Associate Professor Danielle Aubert Discusses her Work as President of AAUP-AFT Local 6075

Professor of Graphic Design Danielle Aubert was elected President of AAUP-AFT Local 6075 in Winter of 2021. The union is made up of 1,700 faculty and academic Staff from WSU, and is jointly affiliated with the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers. AAUP-AFT Local 6075 advocates for its membership, negotiating improvements in wages, benefits and working conditions for faculty and academic staff, and protecting their contractual rights and benefits in countless ways.

Aubert's interest in labor organizing extends well beyond her work with the union, stemming from her creative practice and a place of visual analysis. As a graphic designer, she has examined production methods, labor, and the role of graphic design in labor organizing. Aubert's most recent book publication is The Detroit Printing Co-op: The Politics of the Joy of Printing (2019, Inventory Books). The book chronicles the work of Lorraine and Fredy Perlman who, with a group of other activists, purchased a printing press and started the Detroit Printing Co-op and Black and Red Press. The Co-op existed from 1970-1980 and was the production site for many radical left publications, including the first English translation of Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle and the journal Radical America. Aubert also published the artist book, Marking the Dispossessed (2015) that collected the reader's notes, underlines, and marks found in 100 used copies of Ursula K. Le Guin's 1976 revolutionary science fiction novel, The Dispossessed.

Marking the Dispossessed (2015)
Marking the Dispossessed (2015)
Marking the Dispossessed (2015)

Aubert is currently looking at graphic design and the left, interviewing contemporary designers who are active in movement politics, some in labor unions and some more generally. Through this work, she is investigating how designers can empower themselves in the process of strengthening these movements. She explains, "I think a lot of times designers feel disempowered because you are on the production line, but you are also depending on a client or whoever is providing the content or requesting the work. When designers get involved in activism, they make design work for that cause like posters, websites, or other communication materials, but they are also acting as agents, often directing the strategy or thinking critically about what's happening."

The Detroit Printing Co-op mark

About AAUP-AFT Local 6075

Of the 14 unions represented on campus, AAUP-AFT Local 6075 is largest with 1,700 members in the bargaining unit. The union represents all full-time tenure- and non-tenure-track faculty, clinical staff from the Medical School, academic staff, librarians and archivists, and staff that deal directly with students, including financial aid officers, athletic coaches, and counselors. The diversity of the bargaining unit is its strength, Aubert noted. Representing the varied needs of different department adds to the complexity of what Local 6075 handles, but having members spread across the university creates a bargaining advantage.

Building Experience and Capacity

Aubert joined Local 6075 in 2008, when she accepted her faculty position at WSU. She was soon elected Council Representative for the Department of Art and Art History. In this role, she was part of a campus-wide network of faculty and academic staff that bring forth and address concerns. From the start of Aubert's involvement with Local 6075, she leveraged her graphic design skills. "I redesigned the logo for the Union because I wanted to be more involved in their operations. I had been interested in labor movements for a long time as a part of my graphic design practice, and this was a chance to put those interests to work in a way that could directly impact our campus," she said.

New AAUP Local 6075 logo designed by Aubert

Over time, Aubert became more involved with the Coalition of Unions, which was a more accessible avenue to build capacity and to get people involved -and was invited to regularly attend their meetings. "In my experience AAUP-AFT was hard to penetrate at first," she says. "I went to a lot of meetings of different committees, and I knew it was important, but sometimes it wasn't always clear on the (intended) outcomes. The Coalition of Unions meetings were a way for me to connect with many other union leaders and work with them to build the group."

In 2020, the Art Department faced C+IT cuts and centralization of jobs, that would greatly impact the Art department and the graphic design area especially. The loss of critical support staff for our department hit a deeply personal note for Aubert, influencing her decision to take on a greater role with the union and get more engaged with organizing. She leveraged her network of activists to develop a strategy. "I had been involved in some activist groups in Detroit and in other places," she says. "I went to these people and asked for advice and they suggested organizing a town hall to talk about what was happening." The town hall was a great success. "It was one of the most exciting labor-focused activities on campus that I had been a part of," she says. "We had over one hundred people attend over Zoom. They were from so many parts of the coalition, all there in solidarity for our C+IT staff who were facing these cuts." Beyond attendance, the town hall also provided a platform for more inclusive and equitable exchange. "Some people had been worried about speaking up, but in that context, they did speak up." Although the cuts eventually went through, Aubert saw the experience as invigorating and impactful. "I started to think that if we had started organizing earlier," she says, "we would have been more prepared to try and save these important jobs and this very valuable staff."

Presentation slide from AAUP town hall meeting
Presentation slide from AAUP town hall meeting

The success of the town hall inspired Aubert to run for union president. She saw where her efforts could lead to change and wanted to do more. "When elections came around, I really wanted to see some change happen," she says. "It is a very hard job to be the President of our Union, and there were rarely any challengers. I saw the role as a big lift and a tremendous contribution of service to the university."

Once she decided to run, she had to move very quickly. She campaigned for a month and, as she describes, "just put one foot in front of the other." She leveraged her graphic design skills to get the word out, creating visually compelling promotional materials, and received support from colleagues in the College of Education who helped improve the content of her materials.

After her election, Aubert also looked to the national group Higher Ed Labor United (HELU) for support and advising. This group is made up of faculty, graduate students, and other higher-ed workers from around the country. The mission of the group is to build a national effort to create the amount of collective pressure needed to make real change.

