LEO Wins Big: Or How I Found a Good Fight and Got in It This piece on a was originally published by The Detroit Socialist.

LEO Wins Big: Or How I Found a Good Fight and Got in It

My union just won a big contract — nothing to sneeze at during a global pandemic! And, while we didn’t get everything we fought for, we won a lot. Along with many fellow union activists, I spent a lot of precious time in the past year organizing to win this contract. Believe it or not, much of this work was actually fun! It turns out that building collective power at your workplace can be a very invigorating experience. Bonus: now I have a few more good friends where I work — and I have a much better idea of who I can trust. I’m reminded of the wisdom of the late General Baker, a socialist, an auto worker, and one of my personal union heroes: “Find a good fight and get in it!” Our workplaces are one of the best places to build a democratic socialist future. So we should all “get in” and organize!

LEO stands for the Lecturers’ Employee Organization. My local, #6244, is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, which, since 2003, has represented over 1600 full- and part-time lecturers who teach classes at the University of Michigan’s three campuses in Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint. Sixty-three percent of lecturers are union members, or 1100 people. This was LEO’s sixth contract campaign, and the first in which I was actively engaged from start to finish.

Our original bargaining platform had a long wish-list, including sizable annual and longevity raises, pay parity for newly hired lecturers across all three campuses, corrective payments for wage theft in previous contracts, the right to the new title of “teaching professor,” childcare stipends, additional extended sick-time, long-term financial support to the Dearborn and Flint campuses, and more. As is the nature of the negotiating process, we had both wins and losses. Two of our wins, however, stand out as clear illustrations of the power of unions and collective bargaining.

Parity in Minimum Salaries — Our Most Public and Significant Win

By the final year of our contract, in fall 2023, newly hired lecturers on all three UM campuses will be paid the same rate. This was a huge win because, historically, Ann Arbor lecturers have been paid more than 20% more than in Dearborn/Flint. Now a newly-hired full-time lecturer at Dearborn or Flint will be paid $51,000, the same as in Ann Arbor. This is a massive pay increase as well: in 2017, full-time lecturers in Dearborn or Flint were paid a meager $27,000!

Why was pay parity the marquee plank of our contract campaign? First: it was a clear and easy goal to explain, both to our members and to the public. Successful union contract campaigns, especially for workers at public institutions, need more than just the support of members; they need broader community support, not only because every voting resident is essentially a stakeholder in our university, but because ally support can be a critical power lever.

U-M’s Ann Arbor campus serves predominantly wealthy and white students, while the Dearborn and Flint campuses serve larger working-class and student-of-color populations. As our contract campaign garnered more media attention, our main goal resonated widely in the popular imagination. It was easy to get people pissed off about this inequity because it was so obviously wrong and has reinforced long-standing inequality between a very rich community and working-class communities.

An important caveat: While we proposed to raise salaries faster for long-serving lecturers in Dearborn and Flint, we only achieved parity for new lecturers hired in 2023 and beyond. Nonetheless, this was still a huge victory as UM had never come close to offering parity in any previous contract campaign.

Slowing Down Racist Policies — Still a Win

The second win — slowing down the University’s enactment of a racist felony disclosure policy — received much less attention from our members but is significant for demonstrating the power of a union and a contract. In January 2019 U-M announced “Required Disclosure of Felony Charges and/or Felony Convictions.” A new rule required all employees — with the exception of those covered by a collective bargaining agreement — to disclose within one week any felony charge or conviction incurred while employed by the university. UM has made it a top goal to include this policy in every subsequent union contract.

In this post-George Floyd landscape, more people than ever understand that Black and Brown people are racially profiled in every aspect of their lives and much more likely to be falsely accused of crimes. Our union took a strong stand against the policy because it is a clear example of how institutions — even supposedly very liberal ones like U-M — work to reinforce structural racism. The fact that we had a union and a contract to negotiate is what enabled us to critique the purpose and impact of this policy on our members — and positioned us to illuminate how this policy negatively impacts all UM employees and our students.

Despite the efforts of a subcommittee who spent countless hours on this work, our union did not succeed in keeping this new policy out of our contract. We did narrow its scope and delay its implementation until the second year, and we showed other unions on campus and elsewhere that we can and should fight employment policies that are linked to larger social movement struggles.

