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Union Breakthrough

May 2, 2011

The faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago filed paperwork Friday with the state’s labor relations board to become one of only a handful of research universities where professors engage in collective bargaining.

While the union must wait several weeks for official approval from the state, and there is a chance that the university could fight the legitimacy of the faculty’s decision, delaying official recognition, Friday’s announcement represents the first major victory for a partnership between the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors. The two unions have started a campaign to focus on organizing faculty members at research institutions.

"The faculty needed a larger voice in how this university is run," said Lennard Davis, a professor in the English department and a member of the UCI United Faculty's organizing council. "This gives us a powerful voice in talks with the administration."

If approved, the union will represent most of the approximately 1,500 faculty members; the exceptions are those in the schools of medicine, dentistry, and pharmacy, which are established as separate organizational units by state law.

While faculty unions are fairly common in the Northeast, the West, and the Midwest at community colleges and regional state institutions, they are relatively rare at research universities. Some major research institutions, such as Rutgers University and the University of Florida, have unions, but most of those were established decades ago.

Campus organizers and AFT representatives said a variety of factors explain why faculty members at the University of Illinois at Chicago were more receptive to the message of collective bargaining than research university faculty have generally been in the past. Organizers cited the increased reliance on non-tenure-track faculty, state budget cuts and furloughs, and a general sympathy in the Chicago area for unions. They also noted anger over recent attempts in Wisconsin and Ohio to strip public college employees of collective bargaining rights.

"The fact is that the ivory tower is barely a barrier against the rain these days," said Lawrence Gold, director of AFT Higher Education. "People are seeing across the country the economic situation of public higher education and the frightening lack of influence faculty members have."

One major argument that organizers said stuck with faculty members was that professors consistently felt like they had no voice in university governance. Last fall, the Faculty Senate passed a resolution asking the administration to address budget shortfalls in a manner other than imposing furloughs. Subsequently, faculty members and administrators were required to take 10 days of unpaid leave.

While the Faculty Senate at the University of Illinois at Chicago is vested with authority in academic matters, it can serve only an advisory capacity when it comes to many administrative matters, especially the budget. “If the criticism is that we’re not being effective at getting salary raises, then I think that's not a fair assessment of why we're here," said Philip Patston, chairman of the Faculty Senate at the university and professor in the dentistry school, one of the units that will not be part of the union. Patston did not indicate whether he supported the union.

Organizers said they hope the union will give the faculty more authority in how the university is run, although administrators questioned whether this was a realistic goal.

In e-mails to the campus, Jerry L. Bauman, interim vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost, said the administration was not in favor of the faculty union. “I am concerned that having a labor union representing the faculty may undermine our efforts to promote excellence,” read one e-mail.

Despite opposition, the administration maintained "respectful distance" from the organizing process, said Mark Rosati, associate chancellor for public affairs for the university. The administration did try to combat some claims the union was making as it collected support.

“Assertions that forming a union will somehow improve the faculty's role in governance are also inaccurate,” Bauman said in the e-mail. “The subjects of collective bargaining are wages, hours and working conditions -- not shared governance, educational policies or program initiatives.”

The administration also distributed an e-mail from James J. Stukel, former president of the University of Illinois system, who said a faculty union would be bad for the university. “It is highly unlikely that UIC will become an elite institution if the faculty becomes unionized,” he said in the e-mail. Before becoming the system president, Stukel served as vice chancellor for research, vice chancellor for academic affairs, and chancellor of the Chicago campus.

UIC faculty members were approached by AFT and AAUP representatives about forming the union about two years ago. Faculty members, along with union representatives, formed an organizing committee and began meeting with interested faculty members. Initial activity was kept quiet from administrators.

Illinois law allows workers to organize through a "card check" system, in which workers sign authorization cards to form a union -- with no formal election required. The card check campaign at the university began about three months ago, Davis said, and organizers needed authorization cards from 50 percent of employees, plus one. At the time of filing, Davis said the UIC United Faculty had collected authorization cards from between 60 and 65 percent of faculty members.

Rosati said the university would not comment on its next steps until it receives word from the labor relations board about the validity of the card check. Under Illinois law, the university is allowed to challenge the number of authorization cards, whether the cards are valid, and whether certain units should or should not have been included in the final count.

If the union is certified, Davis said the union would establish offices, determine bylaws and goals, and get to work negotiating with the administration.

Davis would not speculate on what kinds of demands the faculty union would make in collective bargaining with the administration, saying he would defer to the majority of the union once it is certified. "We really want this to be a truly democratic process," he said.

AFT and AAUP are currently working with faculty members at the University of Oregon to establish a union there, though they say those efforts have moved more slowly. Gold said the AFT and AAUP would talk soon about which universities to target next.

 

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