Ithaca College Faculty Votes to Authorize Strike, Questions Contracts Going Unrenewed

Categories Education, Ithaca, Labor

By Josh Brokaw

Members of the Ithaca College faculty union voted to authorize any action up to and including a strike on Tuesday, Feb. 14, as the union continues to negotiate a first contract with the Ithaca College administration.

The bargaining committee for Ithaca College’s chapter of SEIU Local 200 is made up of 10 instructors who are hired either on a part-time (semester-long) and full-time contingent (year-long) contract basis. Part-time faculty voted to join SEIU 200 in May 2015; the full-time contingent faculty joined them in April 2016. The two groups are bargaining for two distinct contracts, though they come to the negotiating table together.

Of those who voted in the strike authorization election, 88 percent of both part-time and full-time faculty voted yes to give their bargaining committee power to call a strike. SEIU organizer Chris Machanoff said there was a “strong turnout,” but declined to share the total number of faculty members who voted.

Union members say there are 230 to 260 part-time faculty and 60 to 70 full-time contingent faculty working at Ithaca College in a given semester, depending on how many instructors have been appointed by the administration to teach classes.

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The faculty bargaining committee and the College administration’s negotiating team are scheduled to continue contract talks on Feb. 21 and Feb. 24, using a federal mediator – who has no enforcement power – as a go-between. The IC administration negotiators shared a statement after the vote that said it “believes any strike activity prior to these sessions, or while meaningful progress is still being made, would be premature.”

As this reporter was sitting in the “fishbowl” on the second afternoon of voting, Megan Graham, a union bargaining committee member and IC assistant professor of writing, assured one uncertain faculty member that the union committee has not talked about what a strike might look like.

Several Ithaca College departments have released letters signed by tenured faculty stating they will not fill classes if the union does call a strike.

Read More: Tenured Ithaca College Faculty Signal Support for Possible Strike

For the administration’s part, its Feb. 14 statement said “the college will remain open and will be as flexible as possible to help faculty and students navigate the logistics of the strike while fulfilling our educational requirements and delivering the educational experience our students expect.”

The IC administration says there has been “significant and meaningful progress” in part-time negotiations, with 23 articles agreed upon, and says the full-time contingent negotiations are “still at an early stage.”

The faculty union says that the single issues that matter most to its members are not being addressed in administration proposals.

Wages are the “number one issue” for part-time faculty, Graham said, and a handout on the table alongside the quarter-card ballots showed the last two proposals for part-time pay from both sides. What part-time faculty wants is “pay parity” with full-time contingent instructors, so that they are paid the same amount per credit even if they don’t teach the same amount of classes in a given year.

Part-time faculty is currently paid $1,400 per credit, or $4,200 per three-credit course. The union said it proposed $1,900 per credit for a first-year instructor in November 2016, or $5,700 per three-credit course, which would pro-rate to $45,600 per year for eight courses. That number would climb to $2,075 per credit or $6,225 per course in the faculty member’s third year, a salary that would put the part-time instructor on the same pay level, pro rated, as the full-time contingent instructors.

The administration counter-offer on Jan. 19 was $1,466 per credit, $4,400 per course, or a pro rated number of $35,200 per year, climbing to $1,516 per credit ($36,400 per year) in the third year.

On Jan. 21 the union came back with a counteroffer that dropped the per credit pay in year one to $1,800 ($5,400 per course, $43,200 per year), with pay parity with full-timers still achieved in an instructor’s third year at IC. The administration’s counter-offer of Feb. 2 remained at $1,466 per credit ($4,400 per course, $35,200 per year), and raised the pay-per-credit in the second and third years by eight and nine dollars, respectively, over their Jan. 19 offer.

“We’re hoping a strong union yes vote today will push them back to the table later in month,” Graham told one voter. The assistant professor repeated the line several times during the afternoon that it would take 22 years for part-timers to achieve pay parity with full-time faculty in the administration’s proposal – and only three years with the union’s latest offer.

Sign directing faculty to Ithaca College strike authorization vote. Feb. 14, 2017. Photo: Josh Brokaw/Truthsayers

Some of the articles tentatively agreed to by both sides have come easier than others: signatures in a packet of agreed-to items from both sides date back to December 2015. Some of the agreements come straight from the faculty handbook, like those on academic freedom and protection of intellectual property; others are standard language that derives from the National Labor Relations Act and other federal labor law – faculty won’t withhold grades as a negotiating tactic, administration won’t lock out faculty.

An official grievance process and an evaluation process – beyond just student evaluations – has been agreed to for part-time faculty, neither of which existed before. They have won a guarantee of an interview for more permanent positions on campus, if they meet the minimum requirements. And on Jan. 19, the part-timers agreed to an article that says any instructor who is returning for their fourth year at Ithaca College will be offered a two-year contract – rather than continuing on semester to semester contracts.

That agreement came about through the help of the federal mediator, Graham said, and showed her “what compromise looked like at the bargaining table.”

“Moving toward that made me see the difference from where we are on wages,” Graham said. “That’s like hitting a brick wall.”

Ithaca College faculty union protest. Oct. 19, 2016. Photograph: Josh Brokaw.

So far as the full-time contingent faculty goes, their number one issue is job security, or some kind of path to promotion.

“In the half a year we have been at the table with the administration,” wrote David Kornreich, assistant professor of astronomy and physics, “they have made it clear that they have no interest whatsoever in any sort of job security or path to permanence clause in our contract, which is our most important issue.”

Four full-time contingent members of the bargaining committee have been informed they will not be returning in that role next year.

At the press conference, Tom Schneller, a lecturer in music, noted that the four full-time contingent faculty on the bargaining committee had “lost jobs since we began bargaining” and union members are “not entirely convinced this is a coincidence.”

Machanoff, the SEIU Local 200 organizer, said the Cornell Labor Law Clinic and his union are investigating the non-renewals of instructor contracts. Truthsayers has asked Ithaca College for comment on this matter and will follow up on this story.

Featured photo: Megan Graham, center-right in red dress, speaks at Feb. 14 strike vote press conference at Ithaca College. Photo: Josh Brokaw/Truthsayers

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Josh Brokaw is an independent reporter based in Ithaca, N.Y.

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