“There Has to Be a Place in Society Where It’s Not About Who Your Daddy Is”

Noeleen McIlvenna

At Wright State University in Ohio, faculty recently went on one of the longest strikes in the history of public universities. Jacobin spoke with a strike leader about the assault on public education.


Interview by
Meagan Day

In late January, hundreds of faculty union members at Wright State University went on strike. What ensued was a twenty-day work stoppage, one of the longest strikes at a public university in American history.

The strike came in response to a contract imposed unilaterally by the administration in early January, featuring dramatic cuts across the board. While the final agreement reached at the end of the strike contained some concessions from the union, such as reductions in summer teaching pay, the union successfully protected its right to bargain over healthcare, and won a 5 percent raise for members by 2023.

Noeleen McIlvenna, a professor of American history at WSU, was the chair of the contract campaign and strike committees of the university’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP-WSU).

Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke with McIlvenna about how she and her coworkers maintained the line, the growing class consciousness of white-collar professionals, the inspiration they drew from the Red for Ed strike wave, and the importance of public education to the entire working class.

Meagan Day

There must have been enormous pressure to go back to work. How did you maintain the line for that long?

Noeleen McIlvenna

We’ve had a strong union for years, and people had come to understand that it was a great asset to them. The contract has protected not just salaries, benefits, and workload, but things like promotion and tenure. In most universities, these are things that give faculty great anxiety.

So in many ways over the years, people have seen that their union protects them, and they compared that to the stories from other campuses where faculty didn’t have union protection. That has given us a very stable long-term base.

 When we began our contract campaign, long before the strike, we had a good system of transparent communication, keeping our membership informed every step of the way and helping members understand exactly what’s at stake.

And then, when the President and the Board of Trustees came after everything in our contract, that instilled an even greater sense of unity. They went after tenure, workload, salaries, benefits, summer teaching, the circumstances in which non-tenure faculty could get security of employment. Everybody was affected by at least one of those issues, and most by many of them.

When the board imposed this dreadful contract on January 4, the necessity of a strike was immediately clear. It was so horrific that nearly everyone was affected in a very negative way. We had over 90 percent of members vote, and 85 percent of them voted to authorize a strike. 

To prepare for the strike, we put in a system of liaisons in every department. I was scripting emails that went out constantly, and we had people who would walk up and down every corridor and make sure people had read those emails, understood what was at stake, and would report concerns back to the executive committee.

When the strike grew nearer, we divvied up responsibilities, delegating them to people who maybe hadn’t been very involved but were stepping up. Like, “You’re on the morning crew setting things up on the line, you’re responsible for tables and tarps.” Everybody knew someone who was involved in the planning, a friend in your department or someone else.

When the strike began and as it went on, we were worried about people dropping out. We were shocked at how few did.

The first two days on the line, the weather was horrific. I remember on the afternoon of the second day, looking at these people with the freezing rain being blown into their faces going, “Oh my God, if this keeps up,” you know? But it turned out like the next day we had even bigger turnout. There was really nothing to fear, and there was something about the shared experience that bolstered us.

There were many things that bolstered us, including external support. The way the other unions showed up, the way students showed up, the way alumni, retirees, and all kinds of volunteers from the community showed up. Democratic Socialists of America had a crew that helped us. And we were meeting other faculty on the line every day, people we didn’t know before from totally different departments. We talked together about our fears and concerns, and helped reassure each other that we needed to hold this line.

Meagan Day

Tell me more about all of the different groups that expressed solidarity, and the effect this had on your morale as the strike went on.

Noeleen McIlvenna

The students were the big one, because we knew that if they turned against us, we were lost. The university had tools at their disposal to directly communicate with students that we didn’t have, email lists and so on. We knew if the students came to see us the way that the administration and the trustees tried to present us — spoiled, well-paid — we’d be in big trouble. 

But some of the students organized a “Students for Faculty” group, and they would go into the classes that were still meeting regularly and organize parades out to the picket. The students organized on Facebook to report stories of the chaos that was going on inside, and it got a lot of media attention.

The administration was constantly trying to downplay the extent of the strike, spread rumors, and sow discord among us. They were reporting outright falsehoods, saying people were crossing picket lines when they weren’t. To the public they were saying that classes were “covered,” which really only meant that someone was there taking attendance. The students themselves organized to counter all the information coming from the administration.

The Democratic Socialists of America were one of the morning crews. Those mornings were freezing and dark. These guys would arrive in the dark and the cold and go right in there and set up a table and a tent. And the tents kept blowing down, and these guys would fix it, just trying to give people some shelter so that they’d be able to sustain through these three and four hour shifts. That was beautiful.

I remember one day, it was a cold day again, and I was back at strike headquarters. And all of a sudden somebody comes in carrying this huge stack of boxes from Firehouse Subs, and they said they’re from a secret admirer. Well it turned out it was from Kent State. That kept happening. We had food and even volunteers from the University of Dayton, Oberlin, all the way from Akron.

Our union is part of the AFL-CIO, and they sent delegations on different days. Half a dozen members of the Communication Workers of America arrived one day. They stood out there in the cold with us in. For many of our members, this was mind-blowing. You know, “This is not your fight, this is freezing weather, and you’re just standing out on this picket line with us.”

The ironworkers even came one day. I think that helped our members understand what a union really means, more than they’d ever understood it in their life.

