Last year, University lecturers (and other nontenure-track faculty with other titles) negotiated our first collective agreement with the University administration. It was an arduous process. Our union — the Lecturers’ Employees Organization — fielded a bargaining team that met week after week with the University administration. We had to engage in a one-day strike to show how serious we were about our core issues: on job security and salary improvement. In the end, we compromised on each of our major demands, but we felt that the contract was a major step forward. LEO members ratified the contract by an overwhelming majority last June. We looked forward to implementing the agreement quickly and effectively.

That was then. Three months into the implementation process, some schools, departments and programs are implementing the agreement in good faith. But the units that treated their lecturers worst before the contract was signed are playing the same old games. Though we expected that people who made unfair use of their power before the contract would resent and resist its constraints, we also expected that the University administration would explain to these units that their old ways — which were never professional and should never have been acceptable — are no longer legal and must cease immediately.

The administration’s failure to convey this message has forced LEO members to file grievance after grievance — 16 to date, all but one against Ann Arbor and Dearborn schools or departments. So far, most cases have involved one of two kinds of behavior: disregarding the layoff list or canceling classes at the last minute without compensation. So far, every grievance has been decided against us. The contract’s grievance procedure provides four steps, and none of these cases have yet gone to the final, binding arbitration stage. So, in most cases, the University administration can still overturn decisions made by the units that violated the agreement. We are calling upon the administration to do just that.

Today, the grievance with the most at stake will go before the Dean of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts and the University Human Resources representatives of University Provost Paul Courant. This is the third step for this grievance — the Ann Arbor English department has already rejected our arguments. Our contract provides that faculty who are assigned fewer courses than they wish to teach should go on a layoff list (provided they are good teachers). When a new class opens up, departments are to go first to this list to see whether any of the laid-off faculty are qualified to teach it. If there is such a faculty member, he or she must be hired. If there is more than one qualified faculty member on the list, the one with the most seniority must be hired.

What English department decision-makers actually did was more Byzantine. (The Oxford English Dictionary defines Byzantine as “complicated, inflexible, underhand.”) Last year, they scheduled an unusually large share of the courses taught by lecturers in the fall 2003 term. This meant hiring new people that term. Then, because they had correspondingly fewer courses to offer in the winter 2004 term, they laid off 14 lecturers. In deciding which ones to lay off, they gave preference to less senior lecturers over more senior ones. When the LEO contract was signed in June 2004, all of these fall-only hires went on the layoff list. Yet in the period after the contract came into force, the English department offered teaching work for the upcoming year to people who had not taught in the winter term and were not on the layoff list.

English department decision-makers claim that none of the people on the layoff list were qualified to do this work. Yet many of the people who were passed over had been hired back year after year to teach the very courses in question. Was the department hiring unqualified people all those years? And who was hired instead of these experienced lecturers? In the fall term, about 30 graduate student instructors enrolled in programs other than English were hired. As well, 2004 graduates of the department’s doctorate and masters programs were given one year appointments, and others were given one-term jobs.

For the English department’s hiring decisions to comply with the terms of our contract, the following would have to be true: Once the contract came into force, all of the new hires must have been more qualified to teach all of the courses assigned than all of those on the layoff list. If you find that claim credible, I’d like to talk to you about a bridge I own in Brooklyn!

The upshot: This blatant contract violation has resulted in lecturers with many years of experience receiving fewer courses than they should have, and three of the department’s most senior lecturers with no work at all in winter 2005. It is these three LEO members who brought the grievance, but many others have also been harmed by the unnecessary policy of excessive fall-term hiring.

There is more at stake here, too, than the livelihood of our English department members, vitally important though that is. If the administration accepts the English department’s claims, this key element of our contract’s job security provisions is rendered virtually meaningless. We fought hard to get these provisions last winter; if necessary, we’ll fight just as hard to ensure that they actually mean what they say. We were deeply moved by the support that so many of our students gave us last year, when we negotiated this contract language. We hope that you will continue your support as we struggle to turn the contract’s many fine words into real changes in University practice.

 

Robinson is the co-chair of the Lecturers’ Employee Organization and sociology lecturer.

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