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A Marriage Endures

February 8, 2011

Members of New York's faculty and professional union on Saturday overwhelmingly rejected a bid -- endorsed by their leaders -- to split off from the American Association of University Professors.

"I think this vote, to us, means that we are going to take our relationship seriously," said Phil Smith, president of United University Professions, the union that represents 33,000 faculty members and academic professionals, chiefly in the State University of New York system. While the executive board of the UUP had voted, 9-7, in favor of dissolving the 11-year-old relationship between the UUP and AAUP, the delegates representing the union's more than two dozen chapters, and its committees and retired membership opposed the resolution by a vote of 154 to 78.

The vote followed two years of tension and frustration, Smith said. He expressed guarded optimism that the relationship would change after the vote. Though he said he would have guessed beforehand that the delegates would have chosen, by a slim margin, to leave the AAUP, he said he was "pleasantly surprised" that they elected to stay (Smith could vote on the executive board only in the event of a tie, which didn't occur; he said he favored disaffiliation if the UUP's concerns remained unaddressed).

One reason for the delegates' desire to remain affiliated, he said, was a growing sense of unease from faculty members as pressure mounts on public higher education -- in the form of ebbing public backing and cuts in state support -- and that staying united, as has begun happening across different unions, to fight these trends ultimately represented a wiser course. “The sentiment was now is not a good time to get out,” Smith said.

While the total membership of the UUP is thought to be the largest of any institutional academic union in the country, only about 1,000 of them belong formally to the AAUP, which has 48,000 card-carrying members. But the influence of the New Yorkers on the national organization extends beyond their number of members, said Gary Rhoades, general secretary of the AAUP.

One reason is that the UUP also is affiliated with the large and active American Federation of Teachers, said Rhoades. The affiliation serves to connect both large national organizations. Another is that the UUP has been effective at fighting furloughs and privatization, he added. (The UUP is also affiliated with the National Education Association.)

But perhaps the most important aspect of the UUP is the fact that about half its members hail from outside the professoriate -- which represents a growing population in higher education and a source of new members, Rhoades said. In New York, this group includes those who work in student and academic affairs and -- more distinctively -- employees who work in the SUNY system's health centers as laboratory and hospital technicians.

And it was this part of the UUP's membership that most chafed at the relationship with the AAUP. "People in our organization who are non-teaching professionals felt as though they were being ignored," said Smith, "like second-class citizens." The widening of the AAUP tent to include job titles beyond professors represents the continuing evolution of the national organization beyond its roots in the professoriate, he said (for example, it extended its membership in 1973 to include research librarians).

While some concerns about academic freedom figured in the mix, the larger source of friction between the UUP and AAUP derived from scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Labor of the AAUP's election practices. The AAUP works in several capacities -- as a professional association, union and foundation -- as set out in its 2008 reorganization. Its role in collective bargaining means that some elections for positions in their leadership must be conducted according to the federal laws governing unions. This somewhat complicated structure posed a problem for the UUP. Some of its officers and delegates are, according to the UUP constitution, retired. But federal rules dictate that only active members can nominate others for positions.

In addition, the UUP had to reorganize how it distributed its 1,000 allotted memberships in the AAUP to its officers, delegates and other interested members. While some of the memberships were once distributed to UUP members on a proportional basis by chapters, the Labor Department's involvement meant that the UUP needed to be more explicit and deliberate in parceling out these memberships, Smith said. The UUP wanted candidates to run as presidents of their chapters and as AAUP delegates, rather than solely as chapter presidents. This way, representatives to the AAUP would end up being chosen by a vote of members rather than by the actions of its leaders. But it proved difficult for two years to get the AAUP to sign off on this shift, Smith said.

But this recently began to change. According to Smith, the AAUP committed last week to linking the UUP leadership to the AAUP membership, as the New York union had wanted. He and Rhoades also said the AAUP was better responding to the concerns of academic professionals. The Committee on Academic Professionals is an AAUP group drawn from the UUP and the Professional Staff Congress of the City University of New York, both of which boast large numbers of academic professionals. The group is bringing to light issues of interest to these unions, and is conducting a survey on their needs.

Rhoades said professors and academic professionals have much in common -- at least as much as faculty members in disparate disciplines at very different institutions do. "At the core of all professional work is a set of conditions that have to do with the terms and conditions of labor," he said. "What academic professionals and professors share is a whole range of other concerns and interests in having a voice in decisions in which they obviously have professional expertise."

While Smith expressed a wary optimism, Rhoades said the vote represented a challenge more than any vindication of the relationship between the two organizations. "This vote is not a final affirmation that now we can go back to life as usual," he said. "The vote is a recognition that we’re making progress.... There’s no way we regard this as a stand pat situation."

 

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