Meagan Day

Right, because white-collar people often don’t tend to see themselves as workers. This kind of solidarity from blue-collar workers must have really driven home that the fight is larger than just one industry, it’s about the entire labor movement and ultimately the entire working class.

Noeleen McIlvenna

Very much so. The kinds of statements the trustees were making, they were very dismissive of us. It’s true that we have a certain amount of control over our time, our schedules, which is different from many workers. But faculty have a tendency to look at trustees and think, “I’m one of them, I’ve got a PhD,” and they started to realize, “They don’t think I’m one of them.”

The way the trustees were speaking, it was like they thought we were peasants. It became clear that they’re CEOs who think workers should be put in their place. It took some time for the faculty to really grasp that, but it began to dawn on more and more of our membership. The physical presence of those AFL-CIO colleagues and comrades really brought it home for people.

Meagan Day

There is of course stratification within the profession, with adjuncts being the most precarious and poorly-paid. It was interesting to see how that factored into the administration’s strategy. On some level, by pushing scholars into adjunct roles higher ed has created a reserve army of precarious, mobile, and exploitable labor in academia. But the process is not complete: you can’t just hire huge numbers of adjunct professors at the drop of the hat. And yet that’s exactly what the administration pretended they were doing. They put out a hiring ad for 300 adjunct workers to take your place. Surely they didn’t think they were going to be successful. Were they just trying to use the illusion of a reserve army of labor to scare you?

Noeleen McIlvenna

Yes, that ad was issued around two weeks into our strike. They had actually put out a similar ad before the strike and it hadn’t worked at all, so we didn’t fall for it. We knew it was crazy, and our members were not scared by it. In fact I think it backfired and helped us, because it got a lot of media attention in the higher ed world online. Bloggers with huge readerships were posting it and telling their readers not to scab.

Department chair is a rotating job, and many of us have been chairs before. We know how difficult it is to find even one replacement if somebody gets sick in the middle of a semester. During the strike, I wrote an email to the membership every night, and one of the lines I repeated was, “We are united and irreplaceable.” The faculty learned during the strike that these were not just empty words.

Meagan Day

Years before the strike, the WSU administration created a financial crisis through mismanagement, blowing money on high-paid administrators and consultants. They then turned around and tried to use that financial crisis as a pretext to break the union, citing the need for austerity.

I’m here in Oakland, California, where my partner is a public school teacher, and the teachers are planning to go on strike. It’s the exact same story here, word for word. What continuity do you see between your struggle and the teachers’ strike wave that’s been sweeping the nation?

Noeleen McIlvenna

Oh, I see enormous similarities! I should have mentioned that before, when you were asking how we held the line so long. We were inspired by the teachers around the country who’ve been striking to protect public education. When they say, “Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions,” that really hit home for us.

And as the teachers say, it’s up to educators ourselves to fight for public education. If you listen to those teachers in West Virginia and Arizona in Kentucky and all the different places, they are all saying, you know, “We kept thinking somebody either at the state level or at the superintendent level would be up there fighting for public education, because that’s a public good. But nobody did.”

Many of us have been teaching for twenty or thirty years. We know firsthand what was possible before that isn’t possible now, and we know where it’s headed. It’s dawned on educators that if we don’t fight, nobody will.

Even before the mismanagement at the university, the state funding had been cut. We see how this is impacting our students, passing on the burden with student debt. We also see our class sizes grow, and little things like not having the money to bring in a speaker. The library budget has been devastated. And you always think, it’s somebody else’s job to take care of that. Somebody will come along and fix it. But eventually you realize it’s up to you.

From our first day of the contract campaign, we said that we need people to understand this is faculty fighting for students. We kept saying, it’s not about the money, it’s about education.

Our chapter color has always been blue, but we changed it to red for the strike, for Red for Ed. We feel very inspired by the K-12 teachers, and feel a strong connection to what they’re doing. We want people to understand that this is all one fight.

Meagan Day

Wright State’s student body is primarily working-class, and because of the increasing demand for college degrees to be able to participate in the workforce, their time in college is in many ways an extension of their journey through public education to become prepared for the economy. So the attack on their education seems part of a larger offensive against public education in general, something that the working class has historically fought tooth and nail for.

Noeleen McIlvenna

Correct. 100 percent. We have a lot of first generation students. We have a lot of students who come because it’s cheaper than Ohio State, or to live at home and save money.

I came from a poor family. I was one of 12 children, and the first to get to university, and it has opened up a world of options for me. Education isn’t the key to everything, to people having autonomy and some control over their own destiny, but it is one of the big things. If you believe in equality, you have to support public education. There has to be a place in society where it’s not about who your daddy is.

There is an attack on public education underway, from kindergarten through university, from folks who don’t want a level playing field. They don’t want their children to have to compete with every kid. They want privilege. They want to elite private schools that feed into other elite private schools at every level. They don’t want their tax dollars going to help some other child. I have no words for that that are polite.

If you study the history of public education, you see how those factory workers fought for it in England. You see how it was the first thing freedmen did after the end of the Civil War, pool their money to get their kids education. And it was the first thing the KKK came after, burning those schools. 

Education gives you options. And when you have options, you don’t have to work for the man, or at least the man who treats you badly. You may have to work for somebody else, but you have at least some autonomy. That to me is the whole point, and it’s why workers have fought so hard for public education throughout history.