The Covid Context

Covid had a huge impact on our contract campaign. Aside from a few critical in-person actions, and a strike-pledge canvassing campaign during the summer, everything else happened over Zoom: every bargaining session, committee meeting, membership meeting, caucus, and even most 1:1 organizing conversations. This was a mixed bag, as the Covid context also made it possible for many of our members to be involved regularly for the first time — including me! Our membership meetings during the campaign had some of the highest participation in our history, and Zoom made our open bargaining process more participatory than ever.

The biggest downside to the Covid context was that it severely hampered our ability to have critical face-to-face conversations that some of our less enthusiastic members really needed. Our members are scattered across seven counties, and most of them spent 18 months teaching their classes from home. For the previous five contract campaigns, you could walk down a departmental hall and have two or three conversations with LEO members in one hour; this time around, it could take a half day of driving for as much member engagement.

Understanding Our Three Power Levers

One of the lasting takeaways from our 2021 contract campaign will be the lessons our union draws about power — where we had it and where we didn’t, when it was real and when it was imagined. In this campaign, we had three overlapping strategies for leveraging power:

1) how we bargained with the University during the formal negotiating sessions
2) how we communicated with the Regents — the elected officials who govern our university
3) how we organized our members (and allies) in public actions.

Building Power at the (Open) Bargaining Table

As far as the distribution of our resources (people, time and money), we spent the most on #1 — the bargaining table. This was where most activist members were involved (oh the committees we had!) and what less-active members paid the most attention to. This was also where our strategy had the most sophistication and the most precision. In fact, I have never seen such compelling and persuasive arguments — with the most solid evidence to support them, all with dazzling graphics and charts and data. Our arguments were always air-tight — bargaining sessions were often a very inspiring sight. This is to be expected from a union of academics!

However, not to our surprise, air-tight arguments were necessary but not sufficient for building power. Even after some of our most persuasive presentations, the administration team would just shrug them off with no engagement.

The most effective power-building and solidarity aspect of our bargaining strategy was “open bargaining” — that is, making sessions open to any LEO member. Zoomlandia, of course, made “attending” bargaining sessions easier than ever. The numbers of rank-and-file members who attended throughout the campaign (not including the bargaining team) varied from a low of 30 to more than 125. Listening to UM during bargaining provided steady opportunities to become agitated — and often really pissed off! — which fueled our many organizing efforts outside of the bargaining table.

At several critical points we organized opportunities for community allies to observe bargaining too. While these were ways to engage our community networks in preparation for other public actions (including potential strike support), it was never clear that the presence of allies in our “Zoom Room” had any significant effect on the power equation.

While I believe open bargaining is preferable to closed bargaining by almost any measure — particularly transparency and member engagement — there were clear diminishing returns over time on the impact of having 50–75 LEO members regularly show up at the table. Bargaining sessions sometimes lasted all day. For many of our members, showing up by Zoom on Fridays was their main union activism. What might have happened had we pivoted and organized more of these members to engage with the other aspects of our strategy articulated below? Perhaps we’ll find out in 2024 when we bargain our next contract.

The Politics of Power or the “Regents Strategy”

Our second power lever had the least amount of member involvement and accountability and therefore was the most mysterious and least transparent. In fact, this strategy was almost exclusively in the hands of the leadership of our parent union — the Michigan Federation of Teachers. State-level union leaders are those whom we’d expect to have personal relationships with our allies on the Board of Regents such that they would return calls (this can largely be explained by the well-worn treads of Democratic Party networks). The greatest downside of this strategy was how it gave the Regents substantial power at critical junctures to constrain what our union imagined to be possible.

Ultimately it is the Regents who control the University’s money. In fiscal year 2021, U-M’s budget is $9.4 billion — and a whopping 96.5% of this amount is allocated for the Ann Arbor campus (Dearborn and Flint campuses share 3.5%). Recognizing that pay parity would create a substantial relative increase in expenses for the Dearborn and Flint campuses, a key plank in our campaign was to allocate new centralized funding from Ann Arbor to Dearborn and Flint during the life of the three-year contract. We proposed $15 million additional per campus for a total of $90 million — or effectively less than a third of a 1 percent increase in the University’s overall annual budget!

