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Time for a Union?

February 21, 2014

The faculty union at the University of Illinois at Chicago ended its two-day strike this week over contract negotiations, catching the attention of local and national media and, of course, the administration. But the United Faculty also had another engaged audience, downstate: the faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where a union drive is under way. And while the Chicago faculty overwhelmingly supported the move, voting almost unanimously to cancel classes to force a pay hike and other proposals, the strike served as a kind of Rorschach test at Urbana-Champaign, where the faculty is much more divided on the value of a union.

“We now have a perfect petri dish up at [Chicago] to see what life with a faculty union looks like,” reads a recent post on the No Faculty Union at Illinois blog, co-moderated by Joyce Tolliver, associate professor of Spanish, translation studies and gender and women's studies at Urbana-Champaign. “[The strike] harms students, stokes anger, and alienates parents, taxpayers, and supporters of the university all across the state. We have yet to see the damage of public good will, campus stature and support in Springfield this strike will cost us.”

The post continues: “Advocates here like to point to Rutgers, or [the University of Oregon, both Association of American Universities member institutions with faculty unions], or anywhere else, and bring union supporters from those campuses to tell us how much they love their union and how great it would be for us. Meanwhile, the campus that organizers here point to as their organizational model shows us how ugly and divisive collective bargaining can be.”

Tolliver isn’t alone. More than 150 professors have signed a letter opposing the union drive, which cites concerns about the potential for national union interference in affairs at Urbana-Champaign, and the fact that state law would make membership in the form of representation and -- if the union required them -- dues mandatory for all faculty, whether they supported the union or not. (Note: This version has been updated from a previous version to reflect that unions can require dues under state law.)

“We, the undersigned members of the faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, find no evidence that academic excellence on our campus would be advanced by ceding control of many of our most important decision-making processes to local representatives of a national labor union,” reads the letter.

On the contrary, it says, “our nationally-recognized campus shared governance system has a strong record of shaping campus and university policy for the protection of faculty interests and the success of our campus missions.”

The letter also says no other university-identified peer institution in a group of nine, such as the University of Texas at Austin or the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, have faculty unions. (At several campuses on the list, including Texas, faculty can't collectively bargain due to state labor laws preventing educators from doing so.)

But in the broader peer set of Association of American Universities member institutions, faculty unions do exist -- such as at Oregon and Rutgers. Still, they are rare, and a union at Urbana likely would be seen as a big win by labor activists. The bulk of faculty unions are at community colleges or non-flagship, four-year public institutions. That’s partly because high-ranking, public research institutions tend to have – at least historically – strong traditions of shared governance. It’s also because tenure-line faculty at private institutions are blocked from unionizing, according to the 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision in NLRB v. Yeshiva University. In that case, the court ruled that the tenured and tenure-track faculty had managerial duties and therefore lacked collective bargaining rights.

Flagship salaries also tend to be higher than those at other state system institutions. At the Urbana-Champaign, for example, the average full professor salary is $141,699 annually, compared to $132,834 at the University of Illinois at Chicago and $107,889 at the University of Illinois at Springfield, excluding medical school faculty, according to 2012-13 data from the American Association of University Professors.

Compared to the average salary among 20 similarly ranked public and private institutions, including Texas, Michigan, and the University of California at Berkeley, however, the picture isn't quite as good. The average faculty salary in that group is $162,720 for full professors. Still, however many grievances faculty members have, many don't see themselves as organized labor.

In an interview, Tolliver said the letter garnered so many signatures in a matter of days, and that the anti-union organizers were “confident” that most faculty at Urbana-Champaign do not want a union.

But union advocates say otherwise and have launched their own vigorous campaign to form a union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and AAUP. The United Faculty at Chicago shared those affiliations.

‘There is considerable, broad and deep support for unionization of the faculty” at Urbana, said Susan Davis, professor of communication and supporter of the Campus Faculty Association. Some 1,600 tenure-line and 300 full-time, non-tenure-track faculty are eligible for the union, which, according to state labor law, would include two separate bargaining units based on tenure status. Part-time adjuncts aren't part of the drive. It’s been active for about two years, but hasn’t yet filed for a union election.

And organizers might have a shot with faculty members who might normally not have been union recruits because of a series of system-wide controversies during the past five years, including the failure of the University of Illinois Global Campus, an admissions scandal, a system president who was forced out, and pension reform that's left professors unsure about what their retirement finances will look like.

Davis said association members “very much wish” that the Chicago union hadn’t been “pushed” to strike, and that outstanding issues were best settled “quickly and at the bargaining table, with everyone talking to each other.”

But she said Urbana-Champaign faculty share many of their concerns. Salaries are somewhat better at Urbana-Champaign, especially given the low cost of living there compared to the city, but both campuses face shrinking tenure-line job numbers and increasing employment of relatively low-paid adjuncts; rapidly rising enrollment; and “attacks” on the public pension system stemming from the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis.

Cary Nelson, a professor of English at Urbana and former president of the American Association of University Professors, said via email that he supported the strike outright, and suggested that a successful contract negotiation might encourage the Urbana faculty in its efforts – to the University of Illinois System’s chagrin.

“A brief strike will help unify the faculty and strengthen its resolve in bargaining,” he said. “The administration really hasn't been negotiating at all. It's just stonewalling -- because they are terrified that a good contract will encourage [Urbana] to unionize.”

Chicago has said that it offered its faculty a “fair” contract and cited budgetary concerns about the total cost of their demands – a 25 percent personnel cost hike over four years – as the reason for the delay.

Urbana-Champaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Nelson also said that the Urbana Faculty Senate is no longer a “serious deliberative body,” thanks to what he called a strict application of the Open Meetings Act, limiting what faculty can discuss over email. He added: “There is no time for extended discussion at meetings and there is a prohibition against substantive discussion on email. If the [Urbana-Champaign] faculty wants to engage in serious policy reflection it needs a legal vehicle in which to do so. A union is the only way to restore a meaningful faculty voice on campus."

Tolliver challenged the idea that a union focused on collective bargaining could improve upon or replace what she called "robust" shared governance and collaborative policy-making at Urbana-Champaign. "You give up all the benefits of that collaborative relationship when you opt for a more adversarial collective bargaining system," she said.

Roy Campbell, professor of computer science at Urbana-Champaign and chair of the Faculty Senate’s Executive Committee, said the body was only constrained due to open records laws concerning online conversations, such as on wiki pages, because members feel that compliance with the law is trickier to ensure. But strict adherence to open meetings law hasn't made in-person meetings less democratic or effective, he said.

But Campbell didn't rule out the possibility that a union could benefit the faculty at Urbana-Champaign, and said that discussions about unionization help bring important issues to light. He wondered, however, how much a union would help one of the most fundamental problems facing the University of Illinois system – the long-suffering Midwestern economy and tax base.

Campbell also said he was personally skeptical of the ability of Faculty Senate and unions to function “productively” alongside one another at high-ranking public universities, given the small number of examples.

“Do we want to experiment with that?” he said. “I’m somewhat negative about that.”

William Herbert, executive director of Hunter College’s National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, said via email that union drives at both public and private institutions are on the rise, in Illinois and elsewhere.

“This is reflective of changes in the academic workforce including the increased employment of low-wage contingent faculty to replace tenure-track faculty,” he said. “Contingent faculty frequently work with no or limited benefits and job security and lack sufficient time to pursue their research agendas. A clear and direct contributing factor for the current situation on public campuses is the decline in state appropriations and financial support for higher education.”

 

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