Leap of Faith

Deciding to unionize alongside part-timers could have backfired on Notre Dame de Namur’s tenured and tenure-track faculty members. Here’s how it didn’t.

June 30, 2017
 

Tenure-track and tenured faculty members at Notre Dame de Namur University were beyond hopeful last year when their institution voluntarily recognized their new union; legal precedent holds that tenure-track faculty members on private campuses are managers and so not entitled to collective bargaining. There are additional legal challenges to organizing at religiously affiliated institutions, and Notre Dame de Namur is Roman Catholic.

Then things got scary for the faculty: administrators announced a series of planned changes to academic programs, making good on a previous warning that the professors’ new labor status could put such shifts beyond their control. Tenure-line faculty members moved forward with collective bargaining anyway, optimistic that their longstanding concerns about the state of shared governance on campus might somehow be resolved through the process.

A year later, things have largely been worked out: faculty members -- both part-time and full-time, both affiliated with Service Employees International Union -- have ratified their first contract. The three-year agreement includes substantial gains in pay, improvements to working conditions for the tenure-track and non-tenure-track alike, and assurances of shared governance and academic freedom.

“The salary increase is better than anything we’ve had in my 20 years here,” said Kim Tolley, professor of education, past chair of the Faculty Senate and a key player in both the unionization and negotiation processes. Of the contract, she added, “It resolved workload issues and concerns the full-time faculty had, and has mechanisms for the faculty to negotiate some of the structural changes the administration wanted to make. … We are in an amazing place.”

Part-time faculty members formed a union at Notre Dame de Namur last year, and tenure-line faculty members gained certification from the National Labor Relations Board soon after. Legally, the groups are two separate units, but they are covered by the same contract and members of each attended all bargaining sessions. The resulting agreement is one with relative parity in working conditions for full-time and part-time professors -- they way the wanted it. “Don't Divide Our University. #NDNUunites” buttons were even part of the union organizing campaign. (Note: This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version to clarify that part-time and full-time faculty members organized together.)

Both groups get a raise, with the lowest-earning part-time faculty members seeing their per-course pay increase by 35 percent by the end of the contract. Full-timers will get 8 to 9.5 percent raises over three years, addressing their concerns about being some of the worst-paid professors in the pricey San Francisco Bay Area. The lowest full-time starting professor's salary is currently about $53,000, and will increase to around $62,000 by the end of the contract. Per-unit pay for the lowest-earning part-timers will increase to $1,266 (most courses are three units).

The contract also squashes previous administrative proposals to up the full-time faculty course load to five courses per semester instead of four, and to bar full-timers from teaching overload courses. Tolley said some lower-paid professors rely on those courses to be able to pay their rent. Now they'll still be able to.

Part-time professors won’t all be hired semester to semester anymore, either, under the contract. They’ll instead be offered any course they are qualified to teach by seniority. Those who have taught for 14 years and attained the title of senior lecturer can apply for a paid sabbatical. (That's pay for six units, or about two courses.)

Full-time faculty members will get the same health-care benefits as administrators, and the university may no longer deny courses to adjuncts to prevent them from becoming eligible for health benefits.

Additional funds are included for professional development, teaching independent studies and course cancellations.

As for shared governance -- what some faculty members feared they might lose in becoming union members -- the contract ensures more faculty say in academic matters than previously existed on campus. Guaranteed standing faculty committees now include those on rank and tenure, curriculum, and faculty development. Except for rank and tenure, the committees must include an elected part-time faculty member, who is compensated for their time.

A joint labor-management committee also will be created to resolve issues related to workload, training and job duties. Some planned changes to academic programs were resolved through contract negotiations, but those that weren't may be addressed in the joint committee.

Crucially, faculty handbooks were rolled into the contract, making them binding and subject to the grievance process.

Notre Dame de Namur is a designated Hispanic-serving institution. The contract reflects that by dedicating funding to recruiting new faculty members of color and training professors on implicit bias and best practices for teaching first-generation college students.

After many years on campus, “in spite of differences that at times feel overwhelming that divide faculty from administration, unionization has for the first time provided a process for faculty and administration to work together constructively to serve our students,” Bob Ferrara, another professor of education, said in a statement announcing the contract.

Notre Dame de Namur is just the ninth private institution to allow tenured and tenure-track professors to unionize, by SEIU's accounting. Nato Green, an area organizer with the union, noted that the contract also includes assurances of academic freedom for all professors. He said in an interview it therefore would protect Notre Dame de Namur’s faculty from the kinds of backlash instructors on other campuses have faced recently for their extramural speech, much of it on race.

Green also praised the Notre Dame de Namur faculty’s focus on “building unity” throughout the unionization and negotiating process. Of joint part-time and full-time units on private campuses, he said, “that’s model we want to continue to pursue” at SEIU.

In a statement Thursday, the university called the contract “a fair agreement, which is beneficial for all parties because it has clarified labor management relationships and compensation/cost structure for the next three years.” 

The agreement “calls for a modest guaranteed wage increase for all faculty, with some additional increase to those at the lowest paid levels,” the university said. “Because tuition and student fees are the source of the vast majority of university funding, increases to compensation must always be balanced against the ability of students to pay for their educations. The university is always working to help students with scholarships, especially through fundraising, to ease this burden for students. 

Notre Dame de Namur “looks forward to working with all its valued employees, faculty, staff, and administration, to focus on providing an exceptional education and an enriching experience for all students, which is the primary goal of all," it added.

 

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