Oakland University faculty strike over contract dispute mars first day of classes

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Rochester — The campus of Oakland University was quieter than expected on the first day of fall classes Thursday after the faculty was unable to reach a labor contract with the university and went on strike.

University officials encouraged students to show up to classes or contact their instructors to see if classes would be held. But the parking lots were half-full, and only a handful of students were inside the university student center on Thursday morning.

Striking faculty members work the picket line in front of the main entrance at Oakland University on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.

The union representing 880 OU faculty members said it has been part of negotiations with university officials and mediators to reach a contract before the start of the fall semester. The contract of the American Association of University Professors, Oakland chapter, expired Wednesday night and proposed pay cuts were one issue preventing a deal at the Rochester-based university. 

“Oakland is using the pandemic as a pretext to cut faculty compensation and exert control over academic programs," Karen Miller, president of the OU chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said in a statement.

Union leaders said the college is proposing that professors accept a substantial and permanent decrease in overall compensation, along with cuts in benefits and retirement contributions, after the university increased tuition this year 4.2% after freezing it last year. Union officials said they negotiated a salary freeze for professors at the beginning of the pandemic.

OU called its proposals "fair and fiscally responsible." 

"Oakland regrets the strike action called for by the AAUP, an action that is contrary to the interests of our students," according to a Thursday afternoon statement released by the university. "Labor contract issues should be resolved at the bargaining table and not interfere with our students’ academic objectives." 

OU spokesman Brian Bierley said the pandemic has contributed to a $17 million shortfall for the school that had an enrollment of 18,500 students last year. The residence halls are at 50% capacity and enrollment is expected to fall by 1,000 students to about 17,500 students, he said. OU's 2021-22 budget is about $286 million.

Bierley added that the two sides "are getting closer" to an agreement.

"I am hoping to have some news fairly soon," he said.

According to a post on the union's website, as of 5 p.m. Thursday: "The two sides continue to negotiate. Much of today’s session has been focused on discussing the faculty tuition waiver. We remain at the table and intend to do so throughout the evening.

At 8:15 p.m., the union posted, "We have no progress to report. Oakland continues to challenge the contractual language regarding the faculty tuition benefit. They have not addressed the bulk of the economic issues today. We remain at the table." 

How students responded

Allyson Kemp was among the students who learned from her instructors that two of her three classes would not be held.

"I was supposed to be going to my first year of in-person classes today, but it was canceled," said Kemp, a sophomore who spent her freshmen year in online classes in the school's nursing program.

"It's sad," said Kemp. "I feel bad for what's happening to (the faculty). I understand why they are striking. I would too if I was in their position. At the same time, I feel bad for the students because they're ripping our education away from us. You don't want professors who are underpaid and you don't want students not getting a quality education."

OU professors went on strike in 2009, Bierley said, but the issues were resolved in one day. Then, professors were asked to agree to freeze their salaries after former President Gary Russi was given a $100,000 salary increase.

Thursday morning, professors picketed at all of the university entrances, holding signs as cars drove past and honked.

The American Federation of Teachers Michigan issued a letter of support to the striking professors. The union represents 35,000 educators and health care providers working in K-12 and intermediate school districts, community colleges, universities and hospitals across the state.

"These educators have continued to work hard despite the difficult circumstances posed by COVID-19 and they deserve fair compensation and respect from the administration," said David Hecker, president of AFT Michigan. "We hope OU administrators will choose to value the well-being of students and educators and resolve these issues quickly.”

Striking faculty members wave to motorists as they walk the picket line in front of the main entrance at Oakland University on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.

Faculty members planned to picket daily until a contract is reached. Bargaining, which is being conducted with the help of a state mediator, resumed Thursday morning.

"The University hopes to resolve remaining contract issues as soon as possible and with minimal disruption to fall classes, which will not be canceled," the university wrote in an unsigned Thursday letter to the campus community.

But few students were on campus Thursday morning.

Blessing Batalonga, a freshman studying film production, wasn't sure whether her class would be held. She got up at 8 a.m. and went to the Oakland Center before her 10 a.m. class in history.

"I can understand why this is going on," she said. "Things are going to happen. It is what it is."

Burke Robins drove in from Utica for his first day of classes as a freshman and wasn't sure if his class would be held but said he planned to show up. He said he was not upset that his instructors were striking.

"They have a right to do it," said Robins. "It's not really a big deal to me as long as I get to classes eventually."

Pandemic delayed negotiations

Union officials say they negotiated the salary freeze at the start of the pandemic even as they took on the extra work of transitioning the majority of courses to new teaching methods.

The union's contract expired on Aug. 14, 2020, but was extended a year. Negotiations began in May. When a resolution was not reached by Aug. 14 this year, the contract was extended again to Wednesday's deadline.

"The university has received state and federal assistance during the pandemic. There is no longer a financial emergency, administrative pay has been restored to pre-pandemic levels and there have been new hires at the upper levels of management," Miller said. "The money is there to fairly compensate faculty.” 

Oakland University professor of communications Tom Discenna talks about the faculty strike among his colleagues that began Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.

Tom Discenna, an OU communications professor, said the proposed cuts are to the overall compensation package. While there is a small salary increase on the table, it is offset by increases in employee health care costs and cuts to retirement benefits, he said.

The university is also proposing cutting the salaries of part-time lecturers who earn about $25,000 and teach about half of the classes at the school, Discenna said.

"I was looking forward to going back to teaching face-to-face today," he said. "But we don't have a contract with the university. Until we get a fair and equitable contract, we won't be going back."

University negotiators are also seeking increased control over academic programs and changes that would lead to significant cuts to the status, wages and benefits of part-time faculty, according to Doug Wendell, the faculty union's chief negotiator.

“The union team has been working throughout the summer to come to an agreement that serves the interests of faculty and students alike. Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions and ensuring the livelihoods of our members ensures a quality education at Oakland,” Wendell said.

The university accused the union of spreading misinformation.

"Oakland values and appreciates its faculty and regrets any misinformation being disseminated that suggests otherwise," according to the university's Thursday afternoon statement said. "The proposals on the table provide faculty with increases to their compensation package in each year of the contract. The proposed new contract also provides some unprecedented enhancements for the part-time faculty in the AAUP bargaining unit. These proposals have been made even though no other Oakland group employee has received an increase in base pay this year. "

"In addition, the proposals better align faculty benefits with those provided to all other employees, and the increases are being offered despite an unprecedented shortfall of revenues due to an unprecedented drop in enrollment. "  

From left, striking Oakland University professors Shailesh Lal and Sara Blumer-Schuette, who both work in the Biological Scientist Department, wave to motorists as they blow their horns in support of striking faculty members on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.

The union said it filed an unfair labor practice complaint because the school's vaccine mandate for employees was not negotiated. 

OU announced the mandate late last month and is allowing students to file an exemption for health or religious reasons. Officials threatened termination for faculty and staff but didn't emphasize a fair process would occur first, Miller said. They also wouldn't commit to allowing exemptions for employees or allowing them to teach online, he said.

"If students can do that, faculty ought to be able to do that," said Miller, an OU associate professor of history. "We just wanted the students and faculty to be treated the same."

About 71% of classes were planned to be held in-person this semester with the remainder being held virtually.