Hundreds of non-tenure-track lecturers and adjunct faculty at Howard University, one of the most storied higher education institutions in the US, have been fighting for nearly four years to negotiate their first union contract with the university administration. On Wednesday, March 23, just hours before they were set to go on strike, the union bargaining team reached a tentative agreement with the administration, which members will be reviewing and voting on in the coming weeks. Reporting from Howard’s campus in Washington DC, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with Corey Lamont, a lecturer in Howard’s English Department and member of the SEIU Local 500 bargaining unit, about the union’s long fight to secure their first contract with the university and what having that contract will mean for faculty and the broader campus community.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Maximillian Alvarez: This is Maximillian Alvarez for the Real News Network, reporting from Washington DC in front of the historic Howard University. At 9:00 AM on Wednesday, March 23, hundreds of non-tenure track faculty at Howard were set to go on strike after trying for over three years to negotiate their first union contract with the university administration. Then, in the late hours of the night, around 3:30 AM, just hours before the strike was supposed to begin, the bargaining team and the university administration reached a tentative agreement, and the union called off the strike. Members of SEIU Local 500 will now review and vote on the tentative agreement in the coming weeks. To talk about this historic struggle, I got to sit down with Corey Lamont, a lecturer in the English department in the Howard College of Arts and Sciences.
Corey Lamont: So hi, I’m Corey Lamont. I was a graduate student at Howard from 2008 to 2015, and then I came on or was hired as a lecturer at that point. I’m currently a master instructor. I’ve been a master instructor for the past two years. This is my second year of being a master instructor. And so I’m part of the bargaining unit of lecturers, master instructors, and adjunct faculty.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, Corey, thank you so much for sitting down and chatting with me. It’s been a wild 24 hours for you guys.
Corey Lamont: It has been.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, so we’re here across the street from Howard, and this morning at 9:00 AM the lecturers union was set to go on strike. Then we got word at 3:30 in the morning, the bargaining team actually hammered out a tentative agreement with the university that has been over three years in the making. So I guess before we sort of talk about the significance of finally reaching this point, I wanted to ask you if you could just walk us through what the past 24 hours have been like for you, waiting to see if this contract would happen, preparing for a strike. I guess just walk us through what it’s been like.
Corey Lamont: Yeah, a little bit of a rollercoaster, I think. So I know that because we had sort of a rally last week that was well-supported by students, and so I was preparing since last Wednesday, actually, after the rally and the strike was announced, that depending on what happens with negotiations that we would be on strike. And so I had to prepare my students from then. And so up to yesterday last night, because when I left class on Monday I kind of let them know, listen. There’s a possibility that we might not have class, but just look out for an email.
And so I think initially I went to bed, because I was monitoring communications throughout the day. I went to bed a little bit after eight, because I generally try to get to bed before nine because I do most of my work grading in the early hours of the morning. So when I went to bed a little bit before nine, they were still in negotiations, and so at that point I had no clue. So I was like, okay, I guess we’re striking tomorrow.
I got up at 11 something. They were still in negotiations based on the last message I received, so I was like, okay, so we’re definitely striking. But at that point I didn’t actually go to bed. I stayed up and started doing some work, and then at that point, because the tentative agreement was reached around 3:30, funny enough, that was the time I actually, shortly before that or around that time, I emailed my students because I hadn’t actually checked and gotten that email yet.
So like I said, it’s been a bit of a roller coaster. I mean, I was in fact relieved to know that we’ve reached a tentative agreement, but as I said, it was just a lot of uncertainty, I think just in the moment itself or what it would mean for us, I think. Like I said, it was sort of difficult just hoping at least, even if we did have to strike today, that hopefully negotiations would continue and we would actually get to an agreement by Friday, so I was very pleased, actually. Like I said, even though it was a bit of a rollercoaster, I was actually very pleased that we had reached an agreement this morning.
Maximillian Alvarez: I bet, man. And as we were saying, it should not be lost on people who are watching or listening to this that, I know we get very excited about a strike when it happens and that becomes our focus, but it’s important to recognize that it took a strike threat after three-plus years of trying to negotiate with the university after lecturers voted to form a union to actually get to this point. That is just bonkers that it took so long. So I was wondering if we could kind of zoom out a bit and talk about that long road to getting to this point and what folks in the union have really been trying to get the university to negotiate over.
