By Jamie McQuaid
(Jamie McQuaid is the History Department union steward for Graduate Employees Organizing Committee-AFT Local 6123.)
On Feb. 26, nearly 100 lecturers, graduate instructors, students and allied workers marched through Wayne State University’s main campus in Detroit to protest the mass firing of lecturers, who are nontenured instructors, announced in February.
Chanting passionately and carrying protest signs, teachers and their allies marched in the wind and snow through the campus student center and around the main library. Some historically minded lecturers created signs with nothing on them save illustrations of the traditional French guillotine. The march ended in the atrium of the Faculty Administration Building, where the offices of WSU’s president are located.
The atmosphere was one of frustration and uncertainty, but also of solidarity and hope. While a representative of the lecturers’ union, the American Association of University Professors-AFT Local 6123, promised further protests at the next Board of Governors meeting, armed campus police assembled in the area. The representative of the union was not allowed to deliver a petition with over 800 signatures in support of the protesting lecturers to President Roy Wilson until the chief of WSU’s special police force could arrive on the scene.
The demand for a demonstration and union action began the second week of February when 38 percent of the lecturers at Wayne State’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) received notifications that their employment contracts would not be renewed for the following academic year. Every lecturer in CLAS who was up for a renewal was denied, without exception. This meant that lecturers — many of whom hold distinguished academic awards for their commitment to student success and support — were effectively fired, leaving academic staff in a state of panic as they scrambled to find potential work at other institutions in the fall. [Academic workers are often forced to apply for openings a year before projected availability.]
Wayne State’s administration maintains that many of the lecturers will be hired back in the fall, but how many (and who) remains to be seen.
This practice stems from an already existing trend at Wayne State — and many other colleges across the country — to pursue austerity programs by replacing tenured faculty with more precariously employed and underpaid lecturers. In a bid to win back some employment protections, the AAUP-AFT won an agreement from the university administration last year to supply those lecturers who would not see their contracts renewed with earlier notifications, so they would be able to find work elsewhere.
What was agreed, as a bargained, common sense approach to provide academic workers in unstable employment with some greater security, has instead been used by the administration to instill a culture of fear among workers who want to rely on working-class power to win basic rights in the workplace.
Attempts by the administration to justify these actions are easy to see through. Wayne State officials have claimed that it is impossible for the university to adequately project how many lecturers they will need to employ in the coming academic year, since they have not drawn up a budget for the coming 2020-21 terms. At the same time, however, Wayne State has committed over $20 million to construct a new basketball arena and almost another $50 million on building renovations, largely paid for by funds brought in from the labor of Wayne State lecturers.
This is, of course, to say nothing of President Roy Wilson’s salary which, in his most recent contract, increased about $100,000 in 2018 to over $603,000 annually. As Wayne State’s teachers continue to see fewer opportunities for secure tenured positions, stonewalling at reasonable demands for a cost-of-living adjustment or expanded benefits and an increasingly antilabor attitude from their administration, academic workers across the university are beginning to realize that Wayne State’s administration needs them more than they need the administration.