By Andrew Kennis
Faculty unions across the country are proving that direct action and community organizing works. American University’s (AU) faculty and staff union shocked university administration when it successfully organized a thousand student walkout in the middle of their freshmen convocation ceremony. At Eastern Michigan University (EMU), elected officials were successfully marshaled out to support striking faculty. And at Rider University, the administration capitulated to preserving tuition remission for children of faculty in response to a strike authorization vote.
These recent examples of faculty union wins have something in common: all held widely supported strike authorization votes, with two actual strikes, and successfully mobilized their campus communities. All three struggles won contracts in a span of less than three weeks at the very beginning of the academic school year.
At EMU, a five-day long strike, which began only hours after a strike authorization vote that yielded 91% support, succeeded in obtaining larger wage raises for adjunct faculty in a bargaining unit which represents all EMU faculty.
Rider University’s one faculty union held a near unanimous strike authorization vote earlier in September. About a week later, the university agreed to protect tuition remission of up to 80% for children of faculty.
And at AU, its adjunct professors won their very first contract after successfully having staged the above-mentioned student walkout on August 26th, which fell on the fifth day of a six-day strike.
Among the three union presidents leading these struggles who spoke to the Union Dispatch, EMU’s Mohammed El Sayed offered advice for other faculty unions: “the strike wound up being the difference,” adding that it was essential to, “never give up on what you know is right.” El Sayed, who is a professor of engineering, made it a point to tell the Dispatch that the union won administration concessions on shared governance, which means that faculty will play a decision-making role on budgetary matters, significantly heightening transparency. EMU’s faculty union representing tenured and tenure-track professors won its contract on September 11th in the wake of a three-day strike.
Pia Morrison, who was known affectionately as the “computer lady” by her students, explained that, “teachers don’t get into education to make a lot of money, they go into it because they care about students and their community.” Morrison, who serves as AU’s faculty union president, is a staffer with the Service Employees International Union Local 500 which also represents a myriad of other educators in the D.C. area.
What was key to success at AU, Morrison said, was messaging that focused on equating “faculty working conditions with student learning conditions and outcomes.” The union also had crucial support from public officials, including the Democratic candidate-elect for governor of Maryland, Wes Moore.
Rider University’s union settled on a contract on September 11th which its president, David Dewberry, described as a “resolution” as opposed to an outright victory.” Nevertheless, the contract protected a benefit which Dewberry described as “gold” and pre-dated even the faculty union itself: tuition remission for the children of its faculty. The union was only able to protect this benefit in the wake of a 99% strike authorization vote and weekly informational picketing.
Rider faculty had previously gone years without a new contract and generously agreed to several one-year extensions of its older contract during the pandemic. That generosity was not reciprocated, however. Despite the strike authorization, the new contract does not provide sufficient protection against the looming threat of layoffs. Dewberry anticipates its union resorting to the contractually protected option of arbitration against the expected pink slips.
All three of these unions held a strike authorization vote, but one did not strike. If Rider University’s union had followed through on their strike threat, would they have won a stronger contract? One thing is certain about all three of these struggles, whether right here in New Jersey, in the Beltway, or even in the heartland: it takes widespread community organizing, student support and creative direct actions coupled with a strike or a credible strike threat to successfully win our contract demands.