Corey Lamont: Okay. So let’s start with the last thing, which is what we were trying to get the… And it’s funny, and it’s not you, because this is something that popped up in our bargaining sessions. So one of the things, when I talk – Because language is important. I’m an English teacher. One of the things I stress is that when I talk about negotiations, I say the administration and not the university. And I do that deliberately because of a recognition that faculty are part of the university, right? Yes, the administration is negotiating on behalf of the university, but faculty is part of the university, I think. I took umbrage at being in bargaining sessions and then having introductions at the beginning and folks saying, well, we’re here representing the university. And I’m like, what?
Maximillian Alvarez: It’s like, who am I?
Corey Lamont: So what are we? So like I said, I’m very careful about saying the administration, because faculty are part of the university. But yeah, so what we were, in fact, trying to negotiate were some very basic things. I don’t think, and if anyone has sort of read what the “demands” were, they were fairly reasonable. They revolved largely around two things: a living wage, essentially, or fair compensation, whatever that sort of pans out to be. And like I said, I don’t know how closely folks have followed, but to recognize that lecturers at Howard are some of the lowest paid compared to our peer institutions, and so…
Maximillian Alvarez: And DC’s not a cheap place to live.
Corey Lamont: Absolutely not. And I think there were two other issues, well, the one issue, really, was job security. And so we approached that in a couple of ways, which is one had to do with length of contracts because currently lecturers are hired on annual contracts, so we have to reapply for our jobs at the end of every academic year. Well, not at the end, because we have to start the application process a little bit somewhere midway for it to go through the process. And so part of the sticking point was to make sure that at least if we can get longer contracts… So part of the proposal, or at least the initial proposal, was at least maybe the first year can be probationary, but then after that, subsequent to that, if we can have longer contracts, because it’s difficult for folks who have families. Folks have to pay their bills. So each year having to figure out whether or not you’re going to be rehired, it’s a difficult process to go through. And so the length of contracts was one.
And the other was the seven-year cap that Howard has, which, as I said, I’ve yet to hear someone provide me with an explanation that I can fully appreciate as to why the university continues to hold this position, that after seven years of yearly renewals – Unless you move to master instructor or career status, then you’re no longer subject to that rule – But then that you’re arbitrarily dismissed from the university after seven years, or you’ve outlived your usefulness, if you will. And so I think that was also a major sticking point, because we felt like, at least for me, because as I said, I’ve been at Howard for a minute.
I was a graduate student from 2008 to 2015, and so I’ve been in that department for a number of years, and I’ve seen faculty who are beloved by students, beloved by the department. I’ve seen the department go to bat for faculty. And seeing them have to leave just because of this rule, and I’m just like, how does this actually make sense? What you want is as a university if you’re building institutional culture, you want people with institutional knowledge. You want people who the students love and appreciate. And the fact is if you’re building, the people with the most experience. And so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me as to why that would be the thing, because then if there are no other reasons other than it’s just your seventh year, then you kind of have to wonder, well, how does this actually benefit the university?
And so when we went to bargaining meetings, one of the things we talked about quite a bit was, okay, in terms of our proposals is to say, well, listen. The question, again, is how does this serve the university? Because one, the tenured faculty who do evaluations for contract renewals, they have to then do these renewals and go through these renewal applications every year. The university has to devote a significant amount of resources to make sure that they go through this process. And so the question is, well, those faculty would rather also have their summers or have time to do their research. The departments are really stretched to do these other kinds of things. And so there’s the administrative paperwork that goes into it. So all of these things were questions that we sort of put on the table as to why do we keep this rule?
So I think trying to sort of get to the heart of those questions. And as I said, even with this contract we didn’t necessarily get everything that we want, but I think it’s a really good place from where we actually started. As far as the length of the process, as I said, we voted, 70% of non-tenure track faculty who voted in 2018 to have SEIU Local 500 represent us, some of us… I know some people were involved in negotiations from very early in the process. Some who were instrumental in the beginning are actually no longer at the university, which is a shame, because they didn’t get to essentially benefit from their hard work in the beginning of the process. So that in a way kind of saddens me a bit. But I know that there are people, like I said, who have been consistent in the struggle from the beginning.
I know I personally got actively involved over the last year or so, and I think it’s been very rewarding, actually, to work with my colleagues to get us to this point, because I think it’s really important work, especially just in terms of what the university represents, its legacy. And I think every time I went to a bargaining session, one of the things that I would stress is, this is what Howard University is. We should be a leader in terms of protecting labor. We shouldn’t be… I know this is sort of a general trend in higher education, the devaluation of labor, having a constant stream of “contingent faculty,” which is a term I really dislike. So again, that’s another thing.
