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September 12, 2006

On Strike for Labor Day (Part 11)

It's going on 1am and we've been negotiating since 9:30 am. No end in sight at the moment.

Since my last post, the big change in the status of our labor dispute is that we are actually negotiating again. Remember the administration walked out on Sept 5, and after a few days where both sides had no direct contact, on Sunday we started some direct off the record conversations about how to get back to negotiating.

When I say 'some conversations,' it really understates the intensity of the effort. We put together a number of ideas about conditions under which both sides would return, prioritized them, and of course tried to balance that against what we were achieving and risking through a prolonged strike.

After negotiating most of the day Sunday and all day Monday, we achieved a 7 paragraph  memorandum of understanding about suspending the strike for 24 hours in order to negotiate some more. Then, we spent two hours negotiating where to meet. (No shit) We started that time period at 9:30am.

Of course, if it takes 2 hours to negotiate a place - with some seriously intense conversation and raised voices - figuring out health care and compensation isn't going to be easy. [If I was more awake, I'd figure out an appropriate comment about new insights into Mid East problems.]

Today has been

tensions, tension, anger, anger, tension, boredom, boredom, boredom, tension, anger, anger, tension, boredom, tension, boredom, boredom, etc

A not so careful read reveals there's no joy or happiness - not even satisfaction or relief. Of course at 1:30am, it's still on the early side. I'm not especially optimistic, but I also know that one tactic is to induce frustration and despair on the other side, so small movement is more warmly received. But several of have been here before, and we're more on the annoyed side than the desperate side.

But we are setting up an interesting day tomorrow today, with a faculty meeting at noon. We'll have to make some decisions that will include the option of returning to a strike. You'll hate me, but I'll have to leave that as the cliff-hanger, so you'll stop back for Part 12.

For further reading, check out Cary Nelson's piece "Solidarity" in Inside Higher Ed. He's the Predsident of the national AAUP, and he was out here earlier for a few days. (Scroll back a few posts) Here's a meaty excerpt:

What I had not calculated was how an extraordinary level of faculty solidarity would mesh with new technology. My previous experience with multiple picket sites had involved quite a bit of sending messengers running back and forth across campus. Now there were people with cell phones at every site. This was especially helpful when particular locations required additional troops, as when people needed to work at turning away delivery trucks. On one occasion I persuaded a Teamster member delivering hamburger buns to call his office, which agreed to cancel the rest of the week’s deliveries. At a major university construction site, the concrete trucks had nonunion drivers. A cell phone call reached the concrete supplier, whose union loaders agreed not to load more concrete trucks. Other activists were taking cell phone messages in their cars and delivering water, picket signs, and modest edible treats as needed. Several retired professors took particular pleasure in running these on-demand delivery services.

I spent several hours on Tuesday morning visiting picket sites, introducing myself and talking with faculty, students, and university workers. The faculty were unvaryingly determined, though also anxious. False rumors abounded, as usual, but cell phone calls kept them under control. I hadn’t thought of cell phones as rumor control devices, but they enable members involved in job actions to make rapid contact with the leadership. The deeper anxiety was centered on the disruption of their faculty identities. They wanted to meet their classes on Wednesday. Most simply asked to be treated the same way other Michigan employees were being treated. A few said they’d settle for any offer that wasn’t blatantly insulting. But because they were faculty they could not just picket; they had to talk these issues through. Happily, it was a bright Midwestern day. Spirits overall were more than high; they were stratospheric. Professors of English and engineering were one; they had shed their disciplinary skins. They were now part of that universal faculty that now and again focuses on their common destiny and mission.

At lunch time I made my way back to the negotiating room where I had first arrived the day before. It was a busy space. The union had been asking the administration for health care statistics for a year to no avail. Suddenly, at the penultimate moment, the data had arrived. Ordinarily this would have been a disaster. In the past, interpreting the numbers with sufficient mastery so as to suggest alternative solutions would have taken weeks. But the chapter president is a business faculty member more than comfortable with spread sheets. What’s more, the days of the smoke filled bargaining hall had long disappeared. Each member of the bargaining team sat in front of a computer. A ten foot high projection screen let everyone see spreadsheet proposals.

Meanwhile it had been decided that a large campus auditorium was the right place to meet. PowerPoint demonstrations were being prepared. E-mail messages went out to faculty. A phone tree got to work. An hour later we walked into an auditorium packed with hundreds of faculty. Scores of red AAUP caps dotted the room. There was applause, laughter, cheers, and pointed questioning, all echoing sharply against brick walls. My own presentation was easy. I assured everyone of continuing support from the national AAUP, and I emphasized that they were not fighting for their own interests alone. A highly conservative governing board was seeking to deny faculty any influence over their terms of employment or working conditions. This was a battle we needed to win for the country as a whole. Over 40 years in the academy I have never seen a faculty so unified and determined. It was astonishing and exhilarating. Certainly the administration had a hand in inadvertently unifying the faculty. But constant communication between the leadership and the members helped turn anger into collective action.

The overwhelming majority of faculty contracts are, of course, negotiated without a strike. Both parties ordinarily prefer a solution and, despite competing financial aims, are willing to work toward one. The Eastern Michigan administration’s determination to break the faculty’s will is not unprecedented but surely atypical.

Boredom, tension, boredom, boredom, time for more coffee.

[UPDATE: boredom, boredom, boredom]

[UPDATE 2: boredom, fatigue, weariness, boredom]

Start 9:30am

now 1:50am  2:10am  2:30am  3:20am  3:44am  3:58  4:20am


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