Protect Our Communities: Decline to Sign the Prevailing Wage Petition

Sisters, Brothers, Friends:

Be aware this summer. All local unions, members, and friends of the labor movement should be vigilant and educate their members about the attack on prevailing wage. Decline to sign the prevailing wage petition.

Signature gatherers are out across Michigan right now. They’re asking voters to sign a petition to repeal the Prevailing Wage Act of 1965. This repeal effort is an attack on Michigan’s workers, our families, and our security.

Repealing prevailing wage laws leads to:

  • Higher injury rates on construction sites

  • A less skilled and experienced workforce

  • Lower wages that push workers out of the middle-class

  • Less workforce training; a more dangerous workplace

  • Reduced healthcare and retirement coverage

Learn more about the importance of prevailing wage laws and find educational videos to show at your meetings here: http://www.michiganprevails.com/

Here’s a link to a video about the misleading tactics and outright lies used by signature gatherers during the 2015 attack on prevailing wage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SplNlCcm83k. The message holds for 2017.

AHCA Will Hurt Basically Everyone Who’s Not a Billionaire

For protecting University of Michigan lecturers–heck, all teachers anywhere–there is probably no bigger priority, right now, than killing the American Health Care Act of 2017.

The provisions of this disastrous bill–which is so much more than a repeal of the still-controversial Affordable Care Act–have been well covered everywhere. CBO (Congressional Budget Office) projections indicate that it will lead to 24 million uninsured by 2026. It will drastically cut Medicaid too, a scary thought for those of us who have poor elderly, disabled, or young people in our lives, whom we can’t take care of on a lecturer’s salary. (It’s also scary for those of us who can’t anticipate retiring from a tenured position someday.) And don’t go thinking our BlueCare plans make us immune from the impact of this bill. It will affect us via the folks in our lives not blessed with similarly good insurance, and the impact on our students and communities. (It’s hard to watch good students die because they can’t afford insurance that covers their preexisting conditions.) And experts predict the bill will gradually worsen even private plans.

My favorite detail about this bill, buried on page 33 of the CBO’s report: “CBO also estimates that outlays for Social Security benefits would decrease by about $3 billion over the 2017-2026 period.” In other words, CBO expects so many people to die younger as a result of this bill that it will cut Social Security spending by $3 billion.

It’s a uniquely bad bill, and it’s not popular. But Republicans in the Senate are bent on passing it. Michigan’s two Senators are solidly opposed to AHCA, but this is an issue on which your friends and family in other states could stand to hear from you.

This bill will make life worse for just about anybody who works for a living. And it’s even scarier as a bellwether of coming legislation. As the writer and podcaster Matt Christman recently observed, “You don’t push a bill like AHCA unless you’re confident the electorate has been fully pacified.” If Republicans pass this bill, it’s a signal to them that American workers will take anything. We can’t afford to send that signal.

Email everybody you love. Tell them what this bill will do to them, and ask them to call their Senators or, if possible, visit them in person–as these brave disability activists did. (When their cowardly Senator refused to see them, they stayed three days.)

EMU Wants to Lower The Value Of All Our Labor. Let’s Help EMU Faculty Stop Them.

The administration at Eastern Michigan University apparently doesn’t think much of the work lecturers do. To wit, they want to cut the salaries of lecturers who already make less than $15,000 a year by 25%.

But I work for the University of Michigan system, you think. Surely, it can’t happen here.

If we demonstrate by our action, or inaction, that this kind of treatment is OK for EMU lecturers, we’re telling our own bosses what they can get away with.

So I plan to be in Ypsilanti at the EMUFT rally outside Welch Hall on Friday morning at 9:30. (EMUFT is the union that represents Ypsilanti lecturers.) I don’t have full details on the rally at this time, but, if you’re a LEO member, check your email and let our President Ian Robinson know if you’re planning on coming. He’ll keep you in the loop.

A Simple Way To Help UM Grad Students

Today’s note from LEO President Ian Robinson laid out some ways that LEO members can support our graduate student colleagues in GEO during their likely walkout this week. As Ian points out, it’s important for us to advocate for GEO during their contract negotiations, both because of the essential justice of their cause—they’re striking for a living wage and for paid positions for diversity education—and because of their history of strongly supporting us.

