Lessons in class consciousness from striking faculty

February 5, 2019

Faculty at Wright State University are entering the third week of their strike — the longest higher education strike in Ohio history. The walkout by members of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP-WSU) has brought the nationwide strike wave of K-12 teachers and education workers into the universities.

Although negotiations continue to be difficult, pressure is building on administrators. Nevertheless, they have continued to dig in, refusing to accept the faculty’s right to collective bargaining. Negotiations broke off on Saturday when Wright State refused to accept an offer from the union that included $8 million in concessions. At their meeting on February 3, the Board of Trustees voted to approve their own unilaterally imposed contract — and then demanded that the union allow faculty to vote on it.

This was nothing less than a “stunt,” explained AAUP-WSU president Marty Kich in a statement published on the union’s Facebook page. “Since we haven’t reached any agreement on the Board’s proposals, we do not intend to ask our members to vote on them.” The administration’s proposed health plan especially would gut faculty benefits entirely — allowing the board the right to change the plan every 60days.

Strikers remain strong in the face of this hostility, and Wright State faculty been receiving significant solidarity. Here, Ohio State University professor Pranav Jani writes about solidarity efforts underway at his campus, and what the experience has taught him about the way forward for organizing strong unions in higher education.

AS A professor at Ohio State University and a new member of our local AAUP chapter, the faculty strike at Wright State University has been nothing less than transformative.

I’ve participated in and built solidarity for many picket lines over the last 20 years as a member of the ISO, and I’ve linked up with and reported on teachers’ strikes over the last year, including in West Virginia and Kentucky.

But the Wright State faculty strike, at this time of labor resurgence, has been unique for the insights it has given me into faculty labor, and the unity in my own workplace that has been generated in the effort to build solidarity with our WSU colleagues.

Image from SocialistWorker.org

What follows is a general sense of the trajectory of the strike, the power that solidarity work has itself generated, and some of the wider implications for faculty organizing, now and in the future.

IN THE first week of the strike, the administration came out with fists flailing, claiming that over 80 percent of classes were running despite the strike, that nearly half of the 500 faculty on strike were crossing the picket lines, and that students were all-out opposed to faculty.

The message they tried to send was this: The strike is hardly impacting Wright State, the faculty are demanding way too much, and if students are angry, they are blaming the faculty.

The reality was quite different, and many of these claims have been proven to be false.

Faculty held strong through the week, building picket lines and attracting solidarity from all sides. Faculty members circulated their stories about conditions at Wright State and why they were going on strike. Letters of support came from unions across Ohio and the nation, published and circulated at the AAUP-WSU Facebook page.

Locally, WSU Students for Faculty emerged, flooding the Board of Trustees meetings, organizing students to get to the picket lines, and challenging the university’s depiction of students. And activists from around Dayton came out to picket lines — including members of the Columbus branch of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), which includes Ohio State and Columbus State faculty and students.

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Week two began with a major victory for the union at the State Employees Relations Board (SERB) of Ohio.

Aiming to break the strike quickly and admitting now that only about 40 percent of classes had been running, the administration filed for an emergency ruling from the SERB to declare the strike “unauthorized.” Wright State faculty and students, as well as OSU faculty and Columbus activists, packed the hearing and demonstrated the importance of its outcome.

The SERB unanimously rejected the administration’s stance, delivering a huge blow to Wright State’s case in the public eye.

The impact of the SERB ruling was immediate: Administrators came to the negotiating table the very next day, on January 28. This was itself a victory, since it was their unilateral imposing of a contract on January 4 that led to the strike in the first place.

Sarah Marsh, a junior at Wright State and member of WSU Students for Faculty conveyed her sense of excitement after the hearing and its impact:

I am very excited about the outcome of the SERB hearing. I think it will help set a precedent that supports collective bargaining aimed at maintaining the quality of education at a university. AAUP-WSU was well represented by their legal counsel and well supported from all the people who came out in solidarity...

Arguments held over course syllabi, the online Pilot program, and the purpose of a strike were heard, and in the end AAUP’s argument that a syllabus is the intellectual property of a professor and therefore are subject to being legally withdrawn in the event of a strike prevailed. I believe this strengthens a union’s impact if they do go on strike and forces a university to understand intellectual property as a form of labor that is being legally withdrawn in a strike.

Students are also impacted by this decision, as the strike will continue into the week. Many of the students who attended the hearing were upset that WSU’s lawyer used student testimonies seemingly as a “bargaining chip” to sway the SERB panel. The ultimate decision will help to maintain higher education as an institution and keep power away from those who simply want to exploit it for financial gain.

Strikers and supporters turned up to the picket lines despite the bitter cold in the second week, as negotiations continued.

OSU FACULTY has taken small but significant steps in supporting the strike.

One faculty member immediately set up an e-mail list to circulate news and information about the Wright State picket and linked us directly with colleagues there. AAUP-OSU members organized a solidarity photo for Wright State colleagues and set up a car pool to the picket lines last week.

Working with these faculty members, ISO Columbus and WSU Students for Faculty, I played a role in organizing a big presence of Columbus activists to pack the SERB hearing.

