Behind the Lockout

Emily Drabinski

The Long Island University lockout is over. A rank-and-file librarian explains how faculty won and why it matters for public education around the country.

CUNY Academic Commons

Interview by
Edna Bonhomme

On August 31, the Long Island University Faculty Federation Union contract expired. Faculty and management began negotiations over a new contract, and on September 6, the faculty met to discuss a proposed agreement.

Faculty voted 226 to 10 not to accept the contract that was provided by the administration. Rather than renegotiate the agreement, however, management decided to lock out the university’s four hundred professors.

Lockouts are often confused with strikes — under both, workers aren’t working. But whereas strikes are offensive measures taken by workers against bosses, lockouts are a boss’s tool used to break unions. Such was the case in this lockout.

The twelve-day lockout ended yesterday, with faculty and staff returning to class after students missed seven days of classes. The faculty refused to accept the concessionary contract the administration tried to force them to accept, leading the union to declare victory.

To discuss the lockout, the future of the union, and corporatization of higher education, Edna Bonhomme spoke with Emily Drabinski, library coordinator at LIU and secretary of the Long Island University Faculty Federation.

Edna Bonhomme

You’re library coordinator at Long Island University — your job is to provide information literacy. As a member of the Long Island University Faculty Federation Union, can you describe the working conditions at Long Island University and how the union has shaped the working conditions in the past for faculty members and staff?

Emily Drabinski

This is the beginning of my ninth year at Long Island University. I am the coordinator of library instruction here, but I’m also secretary of the union and a proud member of the Long Island University Faculty Federation. The union was the first in private higher education and has been a notable example of organizing in higher education. I think we may be one of only two or three unions in private universities in the country.

Having a union has really shaped our working conditions, particularly mine as a librarian. I’m on the library faculty here at LIU Brooklyn, and the collective bargaining agreement has produced for me a job that is as close to classroom faculty as any other contract that I’ve seen in higher education.

I don’t know what our working conditions would be like without it. They probably would be like the working conditions of the staff at LIU Brooklyn. The staff at LIU Brooklyn invariably make salaries that shock me. One nonunion administrator makes somewhere around the high twenties, low thirties [$20,000 to $30,000 dollars per year]. Not a living wage in contemporary Brooklyn, New York.

The salaries at CUNY are currently higher, they have base minimums and a step system, but the salaries that we get at Long Island University are fairly fair. At least we thought they were until we understood that we were getting paid significantly less than the faculty members at the Post campus.

Edna Bonhomme

What led to the lockout by the university’s administration?

Emily Drabinski

It’s really important to note that the administration locked out the faculty at Long Island University Brooklyn before the faculty had a chance to review and vote on the contract as proposed by the administration.

When we met on Tuesday, September 6 — which seems like a year ago now — we had already lost our health insurance, we had already lost our wages, we had already been locked out of our communication systems at LIU Brooklyn. Longstanding tradition at LIU has been for negotiations to continue up until the final day of the contract, August 31, and then for the faculty to meet and ratify or not ratify the contract on the first day after Labor Day.

They knew that was the plan. I’m the secretary [of the union], I know that I had emailed and we had reserved a room [for continued negotiations]. They knew that was coming and they locked us out before that could happen.

Edna Bonhomme

Why do you think they took such measures?

Emily Drabinski

Labor and employer relations at LIU Brooklyn have always been contentious — that is the task of a unionized workforce. We knew that things were going to be difficult.

When I arrived at LIU Brooklyn, there we six unions on campus; right now there are four. This is the president who has been hired to bust the unions, and she’s been successful so far. We knew she would be coming for us next.

But I don’t think any of us anticipated a lockout. It’s unprecedented because the lockout was so disruptive and so harmful to the reputation of the university as well as to the workers who were locked out. I was talking to my partner and asked, “What’s going to happen?” As we got down to the end — and we’ve been bargaining since April — the administration had not been moving, almost at all.

