LEO doubles down on organizing efforts, discusses potential walkout

Sunday, March 11, 2018 - 7:19pm

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Design by Casey Tin

Members of the Lecturers’ Employee Organization gathered for a general membership meeting Friday on the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus to discuss the next step in their campaign to secure a contract granting them higher wages and enhanced job security. Despite receiving what they called an “insulting” response to the union’s salary proposal last month, leaders remained optimistic, emphasizing the importance of involving both lecturers and allies in organizing efforts.

Representing nearly 1,700 non-tenure track faculty members across the University’s three campuses, LEO has been negotiating since October, asking for improved benefits, more full-time jobs and significant increases to minimum salaries.

Bargaining team manager and LEO Vice President Kirsten Herold, a lecturer at the School of Public Health, has been through five rounds of contract negotiations with LEO since the union’s inception in the early 2000s. She said she has maintained a positive outlook, citing public school teachers’ successful statewide walkout in West Virginia and grassroots enthusiasm.

“I really feel more optimistic this time than I otherwise have in terms of our shot at getting a real raise,” Herold said. “The University’s always been a little bit ahead of the curve on this front, and I really think this time we can do it. We just have to put everything into it. We have so much great staff, so many great allies and so many members involved. I’m telling people, we’re going to see a five-digit raise. If that’s not worth a few hours of your time, I don’t know what is.”

Under the union’s current contract, which expires April 20, the minimum salary for a full-time lecturer is $34,500 in Ann Arbor, $28,300 in Dearborn and $27,300 in Flint. LEO’s salary proposal would have raised the minimum to $60,000 in Ann Arbor and to $56,000 in Dearborn and Flint in 2018, increasing by $2,000 at all three campuses in 2019 and again in 2020.

The University instead offered a $1,000 increase to the starting salary in 2019, $750 in 2020 and $500 in 2021. The deal also included a 1.5 percent annual raise for lecturers in Ann Arbor, but not those in Dearborn or Flint.

LEO had also demanded equity adjustments, requesting lecturers’ salaries increase $1,000 for every year of service starting this fall. In response, the University struck the paragraph with the request.

In a statement, LEO said members are “stunned, insulted, and outraged,” calling the treatment of lecturers “morally unjust.”

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said both bargaining teams are continuing to work through “a large number of LEO-proposed changes to the contract.”

“As you may know, economic issues, like salary and benefits, tend to be some of the final topics to be addressed during any labor contract talks and that is the case here with LEO,” Fitzgerald said. “The current contract runs through April 20 and bargaining will continue in an effort to reach agreement by that time.”

During a break in negotiations Friday afternoon, union leadership reviewed these recent developments. Sheryl Edwards, chair of the Dearborn branch of LEO and a lecturer in social sciences, said while salary continued to be a source of conflict, the union and the University were moving forward on less contentious items.

“We’re making progress on smaller issues, issues that deal with job security, things like that,” Edwards said. “We’re able to work with them on that, but how the salary is going to go now, I’m not sure. The other issues are getting taken care of, but the salaries are the big one out there.”

After receiving the University’s counterproposal last month, LEO President Ian Robinson, a sociology lecturer in Ann Arbor, feared the union would be unable to negotiate a new contract before the current contract’s expiration. He addressed the possibility Friday, promising no tentative agreements would be signed while members were off-campus during the summer.

“We won’t be signing anything, not even a tentative agreement, let alone an entire agreement, over the summer,” he said. “If we don’t get this done by the time this term ends, it means we’re back in the fall. It means we do a whole lot of organizing in the summer, and we come back ready to strike in the early fall.”

There are five bargaining sessions remaining before the contract expires. At the next general membership meeting March 25, LEO members will decide whether to post an online ballot to vote to permit union leadership to authorize a strike. Lecturers said if the University does not make substantial changes to its bargaining positions on salary, a potential walkout is planned for April 9 and 10.

Edwards was involved in the union’s very first round of negotiations with the University, which culminated in a walkout in 2004. She called the experience “enlightening.”

“We only walked out one day, but what an effect,” Edward said. “This time we are much stronger as a union. This time the energy level is higher and we’re a little more secure than we were the first time, when we tried to form a union. We were afraid we were all going to get fired.”

When several lecturers expressed concern about how walking out of class would impact students, others cited the success of the Graduate Employees’ Organization’s threat to walkout last spring. GEO, which was formed in 1974, is one of the oldest higher-education unions in the world and has “an incredibly strong contract,” according to GEO President Rachel Miller, an LSA graduate student. Miller said many of the wins in GEO’s contracts have come through the use of “workers’ most effective tool – the threat of withholding labor.”

“One of the ironies is, yeah, you’re not going to work, but it takes a lot of preparation,” she said. “It’s an incredible amount of work to actually pull that off. The idea is that your employees are walking off of the job and onto the picket line, but it’s always in service of the best possible working and teaching conditions.”

Miller said GEO is “absolutely fully in support of LEO.” Members of GEO have attended LEO rallies and advocated for the lecturers throughout the bargaining process.

LEO’s organizing schedule includes a bargaining day March 23 in Flint and a regents meeting March 29 in Ann Arbor. Members held a press conference in February appealing to the regents prior the board’s monthly meeting. While the regents did not offer a response at the time, LEO members said the regents, particularly the Democratic regents, have been “sympathetic.”

Bob King, a member of the bargaining team and a lecturer at the Residential College, said LEO has been communicating with the regents for “many months” and “overall, the regents are tremendously supportive.”

“They use the terms, ‘they want to end the exploitation of lecturers.’ They say that publicly,” King said.

King said he believed resistance to meeting the lecturers’ demands was coming from “an old culture.”

“I’m hoping President Schlissel will be part of breaking that culture,” he said. “I think he realizes the injustices to lecturers, so we’ll see. We don’t know whether that resistance has changed. I think it has. The regents are playing a big role in changing that, but we won’t know for sure until we get down closer to April.”

The regents did not respond to requests for comment.

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