Wright State Faculty Ends One of the Longest Strikes at a Public University in U.S. History

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In Dayton, Ohio, faculty members at Wright State University have just concluded one of the longest public university strikes in U.S. history. On Sunday, the university’s administration reached a tentative contract agreement with the faculty union’s executive committee, which union members will vote to ratify in coming days. The strike began late last month, when the university imposed a contract on faculty members that worsened working conditions and decreased benefits. When the administration refused to negotiate, 85 percent of Wright State University’s union members voted to authorize a strike. We speak with Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the American Association of University Professors. He is the chief negotiator for the association’s chapter at Wright State University, where he is professor emeritus of economics.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, as public school teachers in Denver, Colorado, take to the picket lines, we turn now to a higher education strike that’s received far less attention. In Dayton, Ohio, faculty members at Wright State University have just concluded one of the longest public university strikes in U.S. history. On Sunday, the university’s administration reached a tentative contract agreement with the faculty union’s executive committee, which union members will vote to ratify in coming days.

The strike began last month when the university imposed a contract on faculty members that worsened labor conditions and decreased benefits. When the administration refused to negotiate, 85 percent of Wright State University’s union members voted to authorize a strike. This is history professor Noeleen McIlvenna describing some of the faculty’s concerns that led to the strike.

NOELEEN McILVENNA: The number one is workload.

LOGAN MARTINEZ: The workload, OK.

NOELEEN McILVENNA: Because what that translates to is much less time for each individual student, much less time for research. When teachers have to teach more and more and more students, each student gets less and less, because a human only has so much time and energy in a given day. And so, we would have to spread ourselves so thin that everything would give. And that—so that’s the number one issue.

LOGAN MARTINEZ: OK.

NOELEEN McILVENNA: There are several others. Another one that’s very concerning to us is job security for the nontenured faculty.

AMY GOODMAN: Wright State University has faced financial problems after burning through $131 million of its reserves in the span of five years. The administration claimed cuts in faculty benefits were financially necessary, but faculty members fought back, saying professors and their students shouldn’t pay the consequences for administrative fiscal mismanagement.

Striking faculty spent 20 days on the picket lines in freezing temperatures, demanding better healthcare coverage, workload policies and pay bumps. The professors were joined by union members, local politicians, students and community members. After the university’s administration and faculty union reached a tentative contract, the striking faculty members returned to class Monday.

For more, we go to Dayton, Ohio, where we’re joined by Rudy Fichtenbaum, the president of the American Association of University Professors, chief negotiator for the association’s chapter at Wright State University, where he’s professor emeritus of economics.

Rudy Fichtenbaum, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the significance of this strike, what you called for, what you got, and whether you think it’s going to pass in the vote?

RUDY FICHTENBAUM: Yes. Well, I think that the significance of this strike is that a group of faculty really stood up for maintaining quality education. And one of the things that we’ve seen is really the undermining of public higher education in general, as states have cut funding and limited opportunities to increase tuition. And this has led universities, like Wright State, to look for a variety of schemes to increase revenue. And that was exactly—because of their incompetence, that failed, and that’s what cost the university the $130 million.

But what is, I think, so significant here is that the university then seized on this as an opportunity, really, to try and break the faculty union. This was really never about the money. This was about trying to silence the union, silence the voice of the faculty. It was about power and control. And that’s why they attacked the workload agreement—the workload part of the agreement, the employment security for non-tenure-track faculty, our merit system. They attacked that—they changed that unilaterally when they imposed the contract. And we saw—and also healthcare, taking away our right to bargain over healthcare. All of these things were really designed to weaken the faculty union, which had been very critical of the spending and the priorities of the administration, and of the incompetence of the board in allowing the university to squander $131 million of reserves.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Rudy Fichtenbaum, the whole issue of the nontenured faculty, because obviously most universities keep increasing the percentage of faculty that are nontenured, and therefore have no job security. What were you able to do to get the nontenured faculty to participate so dramatically? An 85 percent yes vote on a strike is quite an accomplishment for a professional union.

RUDY FICHTENBAUM: Yeah. Well, you know, the tenure-track faculty had been organized, actually, for quite some time, since 1998, when we voted to unionize. The non-tenure-track faculty only unionized much more recently, I think about four years ago. But, you know, we have worked together. We started out as two bargaining units, and then we formed a single bargaining unit. And we’ve always had a unified group of people negotiating contracts—three non-tenure-track faculty members and three tenure-track faculty members.

And, of course, one of the most important things that we were able to negotiate for non-tenure-track faculty were what we call continuing appointments, which means that after a period of six years they have a—what is known as a continuing appointment, which means that they cannot really be dismissed, except for just cause or under certain kinds of financial conditions. And one of the goals of the university was to weaken that, to stretch that out to at least 12 years, and, in many cases, our non-tenure—many of the non-tenure-track faculty would have never received continuing appointments.

And we’ve really seen, I think, a big difference in the willingness of our non-tenure-track faculty to speak out and be critical and to fight for their students, since they’ve had this protection of having a continuing employment agreement. And so, this is, you know, as important as really tenure is for the tenure-track faculty. And that was one of the things—when the university imposed, was one of the rights they wanted to take away from us.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Rudy, speaking of the students, the university tried to keep classes going, and bringing in, in essence, strike breakers? What happened with that?

RUDY FICHTENBAUM: Well, it was a disaster for them. At first, they were saying that, you know, “We are running all the classes. This is business as usual.” And they brought in—what they really did was they brought in people who they called sweepers. And essentially, they were taking attendance. In other cases, they were sending people in to read out of books. And they knew—even while they were telling the public that everything was normal and classes were going on, they knew that was a lie.

And they actually took us before the State Employment Relations Board to try and have our strike declared unlawful. And at that hearing, they testified that they were unable to teach the classes. And, of course, the State Employee Relations Board picked up on that right away and said, “Well, but you’ve been telling the public all along that you have been teaching them, but now you’re here trying to get us to rule this to be an unlawful strike because you’re saying you can’t teach the classes.”

So, it was just, I think, complete bedlam. There were reports of, you know, classes where nobody showed up. And classes, after a while, began to be canceled. Some classes that were being taught were being taught by chairs who were teaching six or eight classes. So, it was just really chaos.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is amazing: You continued it right through the polar vortex. Before we wrap up, Rudy Fichtenbaum, we’re talking about this strike being the longest in Ohio state history. It’s the second longest at a public college in U.S. history. Can you, finally, talk about your concerns about the corporatization of education in this country?

RUDY FICHTENBAUM: Yes. I think that, you know, this is—the corporatization has really been part of an entire neoliberal agenda that seeks to destroy public services and public goods. And in higher education, in particular, it’s leading to a privatization of public universities and colleges.

What is happening is that these institutions, more and more, are being starved from public resources and have to rely more on tuition. And then, when there is no tuition, they are forced to go out and look for a variety of other schemes at raising money. And, you know, this is something that is really undermining public higher education. And it can lead, as we’ve seen in the case of Wright State, to a real disaster. And this has done a tremendous amount of damage to higher education and is really getting to a point where, you know, effectively, we are having universities that are essentially becoming privatized, but without endowments and without this philanthropical support that you would typically see at most private universities. And this is affecting the quality of education that students can get. It’s one of the reasons why so many schools have turned increasingly to hiring and exploiting part-time faculty and full-time faculty without tenure.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, president of the American Association of University Professors, chief negotiator for the AAUP chapter at Wright State University, where he’s professor emeritus of economics, joining us from ThinkTV, Dayton, Ohio’s PBS station.

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