With last year’s Graduate Employees Organization walkout and the University’s much-publicized New Era contract behind us, it would be easy for students to forget that the University’s labor problems are not yet solved. That will be changing in the next few months, as the Lecturers Employees Organization attempts to form a collective bargaining unit at all three University campuses for non-tenure -track faculty who feel they are not being adequately compensated for the amount of work they do.
Talk of a lecturers union has circulated around the University community for years without any action. In December, however, LEO filed a representation petition with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission and is now in the process of establishing a formidable collective bargaining unit.
Non-tenure-track faculty represent a historically overlooked group of employees who have not benefitted from the University’s strong tradition of progressive labor politics. Often, lecturers are burdened with greater workloads than regular professors, and many are required to frequently commute to different universities in order to teach. Although these individuals have numerous and important responsibilities, their salaries are often substantially less than those of a graduate student instructor. It is imperative that such faculty are fairly compensated for the work they perform.
Last year, GEO threatened to strike in order to secure a new contract from the University. Its efforts ultimately proved successful, and GSIs were able to secure – among other benefits – a salary increase and improved child care. A similar lecturers organization could help accomplish the same thing for individuals who have in the past had no voice in salary negotiations. And like GEO, a substantial LEO bargaining unit would ensure that non-tenure- track faculty are guaranteed the job security and continued representation they deserve. Presently, they are typically offered a contracts on a semesterly or yearly basis, which is not conducive to creating job stability, especially for career lecturers.
How strong the collective bargaining unit can become depends on who will be permitted to join it. Presently, non-tenure track faculty are given vague titles – such as lecturers, adjunct professors and visiting professors – that are not always consistent between universities. As LEO and MERC work to create a bargaining unit, they should avoid language that relies on such titles and allow all non-tenure track faculty to be represented by the bargaining unit.
The University would also benefit from a fair contract because the University would become a more attractive destination for the most qualified lecturers.
The best way to ensure that the concerns of non-tenure track faculty are considered is through collective bargaining with the University. Although a strike should be the last resort, it is always a possibility, and both the University and LEO should work toward a mutual agreement before such measures are taken. Lecturers currently have very little influence in negotiations, are grossly underpaid and have limited job security. A strong union will give them the leverage they deserve in contract negotiations.