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EMU professors are back in the classroom, tentative contract agreement ends strike.

EMU building.jpg
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Eastern Michigan University

TRANSCRIPTION:

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And I'm David Fair. Shortly after midnight this morning, my phone alert dinged, and when I looked, I knew I better get to work right away. A tentative contract agreement has been reached between Eastern Michigan University administration and the union representing some 500 tenured and tenure-track professors. And, as of eight this morning, the striking professors put away the picket signs and headed back to the classroom. Joining us on the WEMU phone line is Eastern Michigan University vice president of communications Walter Kraft. And thank you for making time this morning.

Walter Kraft: Absolutely, David. Happy to be with you and really happy to share this good news for our campus community. This was a very trying couple of weeks and particularly last week. No one--no one--is a fan of what was happening. And I know our faculty certainly didn't want to be out on the picket line. And, of course, administration didn't want them out on the picket line either. But most importantly, our students. You know, they are the bottom line. And they were paying the price, I guess, for us trying to find common ground, which, thankfully, we were able to achieve late last night, as you mentioned.

David Fair: As you mentioned, this has not been an easy process. And when I left campus on Friday, it seemed as though administration and the union remained pretty far apart. What changed in bargaining over the weekend?

Walter Kraft: Well, David, as you know, it's really a matter of sitting down across the table and hammering out differences. And I know that's a cliché of sorts, but that's what it takes. And the teams worked past midnight on Saturday. They worked--as you could tell by the announcement late last night--they worked through the day yesterday up until very late last night to get to this point. And it's just a result of commitment and dedication to get the job done, to get our campus back to, you know, a more normal operation and get our students back in the classroom. And, really, David, that's what it's all about. It takes giving on both sides. As you know, nobody ever gets everything they want. But you hope to find, again, that common ground that people can all come together.

David Fair: Well, the protocol is the details of a contract aren't usually released until such time the union can present the tentative agreement to its membership for review. So, I'm not going to ask specifics knowing you can't talk about it. But, typically, as you just mentioned, there is sentiment from each side that they had to give up more than they wanted. So, now that this tentative agreement is in place, how would you rate administration's level of satisfaction with what has been agreed to it?

Walter Kraft: David, the bottom line for us is getting people back in the classroom, and that goes for our faculty and for our students. So, I would say our administration satisfaction is great just based on that. This is what it's all about. Nobody wanted a stoppage at any point. And it was challenging, as you know. Arriving on campus this morning to no pickets and all of that. No horns on Cross Street. And Washtenaw was wonderful. And it's, you know, it's good to see people walking across campus heading to classes. It's a normal Monday morning, and that's what everyone wanted.

David Fair: We're talking with EMU vice president of communications, Walter Kraft. And. As professors are back in class today, there is a process that has to be put into place moving forward. After the AAUP reviews details with membership, a ratification vote will have to take place. Then, the EMU Board of Regents will have to approve the contract before it becomes formalized. Is there a schedule for that process in place?

Walter Kraft: David, I have not heard any details about that yet. The first piece of that, as you mentioned, will be the faculty reviewing the agreement and voting on it as a whole. And then, subsequent to that, the Board of Regents would then take action as well. But none of that has been determined or laid out yet as far as dates and times. But we'll be sure to keep everyone posted.

David Fair: A Washtenaw County Circuit Court decision last Friday allowed the strike to continue, despite the administration's efforts to force professors back to work. Another hearing had been set for this coming Friday. Can we assume that administration will ask for that hearing to be taken off the docket?

Walter Kraft: Yes, I would assume so, David. I haven't talked to our general counsel yet, but I would assume that would be the case because it may not be necessary, obviously, at this point.

David Fair: You had mentioned students and how this is really all about them. Without knowing details of the agreement, we do know there will be increased compensation for members of the union. Is this going to result in higher tuition rates, room and board rates, and student fees for existing and future EMU students?

