My family has lived in Oklahoma longer than it has been a state. My parents, ever the rebels, moved to the Western part where I was raised, but most of my kin still resides in the East, where, you might not realize, coal mines have played a significant role in the economy.
Most of my mother’s family dug coal. We still have the carbide lamps and newspaper clippings and stories passed down. Most of my family was actively involved in the coal unions. Stories have it that they once struck for seven years, partially in an attempt to get the Black Lung Benefit. For those of you unfamiliar with the terminology, the Black Lung Benefit is a stipend and medical coverage given to those incapacitated by pneumoconiosis after working in and around coal mines. The Black Lung Benefit says: We’ll give the company our lungs, but they have to help when we can no longer breathe.
I tell you this to acknowledge that as long as I have had a memory, I have believed in the importance of organized labor. As such, I have been a union member since I began teaching full time. But until now, they were always the state-wide unions paired with the national. I gave my dues and trusted that the unions made my life better from afar. When I came to UIUC, I finally got to see a labor union up-close.
This is the first time I have observed the incredible amount of energy and effort and skill and time that goes into preparing to bargain a union contract. Months of energizing and growing the membership, months of collecting member input and narratives, months of crafting and revising the contract language. It is inspiring. It is invigorating.
We at the NTFC have just sent to the administration our demand to bargain a new contract. It has already been a long process. Some of the most difficult parts are yet to come. I think of my relatives, striking so that companies would pay for the lungs they took for profit. *
We are asking for several things in this new contract. A few of them are a salary floor* that keeps pace with inflation, multiple-year contracts so that we can invest in our community, and access to university research and development funds.
Sounds reasonable, right? It usually is. Most workers aren’t trying to launch cars into space. Most of us want only to provide a stable and solid life for ourselves and our families.
The NTFC might not be asking the administration to pay for our lungs, but we are asking them to help us breathe a little easier.
Amanda Bales, NTFC Communications Chair
You can follow our bargaining progress on this site as well as on our Facebook and Twitter feeds.
*The Black Lung Benefit became a federal law in 1973. The 7-year strike of my family history did not succeed in gaining this benefit in the contract. My great-grandfather, who began working the mines when he was 12, never lived to see it. He died in May of 1969.
*A salary floor is just that—a floor. Members can negotiate their own salaries into the stratosphere. We only ask that full-time faculty members at this university make at least a certain amount. Right now, that amount is $45,000. Before the union organized, there were full-time faculty members making as little as $33,000. Alongside graduate students, these are the people teaching a hefty percentage of first and second year courses.
If I had a child headed for college, I wouldn’t ask about faculty to student ratios and dorm size and whether the gym has a climbing wall, I’d ask about the percentage of adjunct labor and how those adjuncts are treated. If parents looked beyond the brochures at most American universities, I’m pretty sure they’d rise-up with us. If universities were really invested in “the first-year experience” of your kids, they would take care of the people providing it.