Hundreds of Wright State University faculty union members walked off the job Tuesday to strike, causing confusion in unattended classes and leaving both sides unsure when they’ll be able to resolve the ongoing labor dispute.
Dozens of members of the Wright State chapter of the American Association of University Professors began picketing at 8 a.m. Tuesday near the entrances to campus. Most union members held red signs that said “On Strike For Wright,” while others displayed homemade posters.
Protesters chanted for contract negotiations to restart while others chanted for WSU president Cheryl Schrader “to go.”
“This is terrible for this university but they’ve left us no choice, Martin Kich, president of the AAUP-WSU said while on the picket line.
Around 40 percent of the AAUP-WSU’s 560 or so members continued to teach as the strike started, according to the university.
The strike is the union’s response to the WSU board of trustees decision on Jan. 4 to implement the final terms of employment for the union which includes moving faculty union members into a “uniform” health care plan, maintaining current rules of retrenchment, including no pay raises and allowing faculty to be furloughed as part of “cost savings days.” The union has taken issue with the furlough policy, changes to health care, new provisions for promotions and tenure appointment, workload and a merit pay system.
Wright State’s finances troubled contract talks. The university reduced its spending by around $53 million in fiscal year 2018 in an attempt to begin correcting years of overspending.
Kich and other union leaders on Tuesday said they were prepared to strike as long as necessary to get the administration to return to the negotiating table. Union members plan to picket from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every weekday until a deal is reached, said Noeleen McIlvenna, a WSU history professor and contract administration officer for the union has said.
Board of trustees chairman Doug Fecher said he wants to reach an agreement quickly to end the strike though he was unsure Tuesday when a deal might be made. There is a “lot of misunderstanding” and “mistrust” which Fecher said both sides need to get past to “make the road to a resolution a lot easier.”
“The board, and I think the AAUP, would like to get a deal done as quickly as we can so our faculty can go back to teaching,” Fecher said.
Classes go on?
Some Wright State University students said their Tuesday classes were not covered by the university as the faculty union went on strike.
Prior to the strike, administrators said classes would go on though some might be consolidated, moved online temporarily or taught by a substitute. Schrader, an engineer, planned to return to the classroom during the strike, as did other administrators.
But, some students posted on social media that their classes did not have an instructor or were given “alternate assignments.” Some also said they were not told whether their course would be covered during its next session.
Students listed their classes that were not covered in a Facebook group called WSU Students for Faculty. Among the classes students listed as going unstaffed today were courses in English, Spanish, philosophy, cybersecurity, computer science and more.
“We arrived to class for a five minute lecture on why we need to follow the syllabus and continue working but no instructor would be provided,” Casey Blunt, an undergraduate studying business wrote in the Facebook group.
The university planned to have people checking classes Tuesday to make sure they were staffed and to take attendance. Students could be at risk of losing their federal student aid if they do not attend classes during the strike, according to the university.
“Having someone stand outside the door just to have us write our names does not count as covering a class,” Evelyn Belcher, an undergraduate in the WSU College of Liberal Arts posted in the Facebook group.
Despite some disruptions, the university reported that around 80 percent of classes usually taught by union members went on without issues.
In some cases, faculty members who said they would be in class did not show up, according to the university. When a faculty member did not show up, an academic department was contacted and students were either assigned alternative work or dismissed, according to WSU.
“Our staff is working hard under uncertain circumstances to fulfill our obligations to students,” Schrader said in a prepared statement. “Students should know we are working hard to prevent disruptions from continuing.”
Students on the picket line
Some students stopped by picket lines Tuesday, with a few bringing coffee and other food for union members who braved low temperatures.
Alexandria Bayliff, a sophomore studying mass communications, went out to see her picketing professors shortly after they started to strike.
“We just wanted to show our professors some love,” Bayliff said. “We know it’s hard what they’re going through and we want them to know that we value them and appreciate the quality of education they give us and that we care about the way they’re being treated.”
Bayliff said her fellow students have displayed “mixed emotions” about the strike and that several are surprised that it’s actually happening.
Jordan Allen, a sophomore studying psychology, said the strike wasn’t top of mind for most students, even as they headed to some classes without their usual professors.
“A lot of people aren’t talking about it…but I think it’s overall a surprise for everybody,” Allen said.
How WSU got here
The labor dispute has received the attention of local, state and national lawmakers and leaders.
The Ohio Department of Higher Education was planning to monitor the strike at Wright State, Chancellor Randy Gardner said in a prepared statement last week. Gardner said he knows the university “continues to make its students the top priority.”
New Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, who is from the Miami Valley, is also keeping an eye on the situation, said spokesman Dan Tierney.
“Our office is monitoring this situation closely, and we have been receiving regular updates from the Chancellor’s office,” Tierney said via email.
Along with DeWine’s office, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and Dayton Chamber of Commerce president Phil Parker have all weighed in. Each have urged the union and the administration to find a resolution.
The strike brings to a head nearly two years of failed contract negotiations and multiple recent attempts to avoid a strike that went nowhere.
The union turned down an offer the administration made an offer last week to begin negotiating a “successor agreement” to the current terms of employment if the union withdrew an unfair labor practice complaint filed with the state.
On Thursday, the union emailed the administration’s attorney saying it would withdraw the complaint if the administration was willing to continue negotiating a current contract. The administration followed up by filing its own unfair labor practice complaints with the state.
In an email sent to the union’s chief negotiator on Friday, WSU legal counsel Larry Chan offered to formally clarify employment terms around furloughs, health care and workload in an effort to reassure union members.
Both the administration and union leaders have said they hoped to avoid a strike but one first started to appear inevitable late last week. Going on strike was always a “final straw,” for the union, McIlvenna and other union leaders have said.
“It’s very sad that we have to be out here but its also bolstering our spirits that we have so many out here ready to fight for Wright and ready to fight for quality education here at the university,” McIlvenna said. “It’s very sad that it had to come to this.”
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