Lecturers’ Union at the University of Michigan Continues Bargaining

Dan Diffendale

Lecturers' Employee Organization at the University of Michigan
Courtesy LEO’s facebook page: www.facebook.com/LEOLecturersEmployeeOrganization/

The Lecturers’ Employee Organization, or LEO (AFT Michigan Local 6244, AFL-CIO), which represents the almost 1,700 non-tenure track faculty at the University of Michigan across all three campuses (Ann Arbor, Flint, and Dearborn), is currently bargaining with the university to negotiate a new contract. LEO began bargaining with university administration at the end of October 2017, as the current five-year contract expires on April 20, 2018. U-M lecturers teach fixed-term contracts between four months and five years in length and are not eligible for tenure. Lecturers in Ann Arbor teach a third of all student credit hours, while Flint and Dearborn lecturers teach fully half of those hours. Many lecturers perform additional, unpaid labor to help their students at all levels.

LEO’s 2017–18 bargaining platform comprises seven planks: appointments, performance evaluations, benefits, salary, Diversity Equity & Inclusion (DEI), professional development and support, and faculty governance. These include specifics such as improved job security; more year-long appointments (those in the position of Lecturer I may hold semester-long contracts); simplification of performance evaluations and increased transparency in the evaluation process; expansion of health benefits; provision of childcare; significant salary increases for both new and longtime employees; a dedicated fund to support lecturers advancing DEI objectives; strengthening protections for lecturers with disabilities; and enfranchising lecturers to participate more fully in university governance.

Among the issues is that lecturers generate some $462 million in revenue for the university annually—over 38 percent of total tuition revenue—while receiving salary and benefits equivalent to only $85 million. Many lecturers live below the poverty line, and some work two or three jobs to make ends meet. The minimum salary for lecturers in Ann Arbor is currently only $34,500, compared with $56,641 for faculty at nearby Washtenaw Community College. Minimum salaries at Dearborn and Flint are even lower: $28,300 and $27,300, respectively. The Economic Policy Institute estimates the annual cost of living in Ann Arbor for a two-parent, two-child household to be $89,186.

Between 2014 and 2017, the salaries of top U-M administrators have increased over 13 percent, while lecturers’ salaries increased only 3.9 percent in the same period, not even keeping up with the rate of inflation (4.4 percent). Such salary stagnation has mental as well as material ramifications. As Phil Christman, a lecturer in English and the union’s Ann Arbor co-chair with Dr. Shelley Manis, has written, “It’s the feeling… of repeatedly going to bureaucrats and being told explicitly that I’m worth $37,500 a year for the rest of my life, no matter how the university changes, no matter how the students change, no matter how I change.” Accordingly, LEO proposed a minimum salary for Ann Arbor lecturers of $60,000, while Dearborn and Flint would start at $56,000, followed by $2,000 increases at all three campuses in both 2019 and 2020. In response, the university offered a mere $1,000 increase to the existing salaries in 2019, followed by $750 and $500 in the two successive years—a counter-proposal that LEO leadership described as “insulting.”

There have been some bargaining successes. On March 16, in a room full to fire capacity with lecturers and allies, university negotiators made a major concession on benefits, agreeing to maintain benefits eligibility for those lecturers whose appointments across the fall and winter semesters average 50 percent. Under the current contract, lecturers whose winter appointments fall below 50 percent lose that coverage, regardless of the percentage taught in the fall. Summer “bridge” benefits will also be expanded for those who hold at least 50 percent appointments in both winter and the following fall semesters. Even so, the university has rejected proposals on child-care subsidies and parental accommodation for non-birth parents, and it has yet to respond to the union’s salary demands.

LEO allies gather outside the bargaining room on April 6th at the Michigan League
LEO allies gather outside the bargaining room on April 6th at the Michigan League

Since 2004, U-M undergraduate tuition has increased by 90 percent, while lecturer salaries increased by only 11 percent. Despite attempts by university administration to pin this massive tuition increase on a concurrent reduction in state funding, which could conceivably preclude raising lecturer salaries, the numbers simply don’t bear out their explanation. Although state funding has indeed been cut significantly, the university’s revenue has been steadily increasing–from about $2.2 billion in 2004 to almost $4 billion in 2017. Major inputs beside state funding include federal research grants, gifts, and distributions from investments.

Those investments, in turn, have become a convenient vehicle for recirculation. Investigation by the Detroit Free Press has shown that the University of Michigan has invested in firms owned or co-directed by at least four of the nine members of its own Investment Advisory Committee. There are major overlaps in the Venn diagram of wealthy alumni, major donors, and managers of firms with which U-M has invested. Furthermore, as the ostensibly public university’s endowment has grown to nearly $11 billion, public oversight of that endowment has shrunk: it is now largely controlled by U-M’s CFO and CIO, rather than the elected Board of Regents. In 2004, the university successfully lobbied for legislation to change the state of Michigan’s public information laws, which as a result no longer require the university to disclose its investment records in detail.

In this light, Christman observes, “Only in a university this dominated by capital and its servants—by ‘consultants,’ relationships with donors, massive building projects, etc.—would they even think of hoarding this much money while some lecturers are actually in poverty. So for me our fight isn’t just about getting me or my friends a raise; it’s about weakening the grip of capital on this massive university and reminding the people who run it that it’s the University of Michigan, not the University of Let’s Maximize Some Rich Alumni’s ROI.”

LEO’s bargaining comes amidst a climate of growing labor consciousness among educators elsewhere in the country and the world. A recent statewide wildcat strike by primary and secondary-school teachers in West Virginia achieved its objectives, and similar actions have been proposed for Oklahoma, while university educators and staff in the UK remain on strike (as of this writing) in order to protect their pensions. A recent strike by the Graduate Employees’ Organization at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign successfully resulted in a new contract. (As this issue was going to press, public school teachers in Puerto Rico were going on strike in protest of pension privatization, while the recently unionized Graduate Assistants at University of Connecticut were weighing action as the university—which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars hiring a law firm dogged by sexual harassment charges to represent it in bargaining—balks at providing a fair offer.)

At U-M, bargaining will continue until an agreement is reached, and LEO has said that, barring progress on their salary demands, the union will put a vote to its members to authorize leadership to call for a two-day strike in April. Large turnouts for open bargaining and campus rallies, along with heartfelt testimony by undergraduate, graduate, and tenure-track allies, attest to the strong degree of support for the union among those actually involved in education at the University of Michigan.

You can read more about LEO at http://www.leounion.org/ and follow updates from the bargaining process at https://leounion.wordpress.com/.

Dan Diffendale is a lecturer at the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Michigan.