Walter Kraft: David, our primary focus has to be keeping costs down. We know the price of an education is high. It's expensive. Students go into debt. We want to eliminate as much of that as we can. And, we're going to do everything we can to not pass anything along to students. I think one of the challenges throughout these negotiations was, you know, how do we manage this process, the faculty's requests for pay increases that are justified, but how do we manage that with the university's overall budget? And how do we do that in a way that doesn't result in any flow through that our students wouldn't have to pay for? So, it's a complex set of circumstances to put together. But we're determined not to impact our students any more than they already are.

David Fair: Does that mean there may be cuts elsewhere on campus?

Walter Kraft: David, we're certainly not looking at that, and we're not thinking about that in any way. We believe that this contract will fit into our parameters to be able to continue the kinds of services that we offer. And we don't envision any cuts or any impact on other people or other employees. And, again, our focus is to continue to provide the services we need to our students. And it takes a whole community here on campus: faculty, staff, alumni, and others that provide that support. And we're all going to be working in that direction.

David Fair: So, as enrollment has declined at Eastern Michigan University and virtually every school of its size across the state in much of the country, so have the number of professors on campus. So, with this tentative agreement, the remaining 500 or so positions that AAUP members now fill, are those going to be protected moving forward or just higher compensation put some of those positions at risk somewhere down the line?

Walter Kraft: David, there is no inclination to reduce staffing among our faculty. We have outstanding faculty here. And, for our students, you know, they're the ones in the classroom that engage with students and help them succeed. So, there is no thought whatsoever of reducing any of our faculty workforce, faculty headcount. We need to serve our students. We have small class sizes. We aim to keep it that way. And the Eastern that you saw, you know, three weeks ago is going to be very similar to the Eastern that you see three months from now. We don't envision any major changes.

David Fair: Well, these negotiations were long. They were drawn out, sometimes contentious. And that can create raised emotions. It can raise acrimony and resentment, threaten the nature of working relationships. From administration's side of the table, do you think there is a need to reach out and smooth out or further strengthen the relationship with unionized professors?

Walter Kraft: Well, David, that's actually the one thing I've been thinking about throughout the week. And, you know, even last week, as we're in this point, how do we now, once we have this consensus and once we have common ground, how do we continue to work to bring people together? Because you're right. There was a lot of hard feelings and harsh rhetoric on both sides. And that certainly has to end. And it, hopefully, is ending effectively last night. And we need to all work forward. And, certainly, there needs to be some sort of process where people can work to come together, to again find common ground, to continue to build the spirit of excellence and camaraderie that is necessary to manage and run and successfully engage with our students, so that they succeed.

David Fair: One of the opportunities provided by adversity is the ability to learn and grow. This certainly isn't your first rodeo. Did the process for this particular labor negotiation provide something new that you'll find beneficial in future contract talks and processes?

Walter Kraft: Well, I think, David, the important thing is the determination and the time that's necessary to reach an agreement like this when things like health care benefits and salary increases and, you know, rising inflation, and things like that are all being discussed and put into the mix to, you know, to try to find common ground with those kinds of external and internal challenges. It's difficult. So, I think if there is a learning that comes from it, it just takes hard work, maybe no blood, but a lot of sweat and some tears and a lot of time. And then, you got to get the job done.

David Fair: I'd like to thank you for making time for us today. You haven't had much sleep over the past week or so, so I do appreciate you joining us.

Walter Kraft: Thank you very much, David.

David Fair: That is Eastern Michigan University vice president of communications Walter Kraft, discussing the tentative contract agreement that was reached between the administration and the union that represents about 500 tenured and tenure-track professors. Make sure to stay tuned to 89 one WEMU, and we'll provide further updates as they become available. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU.

Nearly three-quarters of David Fair’s 20+ years in radio has been at WEMU. Since 1994, he has been on the air at 5am each weekday on 89.1 FM as the local host of NPR’s Morning Edition. Over the years, Fair has had the opportunity to interview nationally and internationally known politicians, activists and celebrities. But he feels the most important features and interviews have been with those who live and work here at home. He believes his professional passions and desires fit perfectly into WEMU’s commitment to serving a local audience.