Eastern Michigan faculty strike over health care, governance

Tenured and tenure-track faculty members at Eastern Michigan University went on strike indefinitely Wednesday over stalled negotiations for a new contract. Scores of professors spent much of the day on a campus picket line, while the university directed students to attend classes and wait 15 minutes to see if an instructor showed up. Many professors did not, following a 91 percent faculty vote in favor of striking Tuesday.

Negotiations were ongoing Wednesday, with no agreement reached. By the end of the day, Eastern Michigan had filed a complaint in Washtenaw County Circuit Court asking for an injunction ordering faculty members back to work. Public employee strikes are illegal in Michigan, and the university’s complaint cited injury to students and others.

“Our primary focus is getting faculty back in the classroom so that our students can continue their education,” Walter Kraft, university spokesperson, said in a statement. “Even a one-day disruption is significant for our students and we are committed to providing them with a full and positive academic experience, particularly as negotiations continued today with the assistance of a state-appointed mediator.”

The American Association of University Professors–affiliated faculty union said that the university’s legal effort would fail, and accused Eastern Michigan of repeated unfair labor practices and of exaggerating the effect of a 24-hour strike on students. The university denies unfair labor practice violations.

Mohamed El-Sayed, professor of engineering and president of the faculty union, said in a statement, “Instead of filing lawsuits which have no merit, EMU administrators should focus their efforts on good faith bargaining so we can reach a fair agreement which supports our students.”

Impasse Over Premiums

The faculty union’s prior contract expired a week ago, after having been extended multiple times since it was originally inked in 2015. Sticking points for the replacement contract include health-care premiums and shared governance. Faculty negotiators also say the university held up bargaining and revealed major proposals only after talks were already under way this summer.

“We feel that the university administration needlessly delayed negotiations,” said Matthew Kirkpatrick, associate professor of English and chair of the faculty bargaining team. “If you’re going to drastically change your employees’ benefits, that’s a conversation we should have had way before we were negotiating.”

Under a Michigan law enacted in 2012, public employers are limited in terms of what they can contribute to employee health-care costs. To comply with this law, institutions must either follow dollar caps as to what they’ll contribute to employee plans or adopt an 80-20 cost-sharing model in which the employer covers 80 percent of the plan and the employee contributes the rest.

As of Wednesday, Eastern Michigan was still offering the faculty union a hard-cap model, which union members said would exorbitantly increase health-care costs for most members, namely those with families. To compensate for the change, the university has offered union members an approximately 6 percent ($5,600) pay increase in year one of the contract, followed by more incremental raises each year thereafter. But the union says this is insufficient, especially when factoring in the 9 percent inflation rate. The faculty counteroffer is an extra initial $3,200 base pay increase and the 80-20 model.

Some context: under the university’s hard-cap proposal, a faculty member with a family who elected Blue Cross Blue Shield’s preferred provider organization (PPO) plan would see their premiums jump 176 percent from their current contribution. Under the union-preferred 80-20 model option, that employee’s contribution would increase 89 percent. That’s still steep, but it’s better than the alternative, from the union’s perspective. In dollars, this increase for a family under the hard-cap model would be approximately $5,300, and about $2,700 under the 80-20 model, according to information from the union.

Shared Governance and Other Concerns

Underlying the health-care battle is the union’s disapproval of how the university spends its money. The union says Eastern Michigan has more managers per full-time staff member (including instructional staff) than its peer institutions. And while the whole institution has faced personnel cuts in light of an enrollment decrease since 2016, according to union data, administrative professional and athletic coach positions have decreased only nominally, by about 1.8 percent each, versus 18 percent for tenure-line faculty members.

“Our instructional budget has plummeted. Our administrative costs have stayed the same and even increased in some cases,” Kirkpatrick said. “That’s part of why it’s easy for our faculty to get fired up.”

Also of concern to faculty members is shared governance on campus. El-Sayed, the union president, said that negotiators have asked to include in the contract reference to a long-standing joint statement on shared governance by the AAUP, the American Council on Education and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. Of particular import to the union is that the administration commit to a tradition—outlined in the joint statement—of deferring to faculty consensus on curricular and educational issues. Yet thus far, the university has rejected this idea, El-Sayed said.

Currently, Eastern Michigan describes its contractual proposal on shared governance as follows: “The university is committed to the tenets of shared governance. In addition to the language in the expired contract, the university has proposed that the Faculty Senate and the university reassess their committees including members’ terms of service, expertise required of the committee members, and areas in academic and student affairs in which the committee is expected to provide faculty input. This process may also identify revising, merging or eliminating existing committees and creating new committees. This is intended to strengthen understanding and communication between the parties in the furtherance of a shared sense of commitment to finding solutions that will best enable us to advance together the mission of the University and the students served.”

Eastern Michigan’s Faculty Senate voted no confidence last year in President James Smith; Leigh Greden, his chief of staff; and Mike Valdes, chief financial officer. In so doing, faculty members said that Smith had not practiced shared governance or transparency, especially in regard to financial decisions and public-private partnerships.

Following the vote, the Senate sent a letter to Smith and the university’s Board of Regents asking that they transform the strategic plan into a living document that guides operations and financial decisions, adopt the recommendation of the President’s Commission on Diversity and Inclusion, recommit to shared governance, and generally act in the public good.

Marilyn Corsianos, Senate president and professor of sociology and criminology, said that what the faculty wants now is “very simple—we want a fair and equitable contract for our faculty.”

While the administration is offering something of a pay increase, she said, inflation and the increase to health-care costs “ultimately will mean a loss of thousands of dollars” for professors.

Beyond compensation and outstanding concerns about pay equity among professors, Corsianos said, “Faculty also want to see a model of shared governance put into action that will ensure accountability on the part of the administration and force them to seek meaningful input from faculty on major decisions that affect our students, faculty and campus community. Too often, we learn about major decisions after the fact.”



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