Together we are strong.
It may sound like a cliche, but the Eastern Michigan University Federation of Teachers recently proved the old union adage is also true. After five months of bargaining against a 25 percent pay cut and other outrageous provisions, union members leveraged enormous community support to win a tentative contract they say is fair and completely free of concessions.
In addition to refusing the pay cut, the agreement focuses primarily on job security. It provides a minimum credit-hour load for part-time lecturers, the right to be rehired if classes are available, and access to unpaid leave, allowing workers to take time for illness or pregnancy without losing their jobs. In fact, even the pay—instead of the 25 percent cut, the union won a 1.5 to 2 percent increase—improves job security; the cut would have been for new hires, which would have pushed out old lecturers in favor of new ones hired at lower rates.
The union represents about 100 full-time lecturers and library staff and more than 600 part-time lecturers. "Roughly a quarter of our lecturers have taught at this university part time for six or more years," says Daric Thorne, EMUFT president (pictured in black). "A significant portion of them have taught here for 20 years." Without the new agreement, "they could fire us at almost any moment and they didn't have to hire us back."
Thorne credits old-fashioned solidarity for the recent win. Open bargaining was especially effective. The practice allows any member of the community to attend bargaining sessions, and having additional people in the room made all the difference, says Thorne.
"We had members coming out to meetings all summer long, but we had a critical amount of people show up in early August, both members and people from the community and from other unions." It was then that management began to reconsider its demands, he says.
Meanwhile, sister unions—from the Michigan Nurses Association to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the American Federation of Government Employees and even the pipefitters union—joined rallies and demonstrations. AFT Vice President David Hecker, president of AFT Michigan, played a pivotal role in talks with management. Students and elected officials turned out for demonstrations and signed letters of support. They were especially outraged, along with EMUFT members, when the administration proposed that members who collected unemployment benefits over the summer months (when they had no classes) pay back that unemployment to the university in the fall.
A pivotal moment was student move-in day, Sept. 1, says Thorne—the same day the union contract expired. The local had planned a rally to tell new students and their parents that, just as tuition was going up, the administration was demanding pay concessions from its workforce. "Administrators did not want us to have that event on campus," he says. They demanded the union negotiate the contract the night before, but the union refused and said it would negotiate without a contract if necessary.
Shortly after that refusal, management capitulated and the tentative contract was drawn up.
"It's really easy for a bargaining team locked in a room with the administration to think that you're on your own, but when you have support, you realize you're not alone," Thorne says. "It was empowering."