They’ve been meeting with us, they had been sticking within the letter of the law. They clearly know how to go right up to the line of bargaining in good faith, and they just stuck there.

They began advertising for replacement workers in July on is I guess where you get your best higher education faculty to replace us. We assumed that was in the event of a strike, which of course we hadn’t and haven’t called.

My guess would be that they have been preparing for the lockout probably since the president arrived.

They told the press that the reason that they locked us out was to prevent a strike. We are a fairly militant union. We go on strike for working conditions, we go on strike for wages. That might have happened in this event — I don’t know, it’s hard to know now what would have happened had they not locked us out.

What they don’t say is that the other option was to negotiate in good faith and bargain a fair contract for the faculty workforce.

Edna Bonhomme

What do you think would be a fair contract? Specifically, how does that relate to the contract that the management wanted to propose?

Emily Drabinski

The contract has a lot of little things in it, “work rules.” We have proposed some things, then taken them off the table like eliminating criminal background checks on all faculty on a periodic basis. Some of the things that we see as having to do with academic freedom or work rules around when grades need to be submitted, the submission of syllabi, they want to institute a process of post-tenure review. A number of contract provisions seem to us to be about systematic transferring power from the unionized faculty to management.

Other issues relate to salary parity with our colleagues at the Post campus. We have a parity clause that says essentially that both parties want to work towards parity between both campuses. One of our faculty members got a hold of the contract at LIU Post about a year ago and saw that the minimums were systematically $10,000-15,000 less than a salary minimum at LIU Post.

We would like to close that gap because that’s not right. It’s hardly more expensive to live in Long Island than it is in Brooklyn at this point. There’s no reason we should be getting paid less, so we would like parity for the full-time faculty.

The administration has tried to get the money for parity, so they proposed a five-year parity settlement in which we’d all be brought to the base minimum after five years. They want to pay for that by taking money out of the pockets of adjuncts and out of the pockets of librarians.

The librarians are smaller, the adjuncts a little harder to organize, so the administration is trying to attack those two parts of the membership and pull out of their pockets the money to pay for parity for full-time faculty.

Edna Bonhomme

How then does this two-tier system, in particular the disparity between adjuncts and full-time professors, impact support of the labor union? How do you encourage full-time faculty student solidarity with the adjuncts and the librarians?

Emily Drabinski

It’s tough. We’re a union that has a full-time and part-time faculty in it. A lot of universities don’t have that, because the management drives a wedge between the two groups, pitting them against each other. It’s hard to know how that would have played out had they not locked us out.

I can’t say that all of my full-time colleagues are committed to the wages and working conditions of the part-time faculty. But when management locked us out, they produced a militant, unified group of protected workers. We’re going to stay out together.

That said, the two-tier system was really a regressive contract. It cuts wages for new adjuncts in an effort to split the adjuncts.

Edna Bonhomme

You mentioned the issue of academic freedom. Can you speak to the role the LIU administration has had in undermining faculty and staff’s ability to determine things like their syllabi, what they teach, and working hours? And how did the lockout impact faculty members’ classes and facilities?

Emily Drabinski

It’s interesting — now that this has happened to us, we see how we are part of a bigger, longer, older story.

In retrospect, I had thought a lot of things — submitting our syllabi to the deans for review, to submit to the state education department, or learning outcomes assessment work that we do for middle states and other accreditation agencies —  were simply about facilitating shared governance within the university.

I bought the lie that they were an important part of ensuring quality education for our students. But now, I see them as part of management assertions of control over the classroom.

Before the lockout, I would have said, “Whatever, you just put your learning outcomes on the syllabus — that’s not a big deal.” Every teacher I know has an idea of what they want students to learn and is interested in finding out whether or not those students learn those things, right?

Now I see that they wanted those things in part so that they could replace us.

