My life has been about union work since we were locked out at the start of the academic year. I am not on the bargaining team and I am not the president, but I am the secretary, and I am an academic worker at LIU Brooklyn, and the future of the university and the union matter a lot to me. I have been a librarian these past few months, yes, and my career continues to be my career. I have a family and a mom back in Idaho and part ownership in a racehorse and television shows I love to watch. But union work has been running continuously underneath all of that. It has fundamentally shaped this year of my life. I have learned a lot.
We have been given management’s last best final offer. The same day they sent us the last best final offer, they filed the necessary documents to lockout or impose that final offer. Whether we vote to ratify or not, all signs point to the terms of this contract being the terms we work under, either for the next five years or indefinitely. I find myself between a rock and a hard place, something that used to be a turn of phrase but now is a very real, very material thing. It is dark and tight in here, and it hurts.
First, some thoughts on the final contract offer. Management has barely moved. They are clearly adept at staying just inside the lines of “good faith bargaining,” and the changes to the contract reflect that. They have rolled back language about post-tenure review, kept librarian workload the same for all five years of the contract, and will be phasing out a benefit trust fund that offsets healthcare costs for long time adjuncts instead of ending it abruptly. I am as good as anybody at redefining what counts as a win, but these are meager, and don’t come close to the losses we are likely to incur.
And yet, I will be voting yes on the contract on May 1.
When I tell people this, I hear many difficult things. Throwing the adjuncts under the bus. Capitulating to power. Without principles. Those have been the hardest things to hear, especially after the work I’ve been doing along with my comrades for the past fourteen months. But I am committed to taking a position that I believe is best for all members of the unit, even though “best” is hollow given where we stand. So here is my explanation.
I believe this is the best contract we are able to negotiate at this moment in time, with the president and Board of Trustees we have, and with the power we have organized within our unit. There are things I may have done differently had I been on the bargaining team, but I was not on the bargaining team, and this is the contract our bargaining team was able to get. I do not have fantasies that I would have cut a good deal. There are no good deals to be had from this particular management apparatus, one that has been bent on eliminating unions from our university from the start. If we ratify this contract, we will join the building engineers as the only other union on campus with a negotiated deal. They ratified a few weeks ago. A condition of their contract is a phasing out of the unit altogether. Management and labor are always in an adversarial relationship, I understand that. But there is something different about this bad actor. This is the contract we were able to get from her.
Voting no on this contract could mean any number of next things. None of us can predict the future. The university might choose to keep us working under our current contract while they continue to negotiate. I see no evidence that they are interested in continuing to negotiate with us. The university might lock us out. I have lived through the damage that a lockout does to people. I don’t want another one of those. The university might impose the last best final offer. They imposed a contract on the clerical union, and have not bargained since. They have filed the necessary paperwork to impose. We see lots of evidence that a no vote would trigger an imposed or implemented contract. That’s my best guess as to what we’d see next. But I could be wrong. I can’t see the future.
I do know that the stakes of an imposed contract are high. At least they seem to be to me. Not everyone agrees with me that these things matter, but I believe they do. An imposed contract means that management is legally entitled to do the following:
- Eliminate dues check off
- Eliminate arbitration from the grievance process
- Renew the imposition indefinitely
Under an imposition, the union would have to go person to person to collect the dues necessary to fund our work, everything from food at a meeting to the bullhorn permit to our affiliation with our national union. Dues also fund part of that second piece: arbitration. Under an imposition, management can remove arbitration from the grievance process, forcing grievants to pursue their cases in federal court, a much more expensive and time consuming process. Under an imposition, we would also never have another guaranteed return to the bargaining table. One of the sticking points for the union has been the length of this contract. We don’t want a bad contract for five years. We want to be able to negotiate sooner than that. Under an imposition, we would need to force an administration that doesn’t want to deal with unions at all to meet and negotiate with us using the power of persuasion or the weapon of the strike. Both are difficult to see from here.
Part of the power of the union, the reason to have one in the first place, is an enforceable contract that governs relations between management and labor, that protects labor from management actions of all kinds. Without an enforceable contract, that function of the union is gone. That is true for part time faculty and it is true for full time faculty. Nobody wins when we don’t have a negotiated contract.
For me, a yes vote is a vote for the union. I am saying yes not to the contract or to Kim Cline, but to the value of a negotiated, signed contract, one that will protect me, if we organize to force it to, against the vagaries of an administration that clearly wants to eliminate faculty, both full and part time.
This is a considered position, one I have come to through months of working with and talking to the membership, of taking our temperature and assessing where we are and where I think we can get between now and May 31st, now and September 1st, now and 2022. I believe in using the union to get maximum material gain for the membership while building institutional power. Success on those two counts will be measured in years, not in the months of this contract extension.
A no vote feels better, louder, and easier to make. Kim Cline wants to destroy the faculty union and destroy the lives of part time faculty. We say no! We have been saying no for months. If I believed voting no on the contract would prevent these things from happening, I would be voting no and making sure everyone I talked to voted no too.
I would ask people to consider, though, when they say no to this contract, what they are saying yes to. Does a no vote say yes to building union power for the next days, weeks, months, and years in which we will fight? What does that look like in the absence of the workplace protections afforded by a signed, negotiated contract?
Here are the labor movement cliches that sound loudest in my head these days: Sometimes you have to eat a bad contract. Live to fight another day.
I want to continue the fight. I am ready to continue the fight. I will be voting yes on the contract next week. I will be voting yes for a union.