Why I’m going on strike at Wright State

January 22, 2019

More than 500 faculty members at Wright State University (WSU) are set to strike on January 22. Their contract expired in June 2017, and the university has refused to offer acceptable terms for a new contract to negotiators for the American Association of University Professors-Wright State University (AAUP-WSU), the union that represents WSU faculty. In early January, the university unilaterally imposed a new contract on the AAUP-WSU bargaining unit.

Here, Gretchen McNamara, a senior lecturer in music, describes the longstanding issues that led her and her colleagues to finally say that enough is enough, in a guest post first published at Academe blog.

THIS IS my story. And the story of many....they are my friends and colleagues.

In 2007 after earning a terminal degree in music I was offered a one-year appointment as an instructor of trombone at Wright State. I was told my starting salary would be $31,000 per year. Yep, you read that right. $31,000. Per. Year. I was told that the position could convert to a tenure-track position, and that if it did, I would be considered but that I would have to reapply for it. (Sidebar: Not uncommon after a one-year appointment, but this happens a lot in my field, sometimes after many years of service.)

Educators set to strike at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio send solidarity to L.A. teachers
Educators set to strike at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio send solidarity to L.A. teachers (AAUP Wright State University)

Even though it was a low salary, I wanted a full-time job with benefits teaching trombone at a university. It’s why I left my high school teaching position and went back to grad school in the first place. I had just gotten married. My husband was self-employed. Benefits were important.

I accepted.

After working for a year, I was offered another year. After working for another year, I was offered another year. Each year I received overwhelmingly positive teaching evaluations. (Not patting myself on the back, just painting the full picture.) Each year I had no reason to believe my contract wouldn’t be renewed. Yet I had no guarantees it would. None. Zero. You see, I had no contract. Just a one-year renewable appointment. No protections. My employ was at the full discretion of the administration.

There was a loose “promotion” process that wasn’t really a promotion that got dangled in front of me by indicating that if I stayed long enough, I would get a pay bump, a title change. I was curious. I started to look into what a pay bump to my salary might look like. I talked to my chair and was encouraged to take a look at the public record of salaries for similar employees at WSU. The library has big binders you can check out and investigate what everyone is paid. (It’s a matter of public record.) My eyes were opened. What did I learn?

Other instructors and lecturers in the College of Liberal Arts made more money than me. All other instructors in my department made more money than me, even ones without terminal degrees. I was the lowest-paid instructor in the College. I didn’t look across campus, but since I’m in the lowest-paid college — Liberal Arts, you know — it’s not a leap to assume I was the lowest-paid instructor campus wide. I was angry. What did I do about it?

I advocated for myself. I wrote a letter to my chair identifying the discrepancy. Male colleagues in my department had a base salary of $33,000. Male colleagues without terminal degrees, that is. I realize this is not a lot higher, but it was higher enough for me to think I was shorted because I was a woman.

Additionally, comparably ranked colleagues (male and female, with and without terminal degrees) in other departments in the college had salaries substantially higher than mine. I was angry. My chair supported my request for higher pay and advocated with the Dean for an equity raise. The result?

I got an equity raise! Before you get excited for me, my salary was only bumped to $33,000 per year (yes, you read that right, a whole $2,000) to match my music colleagues who did not have an earned doctorate. I was not matched with colleagues in other departments with the same credentials as me.

Oh, but that’s okay, because the Dean gave me something more for my DMA. I received a base pay increase of approximately $435 for that terminal degree I spent five years getting. (I don’t know if that is an exact number, it’s just what sticks in my head...it was low.) I was insulted. I still wasn’t working under contract. I still had no job protection. I was vulnerable. I took the pay increase (obviously). I tried to be gracious.

WHEN I became a lecturer, the College of Liberal Arts had a set of promotion procedures. Non-contractual, of course, but I did what I was told I had to do. I put together my application and was promoted to lecturer. It amounted to a title change and a $1,000 pay bump because I still had a contingent position. Again, I was doing good work. I was getting strong reviews.

But none of that matters when you are a contingent employee. The administration can prevent you from thriving by throwing minimal carrots your way. This “promotion” was one of them. But I had a full-time job, with benefits for my whole family. It wasn’t just me and my husband any more. We were now a family of three. I was grateful. And I was still vulnerable.