At various points during the contract campaign, I and other LEO members advocated for a more direct-action approach to apply pressure on the Regents. These are elected officials after all, and the folks who hire the U-M President, so why not organize targeted actions that could apply additional pressure? Whenever such ideas were raised, the general response seemed to be that these were very sensitive and delicate relationships, and that it would be more effective to let the private conversations play themselves out. “More is coming soon,” we were told many times, “just be patient.” It was also suggested that a picket or early morning rally outside of a Regent’s home, or an open editorial to specific members in their hometown newspapers, might do more harm than good. Others argued that the best way to pressure the Regents was to get more members to sign the strike pledge (more on this below), so therefore there was no point to applying direct pressure to the Regents themselves.

Throughout our contract campaign, I often wondered if a much better strategy would have been to leave the Regents as in-the-dark as possible. Maybe the less they knew, the more powerful our leverage would be — the element of surprise! At times, I wished I could have been a fly on the digital wall of the phone conversations that were happening between union officialdom and the handful of Regents we called our “friends.” What kind of horse-trading was occurring unbeknownst to the average LEO member? How did the tenor and substance of these conversations match up to what members were discussing in our planning meetings? What got lost in translation?

The greatest downside to allowing only a select few to press on this strategic lever was that it increased their influence on the larger contract campaign. Private conversations among a small handful of people, and how they were translated to our circle of activist-members, weighed greatly on what we saw as possible: how “realistic” certain campaign goals were and how much longer we might extend the campaign. Ultimately, on what would be the final day of the campaign, it was through this strategic channel that we were told “there is no more.” While several factors played into when and why we decided to end the campaign, this message carried tremendous weight and essentially allowed the Regents — effectively management’s overlords — to end our campaign.

Membership Power and Public Actions

Our third power-lever — public actions by members and allies — was where I spent most of my time. I was a co-chair of the Contract Action Team, or CAT. Throughout the campaign, CAT averaged about 10 very active members (in comparison, my best estimate is that 40 very active members were involved with the bargaining strategy, either on the formal team or on subcommittees). Our role was to design and execute an escalating plan to mobilize our members to take public actions in support of the work at the bargaining table. While I don’t think everyone on our committee fully realized this at the beginning (early January 2021), every action we organized over an eight-month period was intended to position our members toward pulling off a strike — if deemed necessary — early in the fall semester.

Organizing in-person actions during the pandemic proved to be very challenging. Our first effort in early April — a rally and yard-sign distribution on the Ann Arbor campus — turned out around 100 folks (about three out of four were members, the rest were LEO staff or allies). It was spirited, if small, as it was the first time in nearly two years that our union had organized a public in-person action. Four months later, we successfully organized a “Quit the contract” rally that drew between 200–300 people (about two of three were members). This was our most successful public action even though it was on a very hot day in early August (a time when, typically, most of our members are doing everything they can not to think about their jobs).

CAT’s most challenging and significant work happened in the four months between these two public actions when about 30 folks (member-activists and staff) drove hundreds of miles across southeastern Michigan collecting strike pledges. We were asking our members to sign a pledge committing to support a strike if and when our Union Council chose to use such a strategy. We explained to members that the “how” and “what” and “how long” of a potential strike — which wouldn’t occur any earlier than the fall semester — was not yet determined and would be something decided democratically in future membership meetings.

Not surprisingly, for many of our members, just saying the word “strike” would immediately elicit all sorts of questions and anxieties. So, while our conversations needed to be open and honest (there are risks involved in striking), we also needed to project that members could determine what such a job-action would look like.

While our campaign started with a bang, as the mid-summer heat kicked in, we began to see a serious wane in strike pledges. The Covid context meant fewer substantive face-to-face conversations. Those we did have were often hampered by social distance, slightly-cracked doors and thick screens. Though our 30+ organizers were really committed, ultimately our team wasn’t big enough. We needed at least twice as many — but this was really hard to muster when most members were on break. I often wondered what would have happened had 25% of those working on the bargaining strategy shifted their time to strike-pledge collecting. Even with these challenges, we made steady progress, though in the end we fell far short of the 80% threshold that Jane McAlevey (one of today’s leading labor organizing gurus) uses to determine “strike-readiness.”

Escalating Power for the ‘End-Game’

The three strategies became intertwined in the beginning of the fall semester. While progress at the table stalled in late July and August, and state-appointed mediators did little to change anything in early September, bargaining sessions picked up momentum in mid-September. But why?

