When Florida overhauled its higher education system to shift power from the State Board of Regents to boards of trustees at individual campuses in 2003, it invalidated the employment contract between the regents and the statewide union that represented 10,000 professors, throwing academic labor relations into disarray. Last week, Florida’s Supreme Court let stand a lower court’s ruling  that found the state’s action to be illegal -- a decision heralded by faculty labor leaders, who vowed to try to recoup what they believed professors had lost in the intervening years.
“We expect full compensation for what faculty have been through,” said Thomas Auxter, president of United Faculty of Florida.  “We intend to find a remedy for every right that was illegally denied to faculty during this period and to collect on every resource that was illegally withheld.”
As is true for much of higher education in Florida, the faculty labor picture, which once was relatively simple, is now complicated and often messy. Previously, United Faculty of Florida -- which is part of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association -- represented virtually all public college professors in the state and bargained collectively with the State Board of Regents. But a sweeping and hotly contested reorganization that Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature approved in 2001 eradicated the regents board and gave most of its authority to trustees at the state’s 11 public campuses.
Among the many changes wrought by the governance shift, which formally took effect on January 7, 2003, was that state officials determined that the faculty contract did not apply because the professors were no longer employed by the Board of Regents but by the individual institutions. That decision essentially left faculty members without a contract to govern not only their pay but issues such as academic freedom and grievance rights.
The result was that union leaders had to negotiate new accords with administrators on each campus, and the results differed widely: Some institutions, like Florida Atlantic University, began negotiating with the union right away; others declined to recognize the union.
Two campuses, Florida State University and the University of West Florida, announced on January 7, 2003, the day the statewide contract was officially voided, that they would no longer deduct union dues from their employees’ paycheck. That prompted a legal challenge by faculty union leaders, who argued that the individual campuses’ Boards of Trustees’ were “successor employers, [who] have an obligation to maintain the status quo as determined by their contracts.”
In 2004, though, the state board that adjudicates labor disputes, the Public Employees Relations Commission, ruled that the campuses were not “successors” to the statewide Board of Regents, and therefore were not required to recognize or fulfill the terms of the existing faculty contract. The union challenged that ruling in state court, and in February 2005, a three judge panel of the Court of Appeal for the First District ruled that the employee relations commission had erred.
“A rule allowing state government to alter terms and conditions of employment unilaterally based solely upon reshuffling in the higher reaches of the bureaucracy -- reshuffling that does not alter the work that state employees, whose wages and hours might be affected, must do in the same way at the same place under the same supervisors to the same end -- is unlikely to serve the stated legislative purpose ‘to promote harmonious and cooperative relationships between government and its employees,’" the court said in its unanimous ruling.
Since February, the appeals court and the state Supreme Court have rebuffed several requests by the universities to reconsider its ruling, and last week, the Supreme Court gave notice that it was formally upholding the decision and that it considered the case closed.
Exactly what effect the decision will have is fuzzy. Seven of the 11 universities have negotiated new contracts with union leaders, and those contracts have replaced the original statewide one. But most of those contracts were not finalized until this year, and Auxter, president of the faculty union, says that professors at those campuses in some cases lost as much as two years’ worth of raises, saw perceived grievances turned aside or ignored, or lost other rights for which they should now be compensated.
The union also vowed to seek repayment for more than $500,000 in legal expenses, among other costs it accumulated to stage its petition drives and union elections to establish the new contracts.
“Part of the damage done is the expense of defending rights that the court has now said never should have been denied in the first place,” Auxter said.
Even less clear, he said, is what might happen at the campuses that have not ratified new contracts; institutions like Florida International and Florida State Universities have been negotiating accords, while the University of Florida has continued to decline to recognize the union. “As far as we’re concerned, " Auxter said, "the old contract is now in place” at those institutions.
That's not how some university officials seem to see it. Kyle Cavanaugh, vice president for human resources at the University of Florida, noted the the Public Employees Relations Commission is considering several cases right now that affect the labor situation, including a dispute with the union over whether professors in the university's agriculture, law and medical schools should be included in the bargaining unit, which Florida administrators favor.
"There are a lot of issues in play right now," said Cavanaugh. "We were not a party" to the case the Supreme Court ruled on last week, but "even if there were a determination that we were a successor employer, we would be saying that we think our faculty in total should have the opportunity to be heard" on whether to join the union. Until the state employee relations commission rules on that question, he said, it is premature to suggest that last week's court action clears the way for the union's return at Florida.