One of the things that was most egregious to us was during the summer, administration began taking syllabi that had been submitted and going into all Blackboard courses and taking syllabi down and uploading them into course management shelves. They then handed the syllabi off to replacement faculty. Okay, so now it’s clearly not about facilitating shared governance and a quality education — it is about making our labor replaceable and fungible.

They’ve tried to put a wall between us and the students, but it hasn’t worked, because it’s hard to be on anybody’s side but ours in this.

The students are as affected as we are. They’ve been sharing the syllabi, and they’re shocking. Syllabi from 2011 with a faculty name on it that we’ve never had before. A syllabus from a history class that’s been cobbled together from a bunch of different syllabi, so it’s history until the year 1500, but they tell you to buy the textbook of 1500 to the present.

Edna Bonhomme

At the Long Island University Brooklyn facility, the Faculty Federation is a subdivision of the American Federation of Teachers. What role did the rest of organized labor, both national and local, play in helping resist the lockout? Was the faculty at the LIU Post campus part of your organizing effort?

Emily Drabinski

If you had asked me this question two weeks ago I would have said labor is dead or dying. Today I believe labor is alive and well and we can build on the power that we’ve built right now.

As they say, management is the best organizer. We’ve long had a union, everybody is a member, we’re an agency shop. Now everyone really feels invested in the union and knows that the union is the only way that we can secure fair wages and working conditions for ourselves at the university.

Having the union infrastructure available to us has been meaningful. We’ve been able to facilitate communication through union channels and that’s been important.

Both the New York State Union of Teachers (NYSUT) and the AFT stepped in and said, “This is not a small, local problem. This is a sign of a national problem” — the systematic transfer of rights from faculty to management, the fungibility of our labor, the fact that the primary goal is to deliver the commodity of higher education at a lower per-unit cost (which you can do by hiring part-time faculty and paying them significantly less than you pay full-timers). This is a national story.

As soon as we were locked out, NYSUT — who by the way was on the verge of their own strike on August 31 — jumped immediately into the picture. AFT Higher Ed specifically has been critical to have in our corner.

Because it’s so much about if you’re going to be able to stand outside and stand against the management contract. Which was easy to do in a rage on Tuesday, September 6, but it’s harder to do as bills begin to loom and you don’t have your salary anymore and you live in Brooklyn. You pay your rent or mortgage or you have a kid who is starting school. Or you’re uninsured and you’ve got to cross the streets in this fucking town.

We really needed the support of others to help us manage that fear and deal with some of the material implications of this lockout. AFT and NYSUT were critical for us in that.

Edna Bonhomme

Have the faculty at LIU Post been critical in helping with your fight in Brooklyn?

Emily Drabinski

It’s interesting. They have a different local. They’re also an NYSUT union but they’re a different local. They ratified a contract extension a year ago and the terms of that contract extension played a big role in what management has been willing to ask and demand of us in this.

Their union, I think, has not been as . . . We have not seen the solidarity I would expect from another higher education union. The faculty are outraged, there isn’t anybody at Long Island University Post who works for the university who is happy with the leadership there. Just this morning I got an email — the faculty held a vote of no confidence in the president.

There’s a memo from faculty saying they support the Brooklyn campus, but that’s not enough. I heard stories of faculty in the School of Education at Post teaching courses in the School of Education at Brooklyn. They replaced the labor of Brooklyn faculty and made it possible for management to carry this out. So yeah, I have mixed feelings.

Edna Bonhomme

What are some of the key lessons learned from the protests that started on September 6, and how did they change during the lockout?

Emily Drabinski

We have each other and that’s all we have. That is what I’ve learned. Management has power and 90 percent of the time they win. The only way that we have power is through collective power and collective organizing.

I’m the secretary of the union, so I’m sending a ton of emails and people are responding to my emails, but what they’re orally responding to are the conversations that they’re having with each other. The first couple nights of the protest, me and a handful of other phone bankers called hundreds of members to get them to come out to the initial actions. That was totally critical, standing together.

