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The Endgame Approaches

March 31, 2011

WASHINGTON -- As a bill that would strip collective bargaining rights from public employees advanced in Ohio’s legislature, a U.S. senator from that state lambasted the measure as demonstrating misplaced priorities.

“I think people want to focus on job creation in this state -- and the governor and the legislature seem more focused on abortion and taking away worker rights,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat. “I think they’ve made a terrible mistake. They’ve divided the state unnecessarily.”

Brown made his comments to Inside Higher Ed during a break in a daylong session that he convened with about 50 presidents of private, public and community colleges from his home state. While this is the fourth year that Ohio’s higher education leaders have gathered as a group to meet with Brown and other representatives and agency officials, this is the first time that the focus has been on colleges’ role in sparking regional economic development.

The purpose of the meeting struck some as dissonant when juxtaposed with efforts to scale back collective bargaining rights, wages and benefits of public sector employees, including those working at public colleges and universities. Such efforts against faculty unions will undermine “a critical work force that stimulates economic development,” Gary Rhoades, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said in a statement.

Rhoades criticized the aims of the Ohio bill, along with proposals from Gov. John Kasich to support charter universities that would be free from state regulations. “Is this the road to prosperity? The AAUP thinks not,” said Rhoades. “Faculty and professionals in colleges and universities create economic, democratic, and social value through their teaching, research, innovation, and service. They are the people who engage the students and enable them to succeed and take their places in the workforce and in society. The path to future prosperity for Ohio, as for the nation, is to invest in higher education, in its students, its employees and in the work that they do.”

Kasich’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did Ohio's other U.S. senator, Republican Rob Portman, who briefly spoke during Brown’s meeting.

The bill passed, 53-44, in the House Wednesday evening. The later Senate concurred, by a 17-16 vote, with 25 amendments that had been added by the House. The legal reasoning used in the bill essentially cites the premise used in NLRB v. Yeshiva University, which applies only to private college professors, and brings it to those working at public universities. The 1980 Supreme Court decision barred faculty members at private colleges from bargaining collectively on the grounds that they enjoyed managerial status because of their role in shared governance.

Advocates for the bill -- including Bruce Johnson, the president and CEO of the Inter-University Council of Ohio, who suggested the bill’s language -- have said it is needed to give colleges greater flexibility as they cope with dwindling state support. Kasich also has said it will help to close an $8 billion hole over two years in the state's $55.5 billion budget.

Kasich could sign the bill later this week. While the legislative actions in Ohio have provoked their share of demonstrations, more developments may yet follow: Democrats in Ohio have pledged to bring the measure up for a ballot referendum in November.

While a few college presidents came out against the bill on Wednesday, many have been quiet about the issue and were somewhat noncommittal when approached here for their views.

“I think it goes too far,” said David Hopkins, president of Wright State University. While he said he could see the merits of some aims of the bill, such as giving administrators a vehicle to reopen negotiations on multiyear contracts when state support plummets (such processes do exist in other states with faculty unions), Hopkins said he couldn’t support the overall legislation. “Personally I’ve been very much an advocate for the wonderful work we do with our union,” he said. “We’re a better institution for the work we do together.”

Similarly, Larry McDougle, president of Owens Community College, said that the bill’s measures blocking binding arbitration and barring state employees from striking were useful. But he, too, expressed a sense of uneasiness. “I’m not opposed to faculty unions at all. In fact, I think we have a pretty good relationship at my institution,” he said. “I’m not sure what would happen if Senate Bill 5 gets approved where collective bargaining goes away.”

Debra McCurdy, president of James A. Rhodes State College, said, on the one hand, that she struggled with the perception that the bill takes away people's rights to bargain. But on the other, she also saw an opportunity to review bargaining rights and perhaps come up with another model. “We should be talking about shared bargaining,” she said. “This is an opportunity to do this at the table in a shared way.”

Others pledged to work closely with their respective faculty members -- whether there’s a union in place or not.

“We believe in shared governance, which we call shared leadership,” said Luis Proenza, president of the University of Akron. “With or without collective bargaining, we will have shared leadership, and we truly believe in the engagement of all our employees in the process of building a great university.”

Union leaders have countered that, without the force of collective bargaining behind them, efforts at shared governance can be too easily bulldozed when administrators find them inconvenient. Or entities, such as a faculty or university senate, can simply be suspended.

“We do have a faculty union and we’ve worked closely with them over the years,” said Gregory Williams, president of the University of Cincinnati, who added that Cincinnati's faculty senate had formed a task force to look into the idea of a charter university. “I think no matter what happens, if Senate Bill 5 goes through or not, or if it’s overturned through a referendum, we’re going to have a close relationship with our faculty.”

 

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