Divide and Conquer?

U. of Illinois challenges union victory and infuriates faculty leaders by saying that state law bars common unit for those on and off the tenure track.
May 19, 2011

Faculty members at the University of Illinois at Chicago filed for union recognition last month -- moving to become one of a small number of research universities to seek collective bargaining for professors, and giving academic labor a major victory in a year of deep disappointments. While the university urged faculty members to reject the union drive, it did not challenge the professors' legal right to organize.

Now, however, the University of Illinois system is challenging the union -- jointly organized by the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers -- on the grounds that state law bars tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty from being in the same organizing unit. The union is fighting back, and faculty leaders say that the argument is a cover for the university's opposition to collective bargaining for faculty members.

At campuses with faculty unions, some have separate units for adjuncts and full-time faculty members, while others have single units for those on and off the tenure track. Some adjuncts object to joint unions, arguing that their interests are not identical to (and are often subjugated to) those of tenured or tenure-track faculty members. But other faculty members -- including adjuncts -- argue that professors are stronger when they bargain together.

At issue in Illinois is the legislation that authorized faculty unions at the campuses of the University of Illinois. The legislation reads: "The sole appropriate bargaining unit for tenured and tenure-track academy faculty at each campus of the University of Illinois shall be a unit that is comprised of non-supervisory academic faculty employed more than half-time and that includes all tenured and tenure-track faculty of that university campus...."

The university has asked the state labor board to reject the faculty union on the grounds that the statute means that a single faculty union can "only" include tenured and tenure-track faculty members. The union brief in response states that the university is misreading the word "includes." While the university argues that it essentially means "includes only," the union says that is not the case and cites various other bills in which such language does not limit participation to those specifically named.

A memo sent to all faculty members by Jerry L. Bauman, interim vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost, said that the university was trying to follow the law. "Let me emphasize that the university is NOT attempting to deprive faculty of the right to organize, but it must be done in a manner that is legally allowable," he wrote.

Further, the university states in a footnote to its brief that it would not object to the creation of two separate bargaining units.

But Lennard Davis, Distinguished Professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the university and one of the organizers of the union drive, questioned the university's stated motives. Davis said that, rather than challenge the union with the state labor board, the university could have moved to divide the union in two. If the university really was worried about appropriate bargaining units, it would have done that, Davis said.

"This whole thing is obstructionist, and designed to keep this in the courts for years," Davis said. "The real motive here is not to have a union."

Davis noted that the union followed provisions of Illinois labor law that limited union membership to those non-tenure-track faculty who have appointments of at least 51 percent time and have held an appointment for four consecutive semesters. A majority of the members of the union are off the tenure track, Davis said. He added that a higher proportion of non-tenure-track faculty members had signed union cards compared with those on the tenure track (although he said that the union had enough support in both sectors that it could have filed to create two units).

Tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty members talked about the merits of organizing together, Davis said, and pursued that course aware that some faculty members have made other choices. "Most of us [on the tenure track] are people who are aware of the difficulties faced by non-tenure-track faculty. Together we are more effective on their plight than separately."

Gary Rhoades, general secretary of the AAUP, said via e-mail Wednesday night that joint units of those on and off the tenure track "are not uncommon nationally" and that they reflect "a community of interest" that extends beyond tenure status.

Rhoades added: "The United Faculty of UIC have filed to be a combined bargaining unit, to work together to advance the quality of the university. They have made their choice democratically and inclusively. The administration should move forward and bargain with them, in the best interests of the university and its students, rather than hiring law firms to thwart the democratic will of the faculty."


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