Faculty at Wright State University in Ohio are amid one of the longest strikes at a public university in U.S. history — demonstrating the rise in worker militancy in the education world.
The strike has so far lasted 18 days, after two years of attempts to negotiate a contract with the university. About 560 of the school’s professors are in the union, the Wright State University branch of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP-WSU), and 85 percent of union members voted to authorize the strike.
The only work stoppage at a public university that lasted longer was a 29-day strike at Temple University in 1990, according to the union, which included a fight over health insurance and salary increases.
The university has recently been through a number of serious financial issues, which they are giving as a reason for holding out in negotiations. It went through $131 million of its reserves over five years. It had to pay back the U.S. Department of Education $2 million in 2017 after a federal review of the school’s handling of financial aid. It paid the U.S. Department of Justice a $1 million fine in 2018 after the department said the university missed the H1-B visa cap exemption.
The union argues that the faculty are not responsible for those financial struggles, and that they shouldn’t have to pay the price by facing higher premiums, losing an existing workload agreement, and being asked to use up to 10 furlough days each year if the university’s fiscal health drops below a state-mandated level.
AAUP-WSU President Marty Kich said the striking faculty members have received overwhelming support from other unions, students, and community members.
On Tuesday, Kent State University and University of Akron professors picketed in support of Wright State University faculty. On Wednesday, more than 30 students organized a sit-in at the university, putting tape over their mouths emblazoned with the words “FIGHT 4 WRIGHT.”
“I’d say they grossly underestimated us, but I myself underestimated us. I’ve just been blown away by the support that we’ve gotten from organized labor,” Kich said. “We haven’t bought food in over two weeks. Every day, we have had six or seven tables worth of food and we have church groups bringing in lunch. It has just been astounding. The support we have had from students has been remarkable. Every day we have had between 75 and 250 students out on the picket line with us.”
“It has just been astounding. The support we have had from students has been remarkable.”
Before the strike commenced, Wright State University said that classes would continue, but students have since experienced major disruptions. Some classes have been canceled — and most of the classes that have been canceled for the spring semester are “specialized” courses, according to the Dayton Daily News.
Elyse Angle, a senior majoring in biology at the university, said the strike is significantly impacting her education.
“I’m not getting that expertise I need to be a professional,” she said. “I paid $10,000 this semester and like, 75 to 80 percent of that is worthless at this point … I have certainly considered withdrawing from the semester, which is really not preferable because being a 22 year-old, I have life plans and [my partner and I] have been talking about moving to Colorado and going to grad school and finding jobs. All that is going to be pushed back a year and a half to a year depending on how this plays out.”
Angle said she doesn’t resent the striking teachers. She’s one of the student organizers for Students for Faculty, a group of students supporting the striking teachers, and said she has been on the picket lines every day.
Wright State University faculty have joined with other educators this year to demand better working conditions and benefits. Los Angeles teachers also went on strike in January. Denver teachers are preparing for a strike set for Monday. Oakland teachers recently voted to authorize a strike.
There were only seven major strikes that included at least 1,000 workers in the private sector in 2017. The next year, there was a surge in strikes, as thousands of workers teachers, hotel workers, and health care workers launched strikes for better workload policies, pay bumps, and health care coverage. Google employees across the world, including in the United States, went on strike to demand the company do something about pay inequality and sexual harassment.
The main issue at stake for Wright State University faculty is ongoing negotiations over health care. Before the strike, the administration wanted union members to join its university-wide health care plan, and imposed terms of employment that stipulated the university could make changes to the plan at its discretion with 60 days notice. The union said that was unworkable.
“They had jacked up deductibles and out of pocket maximums so high and abruptly that we thought some of these people will have to declare bankruptcy if they pay the maximum,” Kich said of the health care plan.
“This is about union busting — because what they want us to do is not only to accept the plan they imposed on the staff, but to give up our right to negotiate health care,” Kich added.
The union takes issue with other aspects of the offer that Wright State University administration proposed before the strike. That offer did not include a guaranteed pay raise for faculty, made changes to the way merit pay is calculated, and lengthened the period for non-tenure track faculty to receive continuing employment status by three years.
Last weekend, the university offered new contract terms but the union and university were not able to come to an agreement. On Sunday, Wright University’s Board of Trustees voted to approve its latest contract offer. A member of the Board of Trustees, C.D. Moore II, said in a statement released on Sunday that the board has made “substantial concessions” and would like the union to “put this contract to a transparent vote of their full membership.”
The union said it offered the university $8 million in concessions on Saturday, which included joining the health care plan as long as the administration allowed them to continue bargaining over premiums, deductibles, and out-of-pocket maximums. The offer included lower pay for faculty who teach in the summer. But the union said the administration would not take that offer made late on Saturday and insisted it give up the right to bargain for health care.
This week, Gov. Mike DeWine (R) said his administration is not going to get involved in the strike, but that he will continue to monitor the situation.
On Friday, the union will host a press conference at the statehouse asking the governor and Ohio Higher Education Chancellor Randy Gardner to assist in brokering an agreement between the university and the union.
Angle said that she blames the protracted conflict on the “administration and board of trustees wanting power,” and not on the financial challenges the university is facing.
“I’ve talked to different members of the union and they just want this to be over,” she said. “But they’re not going to give up their right to be a union, period … There are so many ways they could cut spending and be financially responsible and it’s very obvious that this is not the goal they had in mind. They want power. They want the union to be dissolved so they can do whatever they want with the university.”