When we converted to semesters, AAUP-WSU was able to negotiate a workload agreement from quarters to semesters for Tenure Track Faculty. I was not one. My position was contingent. I was vulnerable and therefore the administration was able to impose a higher workload on Non-Tenure Eligible (NTE) faculty like me. For no more pay.

They tried anyway. NTE faculty organized. I signed a card. I encouraged my NTE members to sign cards. We gained the benefit of collective bargaining. I became active in AAUP-WSU as the member-at-large on the AAUP-WSU Executive Committee. I had a voice. I felt seen and heard.

When our first contract was ratified, I was bumped to a new minimum salary that my colleagues from across campus, some of whom I had never met, negotiated for on my behalf. I had finally reached the same level of salary as when I left my high school teaching position a decade earlier. $42,000 per year. More importantly, however, after six years of contingent employment, I now had a continuing appointment with protections one can’t put a price tag on. Protections that have proven to be invaluable during the last several years of extreme budget mismanagement by the board and upper administration.

That one-year contract became a three-year contract in the next round of negotiations, and new minimum salaries were in place. My pay was creeping up, first $45,000, then $46,500, and $48,000. These adjustments were all negotiated in good faith through a respected negotiating process that has worked well for two decades at Wright State. They almost kept up with cost-of-living increases, and they helped offset the increased expenses in other areas of the new contract.

This was negotiated. Both sides agreed. The contract is equally the administration’s as it is ours. I can’t really believe that a salary like mine and, to be honest, all of my colleagues’ has been problematic for the institution. Salary and benefits are the most predictable aspect of a university’s budget. To be exact, the bargaining unit costs the university 17 percent of its budget. We are not the problem. And we fight because we can. Wouldn’t you?

AFTER A rigorous promotion process and after 10 years of service at Wright State, I became a senior lecturer with clear guidelines outlined in a negotiated collective bargaining agreement. My salary is now $59,000. It’s been this since 2017. It will stay this without pay increases in our next and maybe future contracts. And other than the fact that I think I deserve to keep up with cost-of-living expenses, I recognize we are in tough times, so I’m okay with that.

I’ve earned my current salary. I have a terminal degree in my field. I have worked through the rank of my Non-Tenure Eligible status. I am an expert pedagogue. I love what I do as a trombonist, educator, people enthusiast and fighter for what is right. I have benefits for my family. I will go to great lengths to help students succeed, and I am happy for the opportunity.

But the last few years have been hard. I’ve lost colleagues who were vulnerable when the financial mismanagement was exposed. (Did you know AAUP-WSU warned the administration there was a problem when negative cash flow trends were noticeable, and union leadership was labeled as alarmists?) They wouldn’t listen.

I’m also highly sensitive to inequity and injustice. It’s why being involved with our union has been rewarding. Without it, all kinds of unfair treatment would take place. The current imposed contract that so many are willing to strike over opens the door for unfair treatment and bias. Not to mention that the compound impact of the imposed contract on my family’s personal livelihood would result in a significant pay cut. Not all of the negatively imposed contract articles affect me. Some do, and others affect my friends and colleagues. That matters to me.

I currently make nowhere near the amount of money that the WSU newsroom talks about. One-third of our bargaining unit is just like me, and of that one-third, most make less than me. I’ve topped out now. Can’t go any higher than senior lecturer. No more opportunities to promote. No more opportunities to make more to help support my family.

ALTHOUGH I’VE talked about salary quite a bit, this contract dispute that has occurred over the last two years is not about salary increases. Everyone can deal with a freeze on wages once in a while. Tenured faculty had a three-year freeze on their salaries in the 2011-2014 contract. This contract dispute is about power.

What I’ve seen from the administration and board as a member of our union leadership isn’t pretty. I’m on the current negotiating team, and two things really stood out to me personally the last time we met in early October 2018.

One, the chair of the Board of Trustees said that just perhaps the board has been too generous in previous negotiations, and;

Two, their chief negotiator said that there was no amount of money our union could offer in financial concessions that would move the negotiations forward. They wanted total control over health care, a mandatory topic of negotiation by law. This imposed contract has given them just that.

Total control over health care.

And total control over workload.

And total control over summer teaching.

And total control over merit pay.

And total control over the number of cost-saving days.

And effectively 12 years for contingent NTE faculty to receive a continuing contract. TWELVE YEARS.

If we accept this imposed contract, the administration will have effectively taken away our right to bargain over our terms and conditions of employment.

It’s time to stand up and fight.

First published at the Academe blog.

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