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A Faculty Union on Strike

Dear colleagues,

I’ve been thinking of you and keeping you close to my heart these past days, as my faculty union went on strike for the first time in our thirty-five-year history. I’m pleased to report that the strike ended with a tentative contract after just three days. Faculty and students joined together to achieve that win.

BACKGROUND

My university, West Chester University (WCU), is one of fourteen institutions in the Pennsylvania (USA) State System of Higher Education. Faculty at all fourteen institutions are represented by the Association for Pennsylvania State Colleges and University Faculty (APSCUF).

In my ten years at WCU, the management and legislature have repeatedly taken steps to try to weaken and break the union. Our union leadership has been smart about a number of things, including prioritizing a united faculty and rejecting management’s attempts to divide us by offering benefits to some faculty at the expense of others. Through my leadership in our Faculty Senate, I have had the chance to work with union leaders in strengthening faculty unity and voice.

Leading up to the strike, our union had been without a contract for more than fifteen months. And as funding for public higher education had decreased over the years, administrators had tried to fill the gaps in funding by increasing faculty workloads—for example, by increasing class sizes.

In this last round of negotiations, management was proposing a number of problematic changes to our contract. Under their proposals, meager raises in salary would be offset by increased healthcare costs. Also, current and future faculty would receive different healthcare packages; adjunct faculty would be asked to teach an additional (fifth) course to be considered full-time, with no increase in pay; and the credit faculty received for teaching certain courses would change. All of these proposals would create further divisions among faculty, potentially weakening solidarity. The proposal about adjunct faculty was particularly problematic, given the exploitation of these colleagues. At one point, management said they wanted to turn adjunct faculty into “teaching machines.”

As negotiations stalled, there was talk about a potential strike, and there was significant concern about the potential for the strike to be successful. We did not know for sure whether faculty would “hold the line” and refuse to teach classes or conduct other university business. There was also concern about how a strike would be perceived by the public, including our students, most of whom were working class and were working hard to get through college; their parents, many of whom had not attended college and made significantly less than full-time faculty; and other taxpayers, many of whom were also working class and were concerned about taxes and funding for a range of public services. The Chancellor of the State System, who had done much to undermine quality education, was feeding common misperceptions by saying things like, “Faculty only work seventeen hours a week.”

THE STRIKE

In September about eighty-five percent of the faculty in our union voted in favor of authorizing a strike. We still didn’t think it would happen—we’d voted to authorize a strike before, and it had simply been a useful tool for urging negotiations forward. But this time there were rumors that the chancellor and other managers might try to lead us toward a strike in the hope that it would be unsuccessful and they could break the union.

We began engaging in all the necessary preparations, just in case. We moved our union office off campus, took personal items out of our offices, contacted community partners, and organized shifts for picketing or protesting. Another colleague and I organized a childcare plan, so that faculty with children at home could take turns on the picket line if they wanted to.

Tuesday night was the last night for bargaining before our strike date. Management apparently walked away from the table, even though a deal was not far away. Again, the perception was that they wanted us to call a strike, so they could try to break our union. At 5:00 a.m. Wednesday morning, we went on strike.

We were on strike for three days, and it was amazing what happened. Eighty-five percent of over a thousand faculty members held the line and refused to teach or conduct other university business. Faculty came together like never before. The public supported us. Our union president encouraged us to come out to picket for as many hours as possible, and we did!

We stood and we marched. We brought signs saying, “Fair Contract Now,” “You can’t put students first if you put faculty last,” “Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions,” “Protect high quality education,” “We teach the 99%” (rather than the top 1% of the income distribution), “We stand with our adjuncts,” and “We are not teaching machines.” We chanted, “We are the union, the mighty, mighty union,” “Two-four-six-eight, why won’t you negotiate?” and, “You may be scared but you are able, now come back to the table!” (urging management to come back to the negotiating table). We sang songs like “Solidarity Forever,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and “There Once Was a Union Maid.” My colleague’s partner, Dan Schatz, a folk singer, wrote a new version of the latter: “There Once Was a Union Prof.”

THE ROLE OF RCERS

We’ve been teaching RC classes on campus in a public, institutionalized way for the past two years. Colleagues and students in those classes played important roles in the strike. (We’d recruited them into RC because they had already been taking leadership on campus, including on ending racism.)

