When faculty members at Ohio public universities mention their governor’s quest to end their collective bargaining rights, they talk as if they were in a war.
These days, many professors at the state’s public universities find themselves in an unusual spot: in the trenches, with other public employees such as firefighters and police officers, campaigning to repeal a law (Senate Bill 5) that would, if it survives, severely limit their ability to bargain for wages and benefits.
The survival of Senate Bill 5 would diminish faculty unions -- some say it would even put their survival in doubt, by preventing most members from being in a union. The law was adopted earlier this year but is being challenged in a referendum next month.
States vary on their recognition of faculty unions in public higher education, but Ohio has long been among the most solidly union states when it comes to tenure-track faculty members -- and the state is the heart of the union activity of the American Association of University Professors.
Although recent polls have found a majority of the state’s voters favor repeal of the law, both sides are well-financed, making the outcome far from clear.
The Ohio conference of the AAUP has about 4,300 members – about 10 percent of the national membership – and those members now find themselves in the thick of things. "Our members have been phone-banking, knocking on doors, hosting forums, and doing a myriad of other activities to bring awareness to how SB 5 will negatively impact faculty and other public employees,” said Sara Kilpatrick, executive director of AAUP Ohio.
Kilpatrick said it was “safe to assume that all of the public university presidents support SB 5.”
When contacted, the presidents of two Ohio public universities did not openly say which side they were on.
Lloyd A. Jacobs, president of the University of Toledo, said he wants an excellent health care system and a reasonable retirement package for his employees, while Mary Ellen Mazey, the president of Bowling Green State University, said she was committed to shared governance. Neither of them commented specifically on the collective bargaining issue at stake in November, but Mazey said the issue was now up to Ohio voters.
Earlier this year, The Toledo Blade reported on how some officials at Bowling Green State University were involved in the drafting of SB 5.
Bruce Johnson, the president of Ohio’s Inter-University Council, which represents presidents from public universities, said the council reached a consensus earlier this year in supporting the bill. “Ultimately, it would improve university efficiency by controlling costs,” Johnson said.
A lobbying group called Building a Better Ohio, backed by a number of trade groups, has also actively campaigned in support of the bill. The group’s spokeswoman, Connie Wehrkamp, said SB 5 would bring runaway costs under control. She said faculty strikes, like the recent one at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, are unfair to students.
“The students are being used as a bargaining chip. The kids who are paying tuition are stuck while public employees go on strike,” Wehrkamp said.
Costs were rising in all levels of government, she said, and at the same time there are government employees who are not paying much for health care or their pensions.
“They are given raises with no regard to how they are performing,” she said. “We owe it to our taxpayers and owe it to our students to give them the best education possible.”
This kind of talk has certainly energized the faculty members, who are now hustling to reach out to voters.
AAUP Ohio has raised more than $650,000 to fight SB 5, more money than it has ever raised in Ohio for any campaign.
“The campaign has really placed the Ohio Conference AAUP on the labor map. Previously, AAUP had not been very involved in the larger labor movement, partially because we are a part-membership organization (we have non-union members.),” Kilpatrick said. "But the AAUP in Ohio really stepped up to combat this bad legislation, and even our non-union members have been active and supportive."
John McNay, professor of history at the University of Cincinnati, called the bill a drastic, extremist act. “It is a new thing to be so politically involved but we have been forced into it,” he said. “Ohioans recognize the great injustice of this law.”
McNay, who is the AAUP chapter president at his university, said he had taken part in phone banking events and walked door-to-door, talking to voters. “People try very hard to be civil but sometimes it has been tense,” he said.
David Jackson, AAUP president at Bowling Green, said he did not anticipate too many people supporting SB5. “The college presidents, they are not saying anything, continuing a trend in backroom-type behavior,” he said.
One unintended consequence of this battle could be that faculty unions could become stronger in Ohio. That’s how Richard Boris, director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York, sees it.
“This is driven by the same tsunami that happened in Wisconsin,” Boris said, referring to efforts to curtail collective bargaining in that state.
Mobilizing faculty members can be slow, he said, but the battle in Ohio represents a crucial moment. “Efforts are on to end the autonomy of public universities and tie them to the political process in the state,” Boris said.
And even if the current measure fails, the challenges to collective bargaining will continue, he said.
“Politicians are politicians. What they don’t like is to lose twice,” Boris said. "They might find other mechanisms to do the same thing."
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