Each of these actions, however small, were very much appreciated by Wright State faculty and let them know that they aren’t alone in this fight. Matthew P. Benjamin, the head of Theatre Design and Technology Program, wrote to me after the SERB hearing:

Thanks to the ISO and DSA members and faculty/students from Columbus area universities and colleges who joined us at the SERB hearing! Your support is so greatly appreciated and only adds to the public narrative that AAUP-WSU has a groundswell of support from all over.

This support is partially responsible for the fact that Wright State has walked back on the Board of Trustees statement from this past Friday that there would be no negotiation on their imposed contract. There is now an official negotiation session scheduled for tonight! While I do not know what will come out of the meeting, I do know that the amazing support we have been blessed with has made, and will continue to make, a huge difference.

For our own work here in Columbus, these actions were incredible: They brought like-minded co-workers together, they organized us by giving us a clear focus, and they laid the groundwork for more intensive organizing in the future.

It’s because of the struggle of Wright State faculty that I’ve become a member of AAUP-OSU. The AAUP chapter here, among the oldest in the country, has always advocated for faculty within the university and defended academic freedom. But since it’s not a union at OSU, I hadn’t wanted to join.

But last year, I saw AAUP-OSU getting more involved in publically speaking out — including at teach-in defending adjuncts and lecturers — and started to take notice.

In today’s climate, with spikes in strike activity all over the country, especially among teachers and educators, I’ve felt that there’s no time like the present to get involved with AAUP and see where we can go.

Rather than thinking of the situation as static, I am realizing it is dynamic; rather than waiting for the waves to stop moving before learning how to swim, I’ve decided to dive in.

ONE OF the obstacles we have for organizing as tenured faculty is the perception — often our own self-perception as well — that we are not workers and employees but “professionals.” You can argue that this language of professionalism is part of the ideological miasma that obscures our understanding of the class divide at college and universities.

The Wright State strike has made me much more confident in asserting that the divide between professors and administrators — even tenured professors — is an actual class divide, and that college educators are completely part of the spectrum of education workers, from K-12 to colleges and universities.

The idea that tenured professors are not part of the working class doesn’t emerge from thin air. Relatively high salaries, job security, individual offices, flexible work hours, health care, a certain cultural capital that comes with publishing books and articles and giving talks — all of these seem to put tenured faculty outside of the working class.

And why not? It’s absolutely true that compared to tenured faculty, adjuncts and lecturers, as well as graduate students, are academic workers who operate in much more dire conditions. Not to speak of technicians, janitors, cafeteria workers and others whose salaries and health care benefits are far lower.

Without minimizing those real differences, however, it is also true that every industry operates with tiers of workers with differences in salaries, benefits and power in shaping their workday. These differences show the complexity of labor relations in higher education. But this complexity isn’t unique, nor does it wipe away the fundamental divide between administrations and their highest-paid employees, tenured faculty.

During strikes, class divisions and class struggles become explicit and concrete — and the Wright State strike is no exception.

The demeaning attitude of the administration’s lawyer towards Wright State faculty at the SERB hearing made my blood boil. Arguing that faculty were committing “sabotage” when they removed syllabi and materials from the online systems in their classes, the lawyer said that faculty have the right to strike, but not to anything they had uploaded for the class.

Reducing the labor involved in creating and teaching classes to zero, the lawyer said that stripping the online system of content was like a striking maintenance worker destroying a boiler before walking out.

I looked around me and saw the Wright State and OSU faculty at the hearing just stunned at the lawyers’ claim that classrooms basically ran on the online programs — knowing how much thought and labor we put into teaching and preparing the online materials.

It was a lesson in the combative and contradictory language of the bosses: Pretending to defend the right to strike, but addressing only “sabotage,” the lawyer was trying to minimize the value of faculty work to the running of a classroom, while at the very same time, getting these “useless” faculty to either share their knowledge with replacement teachers or get back in the classroom.

On the one hand, it showed a willful lack of understanding of the dynamism of the teacher-student relationship and our working conditions — since students are not boilers. On the other hand, it showed a clear understanding of the antagonistic relationship between the administration and its workers, whether in the classroom or in the boiler room.

IT WAS the union lawyer, however, who won the day with her argument — and restored the dignity and reality of faculty work.

Using the example of her mother, a professor who brought a three-ring binder to work and took it home everyday, the lawyer argued that the online materials belonged to the teachers, and they could bring home their “three-ring binder” whenever they liked.

Besides which, she declared, it was not the job of teachers walking the picket line to train their replacements. The Wright State classes were in crisis and disrupted not because the online materials weren’t there, but because the teachers were not — which is exactly the point of a strike.

As part of the ongoing wave of teachers strikes around the country since spring of 2018 — with its greatest victory yet in the recently completed LA teachers’ strike — the Wright State strike can inspire faculty members around the country to raise our level of organization, whether we already have unions or whether we don’t.

In the process, we need to follow the social justice unionism model taught by the Chicago Teachers Union in 2012, the West Virginia and other state walkouts of 2018, and the UTLA in 2019 — in which teachers don’t only fight for ourselves, but for the entire community around us, from students to parents to other university workers.

The faculty unions of today and the future will not only fight for benefits for tenured faculty, but also for adjuncts and graduate students and non-academic campus workers — and thus become the basis for a wider transformation of higher education itself.

We are not just struggling for our own wages and benefit. As Wright State professor and strike captain Sirish Naidu told Socialist Worker, this is a struggle for the soul of the university itself.

Further Reading

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