Lockout University

September 13, 2016

Edna Bonhomme reports on protests against Long Island University's lockout against its faculty union, a fight that could have ramifications throughout higher education.

STUDENTS AND professors at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University (LIU) came back to school last week to find that the administration had locked out the faculty--a highly aggressive anti-union attack that many are calling an unprecedented move in the world of higher education.

When the contract between the university and the Long Island University Faculty Federation (LIUFF) expired on August 31, the administration presented the union with a proposal full of concessions on compensation and classroom autonomy.

The proposed contract included measures to increase class sizes, increase librarians' workloads, lower pension contributions, cut adjuncts' already-meager benefits and implement post-tenure review--which would allow the university to undermine professors' academic freedom to express unpopular ideas.

LIUFF leaders planned to bring this contract proposal to a vote among the 400 adjunct and tenured faculty in the union, but LIU President Kimberly Cline--knowing that the union members would probably reject the concessions deal--decided to impose a lockout before they even had a chance to vote.

Faculty and students rally at Long Island University's Brooklyn campus
Faculty and students rally at Long Island University's Brooklyn campus

What this meant is that the administration prevented the faculty from accessing LIU facilities, terminated their pay and health insurance, and took control over their intellectual property--including blocking their work e-mails. Even more egregiously, Cline has hired about 140 unqualified strikebreakers to "teach" students when classes began.

LIU administrator Gale Stevens Haynes told The Atlantic that the lockout is a reasonable response to a union that has a history of striking to fight for better contracts. "It's become rather routine that at the end of a contract, there is a strike," Haynes said. "We really needed to break that routine."

In fact, there is nothing ordinary about a university locking out its professors and forcing students to take classes from unqualified scabs. LIU's move has many concerned about whether this will set a new precedent for aggressive union busting by universities already looking for more ways to proletarianize faculty and diminish their autonomy in the classroom.

That's why LIU faculty and students have been mobilizing in protests, and gaining support from labor activists around New York City.

ON SEPTEMBER 7, the faculty held a protest rally that drew more than 200 people. The multiracial and multigenerational demonstration included members from the LIUFF's parent union, the American Federation of Teachers, as well as representatives from the Carpenters Union and Professional Staff Congress, which represents faculty in the City University of New York system.

Some faculty members brought their children to the picket line, and others encouraged their students to join. Pedestrians and trucks passing by showed their solidarity by raising fists or honking their horns.

Protesters carried picket signs that read "Let Us Teach," "Lockout Is Unfair" and "Student Need Over Corporate Greed." They chanted, "What's disgusting? Union busting!" and "Kimberly Cline, hear our call! We want equal pay for all!"

LIU is trying to pit students against their professors by claiming that its attack on the union was necessary to prevent greater tuition hikes. But the university's claim to be putting students first is undermined by the obvious ways that the lockout is hurting the $35,000-a-year education that most students have gone knee-deep in debt to obtain.

Many of the people brought in to scab on the LIU faculty are unqualified. Making matters worse, locked-out professors have been blocked from their university e-mail, making it harder to communicate with students.

At the rally, a chemistry professor said that he was locked out of his laboratory and had his e-mail blocked--and he had heard that no one is teaching organic chemistry because the administration can't find anyone with the necessary expertise.

Professor Gina Youmans in the speech therapy program indicated that David Cohen, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, was scheduled to teach ballet. Many faculty are dubious that Cohen is qualified to instruct any dance course, let alone ballet.

It's not surprising then that many students see through the administration's divide-and-conquer tactics and are siding with their teachers. "We want to be in the classroom," said Tracye Rawls-Martin, an African American faculty member in the Health Sciences department at the rally. "And our students are supporting us."

THAT STUDENT support was demonstrated two days after the faculty rally, when students organized a teach-in and walkout in solidarity with their LIUFF professors. Over two hundred people gathered to speak about the scabs' lack of qualifications and the broader austerity of LIU.

Several students described showing up to classes with unprepared teachers who gave partial syllabi and held classes for just 10 minutes. Graduate students in the Ph.D. program in clinical psychology spoke about how they need clinical positions, but can't do that without being supervised by accredited professors in their field.

One student explained that students chose the program for its supportive faculty, which is like a family to them--and said the lockout represented a "devaluation of our professor's work" and "symbolizes a severe problem of higher education in this country."

"We are being treated horribly," said Aisha Gaye, a third-year student in health sciences and a leader of the walkout. "Our scholarships are being cut. We are ready to stand with our professors."

The teach-in ended in chants: "Cline must resign!" and "The students united will never be defeated!"

Questions of race and class are central to the lockout. LIU has a Long Island campus with a majority white student body, where the minimum salary for tenured faculty is $96,000. At the Brooklyn campus, which has far more Black students, the administration's proposed minimum salary is $80,000.

Commenting on this wage gap at the teach-in, one student said, "It is insulting that they think students lack the critical thinking skills to see through this divisive tactic...The administration is gambling with our education."

Bolstered by this student support, the LIU faculty is standing strong. Since the lockout began, union members have voted against LIU administration's contract proposal 226 to 10.

But with a hostile administration possibility prepared for a long fight, the LIUFF needs continued support from all who support workers rights, academic freedom and racial equality. At the September 7 rally, when Socialist Worker asked PSC member Veronica Oraz what it would take for the LIUFF to win, here answer was simple: "Solidarity."

Professors are asking that the university terminate the lockout, negotiate a fair contract, and treat its employees with the dignity and respect. But it may take a major fight just to win those basic demands.

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