We gathered every day too with the student lockout solidarity actions, which just blew me away. They fucked with the wrong students.

Just having the conversations that we have when we were waiting around — because it turns out union struggle involves a lot of waiting, it’s a lot of standing up, it’s a lot of being outside when it’s hot. Those conversations have been amazing.

There are faculty that I had no idea were secretly hiding a militant left-labor personality underneath, like their nursing faculty outfit, that now I feel like I have a different kind of relationship with. It’s going to be about sustaining those relationships going forward.

Edna Bonhomme

Speaking of students, doctoral students in the psychology program posted their dissent about the lockout to the Long Island University Board of Trustees, and Activists for Social Justice organized the teach-in and walkout to protest the faculty lockout. A little less than two hundred students said that they wanted to drop their courses until their faculty came back.

Can you tell me more about the students and how they work with faculty on the resistance to the lockout and how students have continued to support their faculty

Emily Drabinski

The students were totally outraged. I saw that happening at two levels.

First the pure injustice of the fact that we make less than the professors at Long Island University Brooklyn when they pay the same tuition. They’re outraged at that. They’re outraged at just a pure customer service level. Even if they bought the line that higher education is about purchasing a credential in order to enter the workforce and get paid enough, they’re outraged that they are not getting the credential that they paid for.

I also think this is happening in the context of political and social movements that I haven’t seen before in my life. One of the student organizers came off of the Bernie Sanders campaign trail. He 100 percent believes that he can make a change in the world and make a difference with the organizers, with his cohort.

He’s totally right about that, and it’s been beautiful to see. I would like to say that the faculty has been organizing with the students and had lots of conversations with them out on the line. Faculty held their classes outside the campus and tried to connect with our students. This is a pretty organic student movement for a right to an education that I think will have implications beyond this.

Edna Bonhomme

On September 12, you posted an article on the LIU Faculty Federation Union’s website about statements of solidarity from various associations, organizations, and unions including but not limited to the American Allied Professional Library Association. In addition, the union members for AFT, the Professional Staff Congress, and CUNY adjunct professors have attended the protest and rallies. What role did inter-institutional solidarity play in the struggle?

Emily Drabinski

There’s the feeling part, the affect part, where it is just meaningful to know that other people see you and that you’re not alone in the struggle. That matters a lot when we’re trying to stay out.

I had to pay my credit card bill this week, and it was scary to do knowing I didn’t have an income coming. It was sad because . . . this is cheesy, but my login is built around my love for the Blackbird Nation here at LIU Brooklyn [the school’s mascot]. I had to type that in, and it was scary and sad.

They wanted us to succeed. They know that our struggle is not the only one — that we are emblematic of struggles that faculty are facing in higher education all over the country. It helped us, and helped me, see our struggle in the context of a larger struggle for higher education.

Eventually this contract is going to get settled. I don’t know what that’s going to look like, what’s that’s going to feel like, now that we have a galvanized, mobilized class of workers at LIU Brooklyn . . . Other unions and that solidarity, the solidarity networks that we’re building right now, will help us build a sustainable movement going forward. That’s not just about me defending myself against the lockout, but about taking back higher education for teachers and students.

Edna Bonhomme

What are some of the next steps for the movement, and what do you think it will take to win?

Emily Drabinski

Next steps for the movement are more unions. We need more unions in higher education, to attack corporate takeovers of higher education.

To make material changes in the lives of faculty, which are material changes I think in the lives of our students, we need organized labor. I hope the win here will begin to set up some of the avenues that we can use to stop the corporate takeover of higher education more generally.

Edna Bonhomme

What are the next steps for organizing?

Emily Drabinski

We need to organize for a fair contract. This is a big victory — we forced administration to capitulate and put us back to work. Now we have the fight for a fair contract in front of us.

We also need to work toward meaningful shared governance. Faculty are better organized than they have ever been, and the time is now to put that organization to work to make sure all of us have a say in bargaining for our working conditions.