A couple of our RC colleagues were on the strike mobilization committee and did critical behind-the-scenes work to prepare for the strike. A couple were “picket captains,” who organized picket lines and led chants. All of us were a visible presence on the picket lines and took leadership there. Two RC colleagues with Puertorriquenx heritage led us in chanting, “El pueblo, unido, jamás será vencido” (“The people, united, will never be defeated”) and in singing Spanish as well as English liberation songs. RC colleagues drummed and played guitar. An RC colleague’s young person played fiddle tunes.

Because our RC classes are sponsored by the university, we could not hold them during the strike. We encouraged people to have extra Co-Counseling sessions with each other instead, and some did. But what was most striking (so to speak) was how RC colleagues and students used what they’d learned in RC in naturalized ways on the picket lines. Whereas others were engaged in conversation and debate, the RCers could be observed standing and listening. A couple of RCers gave unofficial mini-sessions to strike leaders at critical times, when tensions were running high.

Prior to the strike, the faculty were not clear on whether the students would stand with us or in opposition. In the final days of preparation, one RC colleague played the leading role in mobilizing student support. Several student leaders in our RC classes also played important roles.

STUDENT SUPPORT

Once the strike was called, we could not contact students and did not know for sure what would happen.

On the first day of the strike, colleagues began picketing in the early morning hours outside of a university building that housed the president’s office. Mid-morning, through the archway of that building, a blurry parade that was not our own came into focus. A long line of students were marching across the middle of the academic quad and through the archway. They were wearing our union colors and carrying signs. Their resolute voices chanted, “Students for faculty! Students for faculty!” They joined our line, and a student leader grabbed the bullhorn and began leading chants. Many colleagues cried.

Students have led multiple protests over the past couple of years, most as part of the Black Lives Matter movement and some in protest against campus rape and sexual assault. (Some of the student leaders are in our RC classes.) Many faculty have stood with and behind these students, following their lead. Now these student activists stood with and behind faculty, leading students in support of our strike.

Once there was a visible presence of student leaders supporting the strike, student groups from all over campus followed their example. Fraternities brought us donuts. The marching band played on the picket line. Students traveled to the state capitol and successfully disrupted the chancellor’s press conference there. Undoubtedly, the incredible student support was critical to a swift end to the strike.

A BIG WIN

At 4:30 p.m. Friday, after just three days, our union president called a rally—a tentative agreement had been reached. The strike would end immediately, and we would vote on a contract in the coming days. We had made concessions in terms of salary and healthcare to win on points such as equal treatment for adjuncts and tenure-track faculty and for current and future faculty. El pueblo, unido, jamás será vencido. We considered it a big win.

A TASTE OF REVOLUTION

What we won in contract language was a matter of reform, but the strike brought a taste of revolution. Faculty and students joined together like never before on our campus. We gained a sense of our power. We forged lasting connections with one another.

Harvey Jackins once urged all of us colleagues to become “people’s intellectuals,” and more recently Tim Jackins issued the same call. I have never felt more like a people’s intellectual than I did on the picket line, and the same seemed true for my colleagues. Workers from other unions stood with us on the line. Electrical workers and construction workers honked in support as they drove by. We were welcomed home, in a sense, to the working class. As we stood there chanting and singing for long hours on the sidewalk, we were not, for the moment, confused by our academic degrees and vocabularies. We knew clearly where we stood.

Notably, the local managers we had built relationships with, including our university president, came out and talked with us on the picket line, showing informal support. There is no doubt that all managers, including the chancellor, will eventually stand with us. We will welcome them home too.

I am excited about the possibilities for liberation. The strike was a hopeful reminder of how eager we all are to win our own liberation and the liberation of all people.

Discharge and re-evaluation are needed to power revolutionary and permanent changes. We will get there. Those of us in the RC classes are looking forward to taking the next steps on our campus.

In solidarity,

Ellie Brown

International Liberation Reference Person for College and University Faculty

Wilmington, Delaware, USA

Reprinted from the RC e-mail discussion list for leaders of college and university faculty

(Present Time 186, January 2017)


Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00