In September, starting pay for the university’s nontenured teachers jumped from $34,500 to $48,000. By 2020 they’ll start at $51,000.

That nearly 50 percent pay raise is a sweet victory for LEO–the fifteen-year-old Lecturers’ Employee Organization. “We’re the bottom of the two-tier system,” says sociology lecturer and LEO president Ian Robinson. Because they’re cheap and expendable, the number of lecturers at Michigan and other universities around the country has shot up within the past two decades. Some 1,000 lecturers now teach more than one-third of all credit hours on the Ann Arbor campus, but compared to the 3,000 tenure-track faculty, they might as well be on another planet.

Universities, Robinson says, have borrowed “a full set of norms from the business sector” in squeezing their staff. Not only did lecturers earn far less than profs on the tenure track, they also lagged in job security, benefits, and respect. “Academia is very hierarchical and very elitist,” says LEO vice president Kirsten Herold. “A former dean of LS&A called us the ‘C’ students of the university.”

In fact, most U-M lecturers have PhDs, many from prestigious schools. (Robinson’s political science doctorate is from Yale, Herold’s English PhD from U-M). Many have published in academic journals. But even top schools graduate far more PhDs than there are tenure-track positions available–meaning many end up as lecturers for paltry pay and negligible benefits (until this year, for instance, many LEO members lost health care coverage each summer). With LEO’s previous contract expiring in April, union leaders were determined to narrow the gap. To get a sense of what the university could afford, they consulted EMU accounting prof Howard Bunsis. “The first thing he said was ‘Don’t look at the budget–the budgets are projections,'” Robinson recalls. “‘You’ll never see a surplus. Look at the annual reports.'” They looked–and found that “in those previous two years, the surplus ran half a billion dollars.”

LEO went into negotiations demanding a starting pay of $60,000 by 2020. The university offered just $40,000, leading to tense and sometimes dramatic negotiations. Lecturers showed up at regents meetings to share personal stories of hardship. One woman said she earned so little at U-M Flint she couldn’t afford to leave her abusive husband. Others told about juggling other jobs, like bartending, to earn enough to get by. The more they testified, Herold says, the more attentive the regents seemed: “They understand you can’t ask people to live on this kind of money in a town like Ann Arbor.”

In March, the lecturers were heartened to see West Virginia public school teachers win pay raises after a nine-day strike. Their morale got another boost at a regents meeting that month, when regent Mark Bernstein exclaimed, “Let me be clear. I believe our lecturers are being exploited.” Bernstein confirmed his support in a recent telephone interview. “Lecturers are an essential part of our mission,” he says. “They must be valued that way.”

The union came very close to striking in April, even going so far as to sign up a student to support every striker. LEO leaders say that U-M negotiators reminded them that under Michigan’s 2012 “Right to Work” legislation they were forbidden to strike–to which one union negotiator replied, “There’s nothing to stop us from threatening to strike.” Herold says they didn’t go out only because the U-M sweetened its offer–not to the level they wanted but enough for them to believe the better strategy was to back off.

Negotiations went almost nonstop for four days before a settlement was reached in late June. Along with a huge pay raise, it provides for year-round health coverage, annual pay raises based on years worked, and bigger retirement contributions.

Robinson–who studied labor movements before he found himself leading one–called it a “terrific” contract. LEO members agreed, ratifying it by a 98 percent margin.