The 200 instructors who are members of the Cincinnati State chapter of the American Association of University Professors will return to work Friday after a week-long strike that brought the school to its knees. The strike was particularly significant at this time; Ohio Senate Bill 5, much like Wisconsin’s Budget Repair bill, strips unionized public sector workers of their rights to collectively bargain and makes the act of striking illegal in the name of saving the state money (on pensions and other benefits that the workers enjoy). A statewide vote will take place in November over whether to keep the highly controversial law in place, in the meantime, teachers, firefighters, nurses and other public sector workers retain these rights.
Over the course of the year, contract negotiations had been taking place, but with the backdrop of SB5 passing and going into effect, before it was stalled by petitioning, there had been limited headway made. Only in the last few weeks did the administration and board of trustees of Cincinnati state get serious about their proposals.
Other community colleges in the state would require only around 30 “contact” hours for each (two-session) semester, after the switch from quarters, the contract that Cincinnati State faculty were offered would have required them to work upwards of 40 contact hours. These increased hours do not come with increased compensation and professors were worried that they wouldn’t be able to devote the time they need to the classes they will have to teach. These contact hours are only the time that they are in the classroom with students, they don’t include grading assignments, preparing course materials, holding office hours or attending meetings. The faculty expect to work around 54 hours each week after the switch. Their workload would increase around 25% under the contract offered, severely limiting their ability to be effective educators.
“It’s about the students,” said one for the professors on the picket line Thursday. Another remarked that their “relationship with their students” would be in trouble, worrying that they wouldn’t be able to give the personal attention that students and faculty enjoy. After effectively shutting the college down for a week, they are returning because they don’t want the students to fall behind.
And the students have shown their support as well. As the picketing died down Thursday afternoon, a group of about a dozen students joined their professors on the line. On Wednesday over 200 students held a walkout of their classes in solidarity their professors. A group of students then walked up to the president of the university, O’dell Owens’s office and demanded answers. “We have failed you,” he said to them, clearly showing that it was the administration’s unwillingness to give the professors a fair deal that led to the strike. One faculty member on the line reported her American Sign Language class being taught by a Spanish instructor, there were also reports that an algebra class was taught by a chemistry teacher as well as some other mismatches. Most classes were only running for a few minutes: students would show up, attendance would be taken, and then they would be sent on their way.
The professors see themselves as the guinea pigs of the state’s new policy direction. The reactionary measures being pushed by Governor John Kasich at the state level, and the Board of Trustees (a few of which are outspoken Kasich supporters) at Cincinnati State effect all of the workers in the state, unionized or not. Cincinnati State’s AAUP is seeing some of the first clear repercussions of SB5; they are going back to work in good faith, but it appears that negotiations will not resume until after the statewide vote, clearly because of the administration’s hope that the measure will pass and SB5 will remain in effect. At that point, faculty won’t even have a seat at the table, and will be forced to sign whatever contract (probably the one they struck over) is given to them.
Though it is probably premature and misplaced to call this strike a victory — holding out until the administration caved would have been a much more ambitious (and, arguably, achievable) goal, a few valuable results did occur as a result. For one, it promoted a sense of consciousness among the faculty and they got an idea of how much power they have. Their numbers, together, made them a big fish on campus. It also helped the faculty develop a sense of camaraderie that, even though they were members of the same union and worked in the same place, was lacking. The faculty were dispersed in small groups at each entrance to the campus, upon talking to them about their feelings on the strike, each group echoed variations on the phrase “we’ve grown closer to each other and to our students as a result of this.”
One professor likened the outcome of this strike and the SB5 referendum as a “domino effect;” if they are forced to make harsh compromises on their campus, then they will only be the first in a line of changes that threaten the entire public university system in the state. Another new state program, the enterprise university plan, which is being developed right now, would partially privatize public institutions in the state. Schools would get less money from the state and have to make it up from contributions from business interests. The fear is that these schools would indirectly become beholden to the will of these companies, effectively becoming charter universities. Not only does this plan threaten the programs which are socially minded, marginalized or unprofitable, it also threatens the affordability of an already expensive public education.
SB5 strips workers in the state of their basic democratic rights, and it is time people start using them. The “ripple effect” as one professor called it, can have consequences on all sorts of rights, not only for workers, it is worth noting that there is also a voter suppression bill that citizens turned in over 300,000 signatures to have a referendum over in 2012. The staff at Cincinnati State successfully got their message across and made their value clear to the university, this is the example that workers should take with them as they find their jobs threatened. And the community must support them. No one should be happy with their situation until all enjoy justice.
This post also appeared on the blog of the Cincinnati International Socialist Organization and on SocialistWorker.org