Accomplishments, Hopes and Goals for the Union

Recent contractual changes made for Lecturers has significantly impacted the Art Department, and Aubert sees this as a huge win. Lecturers are now called Professors of Teaching. There have been some salary increases and, most importantly, Professors of Teaching will be eligible for 4-year contracts after they have been at Wayne State for six years, instead of 1-3-year contracts. They are still working on the logistics of promotion, but many other schools are looking to WSU as an example because the change from Lecturer to Professor is an important distinction. Aubert see that these changes would not have come about without relentless organizing by non-tenure track faculty. "What is also important about this accomplishment, is that it came about through a grassroots effort, of teaching faculty getting together and challenging mass non-renewal letters that were going out every year. When the faculty began to self-organize and publicize this issue, they became impossible to ignore."

Upon taking the position, Aubert's first goal was to revise the bylaws, which is now complete. One of the big changes that was made was to the composition of the union's Executive Board. Revisions to the bylaws identify start and end dates for some positions that did not exist before, and converted two positions from being appointed to being elected by the general membership. "I believe that this change to our bylaws is an important step in making our union more equitable and accessible," she says. "Now we have some new seats that are up for election. I am working to build better awareness of these elections and build a stronger base of candidates."¨"

Aubert is also looking to create new pathways for members to get more involved, gain a solid understanding of the Union, and work their way up. She reflects on her own experience when stressing this need. "In many ways I jumped into the deep end of the pool," she says, "because there were only a few elected leadership positions in our Union: a President, a Treasurer, a Secretary, and two Members-at-Large. I feel that we need more avenues or pathways for members to take leadership roles at all levels." This type of visionary thinking relates back to her desire to have a Union that is more accessible and approachable. "I want us to have a rank-and-file, member-driven union," she says. "Where there is distributed power and everyone feels that this is their union and not just run by one or two people."

Aubert hopes to spend the rest of the year taking a targeted look at the University budget, building a working group that can study it closely. "We know that tuition is going up and the dominant narrative is that there is no money," she says. "But we need a better understanding of why there is no money and where the money is going." Institutional debt at public universities is a national topic, and in many cases, tuition is used to pay interest on those debts. Aubert sees this as an area of significant concern. "There are schools where we know that money is being transferred from the students to Wall Street:not to pay off a debt but to pay the interest on a debt. I would like to have a working group to better understand if that is happening at WSU and, if so, to what extent." Understanding the budget is also important so that the union can better formulate asks like larger childcare subsidies and better equity adjustments. "People are frustrated," she says. "I don't want us to be flat-footed the next time we renegotiate our contact in 2024. I want us to be ready with a clear strategy for numbers."

Aubert also wants to build out the Contract Enforcement Team, which is a group of faculty and academic staff who have a deep understanding of the contract and will take on cases across campus. She explains, "If you come up against a problem or some resistance to, let's say, a leave of absence, you can go to the Contract Enforcement Team, and they can help you, and work with our lawyer if necessary." The work is difficult and requires time and training because the team is helping to negotiate based on specific details of the contract. "In the Auto Workers Union, you would have your steward on your shop floor, and this is somewhat similar to that role."

The Impact of Good Graphic Design

Aubert knows the importance of visual presentation to get everyone on the same page. She explains that even something like the font in an email can have implications for how well information is shared and disseminated. Some successful Keynote presentations have also shown Aubert how important her skills will be in achieving her goals of greater inclusivity. She explains, "When we had a town hall meeting for the School of Medicine, I created a slide with a graph visually conveying the change in pay for faculty. It was very effective. I am not a great debater and I am not a professional public speaker, but I feel confident that I can make a keynote presentation that people can easily follow and learn from." "¨In addition to presentation materials, Aubert also wants to improve the website and other communications, in order to get more people excited and engaged. "I want people to see union work as more than just service. It's our livelihood. It's our community. As a graphic designer, it is important to me that people can understand our organization and what we do."

The work with the union has made Aubert feel differently about her role as a graphic designer and her research interests. "It's hard to put into words," she says. "For my last project on the Detroit Printing Cooperative, I spent lots of time looking at archives and old materials and talking with people who were involved with the Coop. They produced so much work and it was very inspiring. I started to think that I didn't just want to be nostalgic for organizing from the 60s and 70s, but to be more involved in our current moment of political activism." She also read the book No Shortcuts; Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age by Jane McAlevey which helped her understand the importance of labor unions, not just for organizing workers but for organizing communities.

Book cover for Aubert's Detroit Printing Cooperative research project
Excerpt from Aubert's book on the Detroit Printing Cooperative research project
Gallery exhibit for the Detroit Printing Cooperative research project

She candidly admits that the work is hard and not always gratifying, but it is important to persist and reorient as needed. "It is easy to come to this work with ideals or dreams and then be faced with the bureaucratic reality and dealing with the day-to-day grind, hitting walls and sometimes unable to see the forest for the trees. it can be hard to keep that feeling of possibility. But you just have to keep chipping away at it, and reorienting as you go. And I can see the difference, even from just a year ago."

Finally, Aubert wants to pay special attention to students on campus and encourage them to organize for things that they need. She has been very inspired by the Students from the Young Democratic Socialists of America who started a petition called Save Our Campus where they're calling for tuition freezes and hiring more custodial staff. "We need to break out of that mentality that raising tuition is the only answer. I want students to feel that they can fight back against tuition hikes and poor facilities. Our students deserve public education that is affordable and accessible, and they should know that they have power if they want it. It's theirs to take."


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