Unions hold colleges accountable on equity

With diversity and inclusion statements now a part of the landscape at colleges and universities—thanks to decades of hard work by union activists and others, and partly due to the “racial reckoning” that followed the murder of George Floyd—many of those associated with higher education have been hopeful that equity on campus would begin to become a reality. But faculty, staff and community members are finding that despite grand proclamations, follow-through action is often in short supply and the issues of inequity continue to plague them.

That’s why union members are rolling up their sleeves once again, this time pushing hard past university rhetoric and closer to real change. Digging deep into paperwork, they are fighting for pay equity in paychecks, not just in theory; job security in continuing contracts, including for the many people of color who are not on the tenure track; and advocating for other concrete tools that will continue to bend the arc of history toward justice.

The devil is in the details

The University of California welcomed its first Black president, Michael Drake, last August, and its systemwide diversity policy articulates plenty of good intent. “The University particularly acknowledges the acute need to remove barriers to the recruitment, retention, and advancement of talented students, faculty, and staff from historically excluded populations who are currently underrepresented,” it states. Some campuses even require ethnic studies (an across-the-board requirement at California State University and community colleges of California).

University of California picketers

But in the monthslong fight for fair pay and job security among lecturers and librarians at UC, that inclusion and equity has failed to extend to lecturers. These faculty members still earn exponentially less than tenure-track full-time faculty, and they work on short-term contracts so unpredictable they often do not know whether they will have classes to teach from semester to semester. And it’s no surprise that the majority of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander faculty are in this lower-paid category than in any other.

The disparity is one reason University Council-AFT, the lecturers and librarians union at UC, authorized a strike last summer. “President Drake, don’t force us to strike to attain what most other employers and employees take for granted,” UC-AFT President Mia McIver said during a UC Board of Regents meeting in September. “Enact your commitment to equity by supporting lecturers, who are more likely than tenure-track professors to be women or people of color.”

Ongoing contract negotiations continue to be a key pressure point for remedying that disparity, as the union continues to fight for fair pay and job security.

Meanwhile, members of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, the union representing full-time faculty, graduate workers, postdoctoral associates and counselors at Rutgers University, won the opportunity to apply for pay equity in their contract two years ago, but have yet to see an actual increase in any paychecks. First, the university failed to live up to the agreement, and the union filed a lawsuit on behalf of five highly accomplished female faculty members still being paid less than their male counterparts.

Now, the university is manipulating the process of finding “comparable” positions upon which to base new salaries, choosing positions with significantly lower pay rates than those recommended by equity applicants and their deans.

“This is the opposite of equity,” says Rutgers AAUP-AFT President Rebecca Givan. “It is the perpetuation of inequality for some of our colleagues who’ve been underpaid for years.”

Rutgers protest

City University of New York workers were also forced to fight for the equity agreements they’d bargained in their Professional Staff Congress union contract. After PSC negotiated equity raises for assistants to higher education officers—some of the lowest-paid members of the unit—CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez delayed them at the last minute. PSC members rallied outside CUNY offices, flooded the chancellor’s email inbox, signed petitions, garnered support from local politicians and labor leaders, and planned a protest outside the chancellor’s home.

Finally, the chancellor backed down. “Hundreds of members fought back fast and hard,” said then-PSC President Barbara Bowen and First Vice President Andrea Vásquez. “We were offended that Matos Rodríguez would attack lower-paid employees and withhold raises explicitly bargained to address inequities of race and gender.”

Persistence pays off

Follow-through matters.

At the University of Michigan, a diversity, equity and inclusion plan, complete with concrete steps to improve campus environment, was widely applauded. But without the personnel for implementation—a rather large detail—the grand plans would have come to naught.

Enter the Graduate Employees’ Organization, which won full-pay, full-benefit positions for graduate workers to work exclusively on implementation of the diversity, equity and inclusion plan. "Students from marginalized communities often do diversity work with little or no pay," said Jamie Tam, chair of GEO's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, at the time the arrangement was implemented, in 2017. "When we expect free or cheap labor from vulnerable groups, it actually exacerbates social disparities. That's unacceptable."

Equity GEO picketers

GEO continued to attend to details, and went on strike in September 2020 to win better safety measures not just to protect against COVID-19 but to protect against overpolicing on campus, an issue that disproportionately affects Black workers. When the employer offered a number of COVID-19 safety measures but nothing on policing, GEO held out and went on an eight-day “abolitionist strike for a safe and just campus,” demanding the university reallocate policing funds to community-based justice initiatives and sever ties to the city police department.

The strike was all about follow-through. “The problem with meeting with deans is they'll say one thing, and then you ask them to follow up and turns out they're really not interested in following through with the action items they discussed at the meeting,” explained GEO’s then-Vice President Erin Markiewitz, in The Forge. GEO’s persistence won it some additional COVID-19 safety measures as well as a commitment to consult with students on public safety and the role of police.

A steady beat marching forward

Unions use many tools to move the needle on social justice, from strikes to contract language to member education like panel discussions and trainings. The New York State United Teachers’ series, “Many Threads, One Fabric,” co-sponsored by the AFT, featured guests like Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, and Peggy McIntosh, who popularized the term “white privilege.”

“I knew that our union had to take action and respond to the disparities exposed by COVID-19,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta, when Many Threads launched in 2020. “But after seeing what was done to Mr. Floyd in particular, I knew it was time for us as a union to do more.” The union also offers members a collection of resources from videos and curriculum to lists of social justice organizations and media updates on social justice issues.

Whatever the level of engagement, unions continue to show up for this work, despite the fact—and more accurately, because of the fact—that their employers do not.

[Virginia Myers]