Though we as LEO members cannot participate in the strike—which will begin Wednesday and continue Thursday if an agreement isn’t reached—we can educate our students on the issues their GSIs are fighting for before or after class, we can refuse to cross picket lines (simply find another route to your building), and, most importantly, we can make a few phone calls. We can call UM President Mark Schlissel at 734.764.6270 and UM Provost Paul Courant at 734.764.9290.
Let’s be honest: many of us LEO members would rather not do this. The stereotype of the awkward, absent-minded professor is mostly anti-intellectual nonsense, but it is true that many of us are more comfortable planning a lesson, conjugating a verb, or plotting a graph in R than politicking on the phone with a stranger. Because of course we are. Those things are our jobs, while talking to strangers on the phone is weird for everybody.
But desperate times call for desperate measures. I have learned to make political phone calls fairly comfortably since November 9, 2016. Here are some suggestions and observations I’ve gathered along the way:
1. Don’t worry: you don’t have to be pushy. In fact, it’s better not to be. Call the number, wait for a human to pick up, give your name and affiliation with the university (or just say “I’m a lecturer employed by the University of Michigan”), and calmly state your spiel.
2. Know what you’re going to say. Here’s a script that works fairly well: “I’m just calling to say that I agree with the Graduate Employee Organization’s demands and that I hope the university will agree to them immediately. Graduate student instructors should be paid a living wage, and diversity education is too difficult and too important to expect people to do it for free. Thanks very much! Have a wonderful day.”
3. Get in, get out. Say your spiel and finish up. You don’t have to add anything.
4. Be nice. The person who’s answering the phone is probably not the person who’s trying to keep graduate labor down! They’re probably employees like us, having a lousy time answering phones. Thank them for taking your call and wish them well.
5. Remember, this actually makes a difference. If phone calls can stop bills moving through Congress, they can change UM policy. The volume of calls LEO members make on behalf of this issue also serves as a reminder of our strength as a union: if we’ll make a strong showing for our sister union, what won’t we do on our own behalf?
That’s it. It’s really that easy. Call President Schlissel at 734.764.6270 and Provost Courant at 734.764.9290, say those things, and move on with your day. I have pretty bad social anxiety, and I just did it. You can too.

UM Lecturers Being Awesome: A Weekly Roundup (4/9/17)

University of Michigan lecturers are in the habit of being awesome. Starting with this post, your Communications Committee will be posting a small weekly sampling of said awesomeness. Are you a lecturer at our Flint, Dearborn, or Ann Arbor campuses? Tell us about the conferences you’re organizing, the pieces you’re publishing, and the awards you’re winning. Since we’re based in Ann Arbor, it’d be especially helpful to hear from our Dearborn and Flint colleagues, and since we’re mostly humanities people, we’d love to hear from folks in the social and physical sciences. Email items to chrip@umich.edu.

A group of UM-Dearborn lecturers led by Malinda Mansour, a Lecturer in Philosophy, presented a panel discussion, “Facing the Hysteria: Reproductive Justice and Philosophical Frameworks” to a packed house that included UM-Dearborn’s Vice Provost!

Clelia Rodriguez, a Lecturer in Romance Languages at UM-Ann Arbor, published this provocative post on faux-decolonization at the popular and much-read site Racebaitr.

UM-Ann Arbor English Lecturer Katie Willingham placed her poetry collection Unlikely Designs with Chicago University Press; it will appear in the fall of 2017 and is available for preorder. (Personally, I’m a big fan of her poem “Darwinist Logic on Humanity.”)

Shelley Manis of the Sweetland Writing Center at UM-Ann Arbor (she’s also a Comm Committee member) is leading a group that performs at Festifools in downtown Ann Arbor any minute now!

Finally, Ed Cho, a Lecturer in Economics at UM-Ann Arbor, won the prestigious Golden Apple Award, the Ann Arbor campus’s only student-selected teaching award. The University Record offers a rundown of his moving autobiographical speech (yes, economists can be both moving and autobiographical!) here.

Dear Fellow Lecturers: Why I’m Asking You To Make Sure You’re a LEO Member

Dear colleagues:

My name is Phil Christman. I’ve been lecturing at University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus for four years. Before that, I lectured at North Carolina Central University in Durham—the country’s oldest public historically black college. Before that I was a grad student and I taught in that capacity. Suffice to say that I really love this kind of work.

