Un-Unionizing a University?

Four years after faculty at Montana State voted for collective bargaining, they are voting on whether to end it.

April 1, 2013

Faculty members at Montana State University could next month vote to end a four-year experiment with unionization, stripping the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association of a hard-won chapter at a research university.

The university in 2009 became the last public university in Montana to unionize, a win for academic labor, which had targeted Montana State for decades. But the Associated Faculty of Montana State University, which was approved by 12-vote margin, is facing serious opposition. Four years later, some faculty members, attacking the association for what they call its lack of results at the negotiating table and its opaque and bureaucratic methods, has put the question to the faculty once more.

Central to the debate about whether to decertify the faculty association is the conflict between expectations and results. The union's leaders say its presence on campus and in state and national legislative bodies has already benefited the faculty at Montana State, but that they have failed at communicating their victories. Its opponents, however, say unionization has made faculty governance undemocratic and unrepresentative.

“They’ve been here for four years. They’ve achieved nothing significant,” said Bennett Link, a professor of physics who is leading the effort to decertify the union. “They claim things that they didn’t do, and this doesn’t really inspire a feeling of confidence in the union.”

The sole contract negotiated so far by the union grants faculty members a 1 percent raise the first year and 2 percent the next along with flat $500 bonuses. Union leaders blame the current economic and political climate for the fact that the raises are lower than they have been in previous years, and note that they have prevented midyear cuts in pay. (Trends nationally have been for small, if any raises, for faculty members in the years since the union vote, while raises were a bit larger prior to the economic downturn -- and this trend is evident at unionized and nonunionized campuses.)

Still, those raises have been dented by union dues. Union leaders said they initially thought dues would be capped at 1.3 percent of faculty members' salaries, but after transitioning to the local union's dues structure, faculty members now have to pay a flat fee of $631.

"Everybody pays," Link said. "If you choose not to be a union member, you pay almost as much compared to members."

The vote, which will be handled by mail-in ballots and tallied on April 16, was triggered after 30 percent of Montana State’s tenure-track instructors backed the effort to decertify the union. Both sides are confident the result will likely be as close as the one that created the association -- and that their side will eke out a win.

Should the majority favor decertification, it would mark a rare instance in which tenure-track faculty members dissolve their union. The collective bargaining function would cease, leaving it to the faculty senate, which only plays an advisory role, to represent professors to the administration. Adjunct instructors would still be represented by the union.

More than anything, union members urged patience.

“Historically with issues such as unions and bargaining, people’s perspectives are not always based on objective facts, because it can be a very emotional issue,” said Christina Sieloff, an associate professor of nursing who has been involved in the union since 2009.

Sieloff compared the faculty association to a new academic program or campus organization, and said, like any new initiative, the union needs to be able to prove its worth before faculty should even consider scrapping it. “I’m very realistic about what can be achieved in a short time,” Sieloff said. “I never expect perfection at the start, but I know things will get better as we go along.”

Jessie L. Smith, associate professor of psychology, said she understood the need for union protection when -- as she was poised to become the first woman in the psychology department to be granted tenure -- she realized her department didn’t have any set policies for maternity leave. The contract establishes maternity leave as an authorized leave of absence that can extend the tenure review period.

“That was one of the things that really galvanized my support,” Smith said. “I was pre-tenure, and I felt vulnerable. Being part of a union meant I didn’t have to be worried about being bullied or being penalized for making waves."

As Montana State continues to expand its focus on research, Smith stressed the importance of having powerful allies both locally and nationally. “There’s power that comes in a collective Montana University System voice,” Smith said. “That’s really important for the national level to have an even stronger footing when it becomes time to try to gain those important resources from the state and federal governing bodies that are out there.”

Union members also warned decertifying the faculty association would mean faculty members lose their seat at the negotiation table. Opponents, meanwhile, said negotiations with the administration have already be damaged by of the union’s “us against them” mentality.

“The union puts up this wall,” Link said. “If we don’t have a union, the relationship with the administration is better, simply because what the union does is create an adversarial relationship.”

Link said the union has created a similar relationship between faculty members who chose to join the union and those who opted out, but Smith pointed out that the instructors arguing for decertification have portrayed the union as a foreign entity.

“The faculty is the union,” Smith said. “It’s not a third entity in that sky that swoops in and makes changes.”


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