But this idea that, because this university means a lot to most of us, a lot of us who teach at Howard, besides tenure faculty, but also lots of non-tenure track faculty as well are graduates of the university, whether undergraduate or graduate level. And so we didn’t necessarily, we didn’t take any of this lightly. I think we recognized what we were doing and why it is important for us to do it. Because I think it’s something that’s deeply ingrained in us, and we think that, ultimately, this benefits the university. I think in terms of Howard’s legacy, it’ll be something that the university can be proud of, and us as faculty can be proud of as well.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, I think that’s really beautifully put. Like I said, we’re sitting across the street from Howard University, which is one of the most storied higher ed institutions in the country, and has such a powerful legacy, an important mission, and the many people who carry that mission forward in teaching, in grading, in administrative work, in all the things that make the university function. You’re right. Making sure that there is, that the university administration does right by the workers who make the university run, is a fundamental part of making that mission possible.
And I guess I wanted to, because I know I’ve got to let you go because you’ve still got a lot of work to do, is I wanted to ask, you mentioned the support from students, and I guess I just wanted to ask what this means for the broader campus community, what the support you guys have gotten has looked like? And I guess stressing for Real News viewers, this is the time when the membership is going to be looking over the tentative agreement and voting. It’s not our place as media to opine about that while membership is looking at it, so we will follow up on this after the membership has had a chance to vote on the tentative agreement. But I guess just thinking in larger terms, what it would mean for the campus community for the union to finally have this contract in place?
Corey Lamont: I think it’s big. When we got together on the yard at 9:00 this morning, and I was talking to some of the folks who were actually part of the bargaining sessions, not just obviously into the wee hours this morning, but have been an integral part of the process. And I know they felt like there were some things that they didn’t necessarily get that they wanted, and it was just like, no. It’s not essentially a time for us to rest on our laurels, but it’s a time for us to recognize the significance of what it was to win this first contract. Because I think especially on the heels of what happened last fall with Blackburn takeover, I was very sort of… I’m generally reflective, but I was reflective this morning as I stood on the yard and thought about, well, actually how we got here.
And I credit a lot of that to the organizing that the students did last fall. Because there was a beginning or at least a recognition among faculty, because we’ve always known that some of the very issues that we experience as faculty members, that we have shared interests with students. Not just because we teach them and we are somewhat custodians of them while they’re at the university, but a lot of the administrative issues or challenges that we face overlap with theirs. And so I think standing in solidarity with them last fall and seeing them show up for us last week at the rally, so I think there’s a recognition about just how much organizing, how much support, and working with each other can help us achieve.
I think, especially because I know there was a lot of disappointment around how last fall ended. I think a lot of us, including myself, had significant expectations in terms of seeing what changes would come. I’m not saying that there are no changes in the offing. I’m just saying as of right now, I’m not sure exactly what we got. And this is not any sort of criticism or to downplay what the students achieved. I think it was a significant achievement for them, which is why I’m crediting them also with creating an environment where we can actually have not just essentially the attention on us, but a recognition that, okay, the students and the faculty are in fact in this together.
And so I think whatever disappointment may have lagged from last fall, I think the students themselves can take victory from what we achieved, knowing that we did it fully with their support. I think going forward, obviously, because I said it’s always easier to, especially when you are first contract in this instance, if you don’t necessarily get everything that you want, at least from my vantage point, it’s always easier to then try to get what you didn’t get last time if in fact you have a position from which to begin.
And so having this victory I think allows not just us as faculty, but students also, the next time there is an issue that they need to raise awareness about that they can realize that, okay, if we work together, there’s much that we can take from our lessons to be learned from this experience. And so like I said, I was extraordinarily pleased with the fact that we’ve actually gotten here, because there were moments when it was a little shaky. We weren’t really sure we would actually get here, and it happened relatively quickly. I think the rally last weekend, as I said, when I got out in front of the A building and saw how many students were there, I myself started to have a little bit more belief, because I recognized that we were being fully supported. And then of course obviously the tremendous support we got from our tenured colleagues I think was instrumental as well. But just knowing, like I said, I think it’s a really important lesson, and everyone involved should feel victorious in what we’ve achieved.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. Well Corey, congratulations to you all on reaching this point after a very long fight. We’ll follow up with y’all after the membership has a chance to look at the TA. But I can’t thank you enough for taking time to sit down and chat with me in the rain, on the day that you were supposed to be on strike. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Corey Lamont: It was my pleasure
Maximillian Alvarez: For everyone watching, this is Maximillian Alvarez for the Real News Network. Before you go, please head on over to the realnews.com/support. Become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you important coverage and conversations just like this. Thank you so much for watching.