I love lecturing for the same reasons many of you love it. As lecturers, we teach many subjects, but we’re more likely to teach the “tough” classes, the “grunt” classes—the introductory and required courses in our disciplines. We know better than anyone else that amazing things happen in these classes. For me, in English, there’s nothing more gratifying than when a student who thinks of herself as a “math person” discovers her capacity for close reading and powerful language. My colleagues in other departments know the same thrill—it’s what you feel when you help a math-phobic poet fall in love with set theory (as I did in a required 100-level math class). It’s what you feel when a student uses the term “social structure” correctly for the first time.

Teaching is a privilege at any level. But lecturing matters because that’s where nonmajors become majors. It’s where students who think they hate a discipline discover that it answers to something deep within them. When you lecture, you teach a subject, but you also teach students something about their own versatility, their own adaptability. You help students realize that they are so much more than their planned major. And without that, a student’s “university education” is nothing but glorified job training.

In this letter, I’m going to explain to you why now is an incredibly crucial time to join LEO, the union that represents us—and to make sure you’re actually a member. (Many lecturers wrongly assume they became members upon hire. I’ll explain below why that’s not the case, and what you have to do.) I’m going to talk about the contract renegotiations that are coming in 2018, and how those negotiations will affect how we work for the rest of our careers. I’ll describe how the Right to Work legislation currently on the books in this state makes this these negotiations incredibly perilous—and how we can make them successful by pulling together under the LEO banner.

It’ll get a little detailed. But let’s keep our eyes on the ball. The point of everything I’m going to say is this: our work is important. Right to Work laws devalue our work, as they devalue all work. And in doing that they devalue the learning we make possible. For our students’ sake and for ours, we must assert our value. And the easiest way to do that is to make sure you’re a LEO member.

What is “Right-to-Work”?

It’s many things. It’s a masterpiece of Orwellian newspeak. It’s a legislative play straight out of the Jim Crow era. Most simply put, it’s an assault on the power of labor.

The story of right-to-work legislation begins in 1935, when Congress passed the Wagner Act. Up till then, labor unions were endangered and somewhat disreputable entities, subject to constant social and legal harassment. When I say “harassment,” I don’t mean getting cussed out. I mean those who fought for higher wages and lower hours were hunted, threatened, framed, defamed, or straight-up murdered, often by police. Being fired was the least of their worries; being fired at was more likely. Google “Ludlow Massacre,” or “Battle of Blair Mountain,” for some examples. Michigan has its own place in this history. On March 7, 1932, between 3000 and 5000 protesters braved frigid weather to march from Detroit to Dearborn, where they were tear-gassed, then shot at by Dearborn cops and by thugs on Henry Ford’s payroll. Sixty were injured and five killed.

At a stroke, the Wagner Act made unions, union organizing, and collective bargaining not only legal, but more or less mainstream. It allowed employers to choose any of four types of relationship between management and labor: the closed shop (you must join the union as a condition of employment); the union shop (you don’t have to join right away, but you must join within some set period of time); the agency shop (you don’t have to join the union, but you’ll pay the equivalent of union dues to compensate for the higher wages and other benefits you enjoy solely as a result of union bargaining); or the open shop (union membership is strictly voluntary, and you don’t have to pay anything if you don’t join).

Like other elements of the New Deal, the Wagner Act was intensely controversial—something that nostalgic celebrations of the “moderate” American midcentury tend to ignore. In 1947 it was modified by the federal Taft-Hartley Act, named for Robert Taft, the legendary Congressional conservative (his father was the 27th President; his grandson was Ohio’s right-wing governor for much of the 2000s). Among other provisions, Taft-Hartley made certain kinds of strikes (most famously wildcat strikes) illegal, and, in a sop to the Cold War politics of the era, barred active Communist Party members from union membership. (So much for freedom of speech and association.) It also outlawed closed shops.

We can argue about the closed shop. Many observers would consider getting rid of them to be a workable compromise: you’re respecting the freedom of conscience of those who have anti-union beliefs, while preventing them from being free-riders on a good job contract that only exists because of union work. But Taft-Hartley left a big door open, and a wonderfully-named Texas businessman named Vance Muse walked right through it.

