I am writing this a few days before the big rally on May 5 and the last day of bargaining on May 6. I hope you accept this not a betrayal but as a rallying cry. Time is running out to negotiate our all-important first contract, yet UNTF’s recent efforts to energize us have made me question whether our leadership has its act together well enough to stand tough in such challenging times.
Like many non-tenured faculty at Michigan State University, I wanted us to vote in a strong union that could negotiate on our behalf. I have heard the horror stories of people who teach a lot, for very little, with virtually no job security.
During my more than two decades of one-year contracts, my wages fluctuated up and down with little connection to my performance beyond the reality that fixed-term faculty serve as the economic ballast that departments use to keep their economic ships afloat. Raises? All too often years went by without any discussion at all. Vacations? In my dreams. During one nerve-wracking era, I unexpectedly faced a two-month layoff without pay when the PI (Principal Investigator) in charge of our grant forgot to file a renewal form to keep the funds flowing.
Especially in this era when many of us worry about rising health-care costs, the wise choice seemed to be to ignore any doubts and vote to band together to speak with one voice. I think I speak for many fixed-term faculty when I say that I was glad to see the American Federation of Teachers approved by a vote of more than two to one in favor of forming the UNTF. But now I also worry that many of us have growing concerns about whether the UNTF leadership is up to the task.
Michigan’s economic problems continue to deepen and funding for higher education is constantly in peril. Even more disheartening is that MSU officials almost seem to be using the negotiating of our first contract as an excuse to re-think and reduce the benefits for everyone, including tenured and non-tenured faculty and staff. Just a few weeks ago, the university announced that it will no longer offer health-care benefits in retirement for any employee hired after July 1, a cost-cutting measure so drastic that friends in academic circles are buzzing about how MSU can hope to compete for top candidates anymore.
So when I received an invitation to a UNTF luncheon at my college (Communication Arts & Sciences) on April 20, I came to learn how the union intended to push back. Adjunct Professor Don Power of Labor and Industrial Relations and Andrew Corner of Advertising, Retailing and Public Relations, who are members of the 10-person UNTF bargaining team, hosted the session. I was one of five out of an estimated 30 eligible members who attended.
Corner opened the session by announcing that he had voted against the union. The balance of his remarks made it clear that he had volunteered for the bargaining unit primarily to monitor the process. Then he left for another meeting immediately after he spoke.
Not a confidence builder.
Don Power informed us that most of the non-economic issues had been resolved. (Results? Highlights? A handout explaining what has been achieved in our name? A survey asking for our feedback? No.)
Power said that we now faced a schedule where we have only a few weeks to settle all the economic issues before we lose most of our clout when the semester ends. “Once classes let out, we lose a lot of our ability to make progress,” he said.
In response to a question about wages, Power noted that UNTF/AFT had not been able to secure comprehensive salary information about our members. Three of us immediately asked why they didn’t analyze the open record of MSU salaries that are kept in the MSU Library and online. One woman from our college rought up the Archives.org website that lists every faculty member’s salary for last year. Power placed a phone call to the UNTF office that confirmed that no one there had ever heard of this report, though it’s easy to find on Google.
At the meeting, we were told that we would receive email alerts about attending the last two crucial bargaining sessions this semester. Yet the first session came and went without any notification. (I even checked my spam filter.)
Now we learn that even the proposed one-year contracts for fixed-term faculty that the university is offering will contain a clause that says they can be canceled with 30 days’ notice if budget problems arise.
This is progress?
I have also learned that the UNTF did not fight to have its members maintain membership in the union during semesters they are not teaching. Other similar unions have treated this as an essential bargaining issue, because the logistics of determining who is and is not a member at any given time otherwise becomes a nightmare. Union members also lose their sense of connectedness, and, at a certain point, when they start charging, the union risks losing dues.
I apologize if this makes me sound like a whiner or if the issues I bring up seem petty. I have had a draft of this letter on my computer for a week, but I hesitated to post it because I did not want to jeopardize sensitive negotiations at such a critical phase. However, now that the university seems to be treating us as pushovers, turning even puny one-year contracts into utterly meaningless pieces of paper, I feel the need to speak out before my fears for the future are realized.
I, for one, will be there May 5, to show my support. However, I also ask the UNTF leadership to do a better job of communicating with us. Keep us informed, through Twitter, your blog and your website. Give us details about what is happening. Survey us about what we think and what we know. We have knowledge and concerns that you need to know about.
I hope that others will join me in renewing the commitment we made when we voted for UNTF. But I propose our message to the UNTF leadership should be: you do your part, and we will do ours.
Thanks for listening –
*Years ago, I worked in an office at the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Jackson, where the Teamsters represented the drivers. A union steward called me at home one night to urge me to help them organize the office. When I told him that I feared for my job because my husband was dying of cancer, he asked me, “Do you remember hearing about the fire at So-and-So’s house? The one that started in the garage?” Yes, I had. “That was us. So don’t worry. We know how to take care of our own.” On the spectrum between a union led by thugs and one led by thoughtful but ineffective colleagues, I still prefer the latter.