LEO prepares for next week’s contract negotiations, Regents’ Meeting

Monday, June 18, 2018 - 2:18pm

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Alec Cohen/Daily

The Lecturers’ Employee Organization, which represents over 1,700 non-tenured faculty across the three University campuses, is continuing to push for higher wages and improved benefits in its contract negotiations with U-M administration. Since early last year, the union has been bargaining with University representatives over a new five-year agreement, the last of which officially expired May 29.

LEO President Ian Robinson said the contract’s expiration did not have a particularly drastic effect on lecturers, because most clauses related to wages and benefits are governed by state labor laws. Some non-compensatory issues, like the University’s practice of simplifying LEO membership by deducting dues from lecturers’ salaries, remain subject to change, but Robinson is not yet aware of any adjustments.

According to LEO members, lecturers have been less willing to settle on a contract this year than in the past. Anita Baxter, U-M Flint biology lecturer, said LEO has more support than it did previously, enabling the organization to fight for lecturers’ rights more effectively. Former bargaining teams also had less experience negotiating with the administration, added Steven Toth, U-M Flint chemistry lecturer.

“This is the first time that we’ve really gotten serious,” Toth said. “I think the administration has had almost 10 years of us rolling over, not doing anything, and they’re now shocked that there is such a large pushback. I’m sure this is also new territory for them.”

Over the course of negotiations, the University has put forth a series of proposals, to which U-M spokespeople referred The Daily when reached for comment. At a bargaining session Friday, the administration made a new counteroffer — not yet officially published — offering to boost Ann Arbor lecturers’ salaries and to move some money from lecturers’ minimum salaries towards higher equity adjustments or one-time increases to base salaries.

While the administration’s offers have generally improved, Robinson said, LEO is still troubled by the gap in proposed funding between the Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn campuses. There is already a large disparity in lecturer wages, with Flint and Dearborn faculty making significantly less than those in Ann Arbor. The administration’s newest official proposal, published online June 5, would actually widen the gap, raising the minimum lecturer salaries to $37,000 in Flint, $38,000 in Dearborn and $50,000 in Ann Arbor. Baxter said though housing and other needs are more expensive in Ann Arbor, many lecturers don’t live where they work, so cost of living cannot be used to justify the salary gap.

The University is generally hesitant to distribute funding across campuses, Robinson said. He added the administration is selective about when it treats Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn as a single institution.

“I think they have a budget model, and the budget model does not contemplate transfers across campuses even though we are one university for the purposes of many, many things,” Robinson said. “There are (sic) only one set of regents, we only have one president, and we are one university typically when it comes to statistics about diversity and such.”

LEO claims the University has the money to meet their demands, reporting the administration made a $377-million profit off lecturers in the 2016-2017 academic year. Erik Marshall, a language, culture and communication lecturer at U-M Dearborn, said despite the University’s wealth, the administration seems unwilling to properly fund U-M Flint and Dearborn. He finds the inequality particularly problematic given that U-M Flint and Dearborn campuses are more culturally and socioeconomically diverse than U-M Ann Arbor.

“It’s not the standard for public school systems to have separate funds for separate campuses, and there’s no reason to do it,” Marshall said. “The University has an incredible surplus, and they have an incredible amount of unrestricted reserves that they just sit on, that could easily be shuttled to Flint and/or Dearborn. But for some reason, they don’t like money going up 23 or East on 94.”

In addition to advocating for a fairer distribution of resources, LEO will campaign for salaries that are higher across the board. LEO is also focusing on equity adjustments, which Toth said reward long-time lecturers and give non-tenured faculty the incentive to continue working for the University. He cited how at U-M Flint, there are two lecturers with the same title — one who’s been working at the University for almost 20 years, and the other for seven — who make essentially the same salary. Toth said without appropriate equity raises, lecturers won’t want to keep their posts, as demonstrated by the high turnover rates he’s observed at U-M Flint.

“When the community college across the street had a job posting, every single lecturer applied for it,” Toth said. “This is counting lecturers that have been working there for 10, 15 years. You’re just going to always lose your pool of people if something better comes along.”

A final sticking point has been the renaming of lecturers to “teaching professors.” Baxter said updating the title would incentivize instructors to accept positions at the University. In high-paying fields like computer science, where qualified teachers have many job options, she said candidates may actually turn down a job because they feel not being called “professor” is disrespectful.

The University’s Board of Regents, a governing committee separate from the University representatives with whom LEO bargains, will gather Thursday, June 21 to vote on the 2018-2019 academic budget. According to Toth, the outcome of the meeting will be particularly significant for LEO’s cause, since Thursday’s board meeting is the last one scheduled before the fall semester begins. Toth noted some regents expressed solidarity with LEO at a meeting in March.

“We’re really hoping that the regents see our importance,” Toth said. “When they found out how little we’re being paid, the fact that there’s (sic) lecturers who are on government assistance programs that work full time, that there’s lecturers that are 50 years old and haven’t saved at all towards retirement, that there’s lecturers that have been teaching for 30 years and still make less than $40,000 a year, they were very, very embarrassed.”

Next week, there will be bargaining sessions Wednesday, June 20 and Friday, June 22 in Pierpont Commons. Robinson hopes LEO members will attend to make their voices heard, and that the administration will produce a contract offer LEO feels comfortable bringing forward for a ratification vote. But, Robinson said, the decision is ultimately up to LEO members. LEO’s contract states two out of the three U-M campuses must ratify a contract for it to pass.

“We’re going to make time to get feedback from our members, who are not on the bargaining team or the union council, so that we really know how a broader slice of the membership feels about all the different issues that we have to talk our way through in order to make a final decision,” Robinson said.

Robinson said there’s a slight chance the University could make an acceptable offer before the school year starts, especially if the recently approved 2-percent increase in Michigan’s higher education budget influences the Board of Regents’ budget decisions. If LEO and the administration cannot sign a new contract by the fall, Robinson said, LEO may have less influence during negotiations and will be thrown back to its own devices. Without an agreement by the beginning of the new school year, he said LEO will have no choice but to stay committed to its activism and may even consider a strike.

“If we go into the fall with no contract, we no longer have a lot of leverage over bargaining that comes out of the support that we’ve received for our cause from regents,” Robinson said. “The other consequence of going into the fall is a certainty of an ongoing education campaign, to reach out to more and more people, students, alumni, everybody to make them aware of how things actually work and why that’s not acceptable.”

LEO’s core mission, Baxter said, is to ensure lecturers are paid enough to support themselves and their families.

“The administration and President Schlissel have yet to offer a living wage,” Baxter said. “Our lecturers should be able to meet their basic needs on a U of M salary, and so far what they’ve offered is not that.”