A provision of Taft-Hartley allowed individual states to enact anti-union measures stricter than those allowed at the federal level. Muse, a KKK member, child labor proponent, and all-around heel, founded the Christian American Association, an organization that championed making “open shops” mandatory on a state-by-state basis, using the slogan “right to work.” Anti-union legislative projects have followed his example ever since.

Muse is an almost cartoonishly repellent figure—one of his arguments against labor unions was that they forced white and black people to work together!—but, logically, that doesn’t in itself constitute a refutation of his ideas about unions. Reality has done that refuting for us.

How Can a “Right to Work” Be Bad?

A “right to work” sounds like a good thing. But what it really means is a right to work under conditions that you haven’t helped fight for—or, since such fighting stops in the absence of resources and person-power, a right to work under worse conditions, for lower wages.

A 2011 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that “Wages in right-to-work states are 3.2% lower than those in non-RTW states, after controlling for a full complement of individual demographic and socio- economic variables.” Pensions, health insurance, and other benefits are also scantier. (You can read the whole thing at: http://www.epi.org/files/page/-/old/briefingpapers/BriefingPaper299.pdf). “Right to work,” empirically speaking, seems to mean something more like “the right to be taken advantage of.”

I learned this firsthand when I taught in North Carolina. My university had no union, and we sorely needed one. In my department, we got officially “fired” at the end of every school year and would learn whether we had classes to teach in the middle of August. One summer, our lecturers’ salaries were cut by nearly one-third. All the school’s plans—all our plans, and our personal budgets—were at the mercy of the state’s legislators, who did their budgeting in the summer. Where teachers don’t have the power to set a floor on the value of our work, our jobs will exist according to the whims of legislators and administrators. And those people will take whatever they can get away with—not because they’re evil, but because they’re people.

Students suffered far more than we did from these labor conditions. Many of my colleagues took side gigs just to survive, and this diluted the quality of their teaching. (I did copyediting for a think-tank in Washington, and I know that it took a toll on my classroom performance. But my wife and I had to eat.) Many of my colleagues were in semi-permanent job-search mode—a state of mind that preoccupies, obsesses, saps energy and sleep.

In one case, I had a colleague who quit his job three weeks into the semester because he had an offer of a permanent job elsewhere. My department chair—a wonderful woman with tenure, and herself perennially underpaid and overworked—scrambled to find replacement teachers for his four sections. I took one, and his students were so confused and upset by his departure that half of them dropped before I gave my first lecture. Normally, I would condemn this colleague, but given the amount of chaos the situation was creating for my family, I couldn’t do so.

This is no way to teach.

But this is what right to work law does to college teachers.

Where We Are Now

This does not have to be our future. Right to work is law in Michigan for now, but because this state has a strong tradition of union membership, we are all already benefiting from the work LEO has already done on our behalf. So are our students. And so are our tenured and tenure-track colleagues, who build on the foundations we create.

It’s not true, as some say, that this bill has killed labor’s power in Michigan. It is true that, in this legislative climate, all the union has is its members. LEO will negotiate a new contract with the university system next year. If LEO goes into those negotiations with strong membership numbers, the administration will take us seriously. They will listen when we ask for the improvements in job security, benefits, pay, and classroom environment that we know from experience will make our classes better.

If we go in with weak membership numbers, they won’t.

I understand why some faculty would be reluctant to join a union. As intellectuals and scholars, we’re used to working alone, guarding our independence. We’re not joiners. But this isn’t about being a joiner, or about ideological conformity. It’s about protecting the labor conditions that give us time to think, to write, to study in the first place.

Please join LEO if you haven’t. Many people assume they have joined automatically upon hire. This isn’t the case. You have to fill out the membership card and check the box that says, “I wish to be a member of LEO.” Please double-check that you are a member. The easiest way to check is to look at the After-Tax Deductions box of your last paycheck. If that box says, “Lecturer Union Fee,” then you are not a member; if it says, “Lecturer Union Dues,” you are already a member. You can find a pdf of the membership card on this blog. An organizer would also be happy to bring a membership card to you. Please be part of the only organization that can make our jobs, our teaching, and our students’ learning truly secure.