This message was distributed to LEO members yesterday:
“Fellow LEO Members,
By now, most of you have received the email letter from Provost Courant outlining the UM Administration’s view of the state of the negotiations, and the implications of the Thursday walk-out that, regrettably, now seems virtually inevitable. This is not the place for a detailed, point-by-point rebuttal of every problematic aspect of the letter. However, we do feel it necessary to respond to several critical points in some depth. There are four points in total. If one does not interest you, please skip to the next.
MICHIGAN LAW vs. INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS
The Administration letter states that “Any withholding of work by public employees including the refusal to teach classes is a violation of state law.” This is true. However, this is a civil rather than a criminal law. To break it is the legal equivalent of a parking ticket except that it does not carry a fine that would apply to members.
Breaking this law is not, however, the moral equivalent of parking ticket. There is no human right to park wherever you want. There is, however, a universal human right to freedom of association, recognized by the International Labour Organization and by the United States itself. The U.S. State Department’s human rights policy is that “the right of association includes the right of workers to strike. While strikes may be restricted in essential services (i.e., those services the interruption of which would endanger the life, personal safety or health of a significant portion of the population) and in the public sector, these restrictions must be offset by adequate guarantees to safeguard the interests of the workers concerned.” [U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1999 (February 2000), Appendix B. Cited in Lance Compa, “Workers Freedom of Association in the United States: The Gap Between Ideals and Practice,” in James Gross, ed., Workers Rights as Human Rights (Cornell University Press, 2003), pp. 31.]
The Michigan law that we face is not a restriction of our right, checked by safeguards to ensure that it does not go too far; it is a blanket prohibition accompanied by no procedural or substantive safeguards. As such, it is a violation of our human rights as workers. It is entirely appropriate for those of us who are not performing “essential services” to engage in civil disobedience when faced with such violations of our rights. While we do not bear anything like the same risks, we nonetheless walk in the tradition of those who — with good conscience and after careful consideration — chose to violate the segregation laws that prevailed in this country not so long ago.
HARMING OUR STUDENTS?
The Administration letter argues that more important than the legal issue, our walkout “would represent a serious disruption of the educational activities of the University. Most of the harm would fall upon our undergraduate students.” We are gratified that the Administration sees our work as so important that to deprive our students of even one day of our classes would constitute a serious harm to them. And we do agree that some harm is done, though (with the extra teaching days in the Winter term this year) the scale of this harm should not be exaggerated.
It is because we recognize that some harm is done, even by a one-day walkout, that many of our members thought hard — even agonized — about whether to take this action. In the end, the vast majority (88.5% of those who cast a ballot) decided that such action was justified if it was necessary to advance the larger goals that we are pursuing in this round of collective bargaining. The Administration’s letter can leave little doubt as to that necessity.
What has to be thrown onto the other side of the balance is the harm done to our students by the current system of academic labor. One piece of this is that the 85% of our members who work under term-to-term or year-to-year contracts are unable to devote as much time and energy to their students as they would if they had better job security. This is because they must always be worrying about lining up extra work, in case their contracts are not renewed. As the share of teaching at this university done by people working under these conditions has increased, the share of the UM’s spending devoted to supporting teaching has declined.
Both trends imply a shift in university priorities that downgrades the importance of teaching students to the highest standards of excellence. We aim to reorder those priorities, to establish a new balance between teaching and other UM goals. The rebalancing that we seek should benefit our students at least as much as it benefits us.
The Administration letter says that “the University has proposed that all regular lecturers who have been employed satisfactorily for four years of continuous service would be eligible for multi-year contracts,” provided that various (reasonable) conditions are met. That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? What the Administration letter does not say is that, if they have their way, only about 15% of the people in our bargaining unit will ever be classified as “regular lecturers” essentially the same people who are now Lecturer IIIs. While a few people could be promoted from term-to-term or year-to-year contracts to “regular” status (just as a few Lecturer Is become Lecturer IIIs under the current system), the Administration argues that the great majority of Lecturers must remain what they call “affiliate lecturers.”
The Administration letter also mischaracterizes our bargaining position on this question. We have always made clear at the bargaining table that we recognize that some positions should remain term-to-term or year-to-year in order to respond effectively to “shifting enrollment patterns,” and “the need to fill in for tenured faculty who go on leave.” However, the great majority of the NTT faculty hired on short-term contracts are not meeting either of these needs. The proof is that they are hired back, term after term, year after year. In our web-based membership survey, we found that 75% of responding members had taught at the UM for at least 5 years, and the median number of years at UM was 10. Thus, most of us really are long-term UM employees; but we waste a lot of time and mental energy because the Administration refuses to treat us that way.
