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: “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.