Some in LEO’s inner circle explained this by stating “our strike threat is working!” Others suggested that the closed-door conversations with our Regent “friends” were finally bearing fruit, and that other Regents, along with U-M President Mark Schlissel, were deeply afraid of the disruption that a strike would cause to the return to on-campus learning.

Many suggested that both strategies were working — but how can we really know? We never discussed, let alone came to any agreement on, how to measure the relative strength of each strategy. With the precision we put into our presentations at the bargaining table, it was clear that we had the skills to assess our power — where we had it and where we didn’t — but this work really never happened.

As a result, each of us projected different narratives about our power in these final weeks and days — where we thought we had it, why, and how much or little. The greatest challenge we discussed was: how powerful was our strike threat and were we ready to pull the trigger if needed? Such questions became disorienting for many in the final two weeks of bargaining, as there was a troubling conflation between: A) members being ready to pass a strike authorization ballot which would empower our Union Council to call a strike if they felt necessary, and B) being ready to pull off an actual strike.

Despite the challenges of gathering strike pledges, a minority of activists (myself included) felt we could be in a good position to pull off a successful strike authorization vote if we had clear leadership support and if we spent serious resources organizing for a super-majority “Yes” vote. We believed such an effort could give us needed leverage in the final days of bargaining.

In the end, though, it became clear that a super-majority of the main activist circle felt we were not in a position to organize either a successful strike authorization vote or an actual strike. Ultimately, this debate became a moot point once we reached a tentative agreement for parity on salary minimums, because there no longer seemed to be a sufficient reason to strike.

Takeaways and Next Steps for My Union

It is tempting to play “What if?” scenarios on this question of our strike readiness, but the truth is we’ll never know. What we do know from this contract campaign is that we organized enough power to win a lot even during a pandemic.

Many of my fellow members argued that this fact suggests our strike threat was both real and powerful. I would imagine that LEO isn’t the first union to confront a contradiction: that is, a union can simultaneously achieve the power of a real strike threat without certainty about being able to pull it off. But if this is possible — if optics alone can make a real difference in the power equation — then doesn’t this suggest unions never really need to be fully organized and ready to pull the strike trigger? I don’t think so, and I don’t believe many veteran labor activists would feel confident with optics alone.

Beyond this impossible question, there are several other takeaways that could prove useful to LEO and other unions:

  • At the beginning of a campaign, make sure there are clear definitions of the strategies for building power and a common understanding of how to measure strengths and weaknesses.
  • Organizing pressure on elected officials is critical for public sector unions, but for this strategy to be most effective it needs to be based on principles of transparency and democracy.
  • Threatening to strike and going on strike are two different union strategies, although management and sometimes union members will treat them as the same. Before building toward a strike make sure there is internal agreement on how this tool will be used.

While such discussions on union power and strategy will be important for the next campaign, everyone understands now that our most immediate next step is to recruit more members. Since Michigan is a “right-to-work” state, lecturers have the “right” to be represented by our union and covered by our contract without paying dues. The most important work in front of us is to talk to people, learn about their concerns, and motivate them to join with us.

Building Our Democratic Socialist Future in Our Workplaces

Workplaces are one of the most important sites for socialists to learn how to build democratic organization and, ultimately, collective power to make your job (and your life!) better. While most of those reading this article probably have to sell their labor to make a living, it is likely that less than 10% belong to a union. But this doesn’t matter.

Whether you’re in a union or not, as a socialist you should be thinking about how you can start to build a community among your fellow workers. Don’t be afraid to start small: ask two or three co-workers to have coffee some time after work. Share your workplace concerns and your hopes and dreams; look for connections, share suggestions for other workers you know who might want to join a future meeting. You might come away surprised; before you know it, you may be in a position to start to build real power to affect your workplace — and your own life — for the better.

Lastly, one of the greatest things about being in DSA is that you don’t have to do this important workplace organizing on your own! You may be the only DSA member in your workplace, but rest assured that most of your fellow DSAers are also feeling frustrated and alienated in their own workplaces. There are DSA channels for sharing about your workplace organizing — both locally and nationally — but you need to give all of us the opportunity to teach and to learn from each other. I look forward to hearing from you!


This piece on a was originally published by The Detroit Socialist. Author Craig Regester is a Steward of LEO/AFT Local 6244 who participated in their union contract battle.