The Administration also invokes “budgetary pressures” as a reason for denying on-going employment to roughly 85% of our members. This is surely closer to the mark in terms of the driving motive underlying the current trajectory of the academic labor system. The university does save money by paying us so little, and it is easier to pay contingent employees less than regular employees. That is why private industry in the United States and beyond has been relying on “contracting out” a growing share of its labor needs. The question here is whether it is FAIR to treat us, and our students, in this fashion, and whether the public interest is served by this kind of behavior. We take up this question in the section on wages, below.
Before we go there, though, one more point about the Administration’s characterization of our position on job security. The Administration letter argues that our demand for “on-going employment” after a probation period and review would provide “this one group of faculty [i.e., those in the LEO bargaining unit] with a level of job security beyond that afforded most other instructional employees of the University.” Let’s think about this statement. If you subtract us from the equation, the only other large group of instructional faculty at this university — the other half, basically — is the tenured faculty. So the Administration is claiming, if a little obliquely, that LEO is demanding a form of job security that is stronger than tenure.
This is absurd interpretation of our position. Tenured faculty cannot be laid off because the department budget is cut, or the curriculum committee decides to stop offering a course, or because student demand for that course declines. Under our proposal, all of these things might count as legitimate grounds for laying off NTT faculty. Similarly, when did you last hear of a tenured faculty member who was fired for failure to maintain high teaching standards? In our proposal, failure to maintain such standards could count as “just cause” for termination, even after the probationary period had passed. In short, there is no way that our proposal entails job security that is as strong as that afforded by tenure, though it certainly does afford much more security than we currently have.
Let’s turn, finally, to the question of wages. The Administration states that if all of our wage demands — for a minimum wage for all based on the starting salary of Michigan K-12 public school teachers, a retroactive raise for all, raises for all over the life of the contract, etc. were met, the total cost of our salaries would increase by something about $12 million. The current cost of our combined salaries — the Administration says there are about 1,700 faculty in our bargaining unit, so presumably their estimate sums the salaries of all these people — is about $30 million. Thus, the full realization of all our wage demands would raise our cost to the university by a little over one third of its current level.
We have no quarrel with these estimates, but we need to put them in perspective. The UM’s net revenues from student tuition and fees in FY 2003 was $564 million. Our members do half of the UM’s teaching in many units, as we have explained in our fact sheets. Yet,we receive only $30 million, just over 5% of the net revenues derived from these student payments. (That doesn’t count the additional university revenue that flows from state transfers paid for each in-state student.) The UM’s total revenue (excluding hospitals and other medical facilities) in FY 2003 was $2.3 billion. If we use this denominator, our share of the UM budget shrinks to just 0.01%.
Thus, depending on which figure we use, meeting all of our salary demands would require a 1.65% increase in student tuition, or a 0.0033% increase in total UM revenues. Considering the importance of teaching at this university, the quality of our work, and the share of UM teaching that we do, the tiny fraction of university revenues allocated to our salaries is shocking. The only good thing about it is that fractions this small make it easy to meet our demands with only the most marginal impact on the overall university budget. It should not be necessary to raise student tuition one cent to meet our demands.
It is true, of course, that times are hard and that the university has faced cuts in transfers from the state government. But the Administration did not raise our salaries even when times were very good. Throughout the stock market boom of the 1990s, when the value of our endowment grew very rapidly, average salaries for our members continued to creep up at just 1% a year after inflation. This at a time when UM tuition was rising at an average rate of 5.8% after inflation.
Where was all that stock market and tuition fee money going? We don’t know. But when there are 300 full-time UM lecturers in Flint and Dearborn who make less than $20,000 a year, while our university President is paid $677,500 a year — more than any other public university president in the country — it ill behooves this Administration to plead poverty to us! They ought to be ashamed to pay any full-time UM faculty less than half the starting salary of a Michigan K-12 public school teacher!
Enough! It’s time to change this unfair and incoherent system, for our own good and for that of our students. It’s time to use our power to make this university operate in a fashion more consistent with the principles of rationality, justice and commitment to advancing the public good that its leadership routinely invokes in its speeches. See you on the picket lines on Thursday.”