a future in lecturing is likely in the cards for many of us.
Of course, LEO’s demands are just and well-deserved and also deserve our support even if there is no chance of us, as graduate student instructors, personally becoming lecturers. Many of their demands are social justice issues that everyone should care about, regardless of their relationship to the University. LEO’s push for pay parity for lecturers at the Flint and Dearborn campuses would go a long way toward ending the racist and classist underfunding of those two campuses.
We’ve seen that the pandemic has forced the burden of childcare disproportionately back onto women, pushing them out of the workforce in large numbers. LEO’s demands for a child care subsidy — something Graduate Employees’ Organization members already have — is a critical gender equity issue made even more urgent by COVID-19 and Ann Arbor Public Schools’ decision not to offer child care this year. It is both disgraceful and unacceptable that the University’s administration still refuses to concede on these issues, especially when we know they could easily afford it.
Standing with LEO is also important because solidarity breeds more solidarity down the line. LEO activist Andrew Thompson has said that GEO’s Strike for Safe Campus last year encouraged LEO to be more aggressive in their push for a fair contract. Solidarity across campus unions makes every worker on campus more powerful.
But the LEO negotiations should be especially concerning for Ph.D. students, as the contract the lecturers end up with will likely set the standard for the working conditions many of us will face after graduation. Over three quarters of faculty positions at American universities are now non-tenure track. While most of us who plan on staying in academia after graduation likely prefer a tenure-track position, there is a real possibility this goal will be beyond reach. Non-tenure track faculty are often part-time, underpaid and overworked. LEO’s fight for competitive salaries, funding for professional development and the title of “teaching professor” would go a long way toward ensuring these hard-working scholars get the dignity they deserve.
Perhaps most important is LEO’s fight for workplace democracy. If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that workers need to have a louder voice in how their workplaces are run. Employers the world over have shown their willingness to sacrifice their workers’ health and safety at the altar of profit.
The University’s disastrous fall 2020 reopening shows that our own workplace is far from immune from this kind of mismanagement. In a recent interview with The Daily, University President Mark Schlissel said that one thing he learned from GEO’s Strike for Safe Campus is that “communication is really important, and having open lines of communication, so that we don’t just think we understand a group or a person’s situation — we actually ask them about it.”
Schlissel, however, misses the point. It’s not about communication, but about power. Last summer, in the lead up to GEO’s strike, GEO officers had been communicating with the administration for months. The administration only started listening when students and workers withheld our labor (our power) and started striking. The “set up to fail” policing task force, protested over the summer by the Association of Black Social Work Students, is another example of why empty communication is unlikely to change things absent a real transfer of power toward workers and students. Communicating is not enough. We need workplace democracy.
LEO’s workplace democracy demands, which would give lecturers an increased role in governing the departments they teach, do just that. These demands are hardly radical. They would simply make space for lecturers to have input in program curricula across departments, allow lecturers to have a say in how the courses they teach are scheduled and give lecturers votes in elections for University and college governance. These demands are things tenure track faculty already enjoy, but they would represent a real transfer of power toward lecturers. Having a more democratic university begins at the bargaining table. A victory for lecturers would be a victory for all workers who want a say in how their workplace is run.
Because LEO members have a strong union, they are well-positioned to blaze a trail of fair compensation and dignified working conditions for lecturers across the country. It’s no secret that unionized workplaces are at the forefront of fighting for basic rights and protections. Rights won by unions eventually become the norm across the field, as non-union workplaces struggle to remain competitive without a similar offering. Critical benefits like health insurance and tuition waivers were virtually unheard-of for Graduate Student Instructors until unions like GEO won them. Now, most Ph.D. students take them for granted. A good deal for LEO members at the University of Michigan would likely mean a better deal for lecturers everywhere.
LEO’s contract campaign will clearly have far-reaching implications that go beyond their own members. From social justice issues like child care and equity for Flint and Dearborn, to increasing campus solidarity and worker power, to raising the bar for what non-tenure track faculty can expect, the outcome of these negotiations will impact all of the University, the wider community in southeast Michigan and academia more broadly.
For years, academia has been on a troubling trajectory, relying more and more on precarious adjunct positions for teaching labor. If you are against these trends, standing with LEO is the first step to fighting back. For all these reasons, graduate students should be on the front lines, arm-in-arm, pickets-in-hand with LEO as they fight for dignity, respect and the fair compensation they deserve.
Charlotte Smith is a graduate student in the department of Political Science and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.