High turnout and low friction at union polls

by Jennifer Niemela

Handwritten signs directed professors into the hushed rooms where they were to vote on the first of two days of balloting in the faculty union elections.
Election observers quickly compared names and identification with lists of eligible voters; despite a good turnout, officials reported no significant delays or lines.
At the end of the first of two days of voting, state mediators say the faculty union election is proceeding as planned.
All Twin Cities campus faculty members, except those in the Academic Health Center and the Law School, are eligible to vote in the union election, which ends today at 4 p.m. The vote will decide whether faculty members will give the University Faculty Alliance exclusive rights to bargain on their behalf with administrators. A simple majority of ballots cast will determine the outcome.
“I haven’t been told of any problems, and the turnout has been steady,” said Josh Tilsen, Bureau of Mediation Services tenure mediator. The service, which enforces labor laws for the state, is officiating the union election.
BMS mediators say the election is right on schedule. At the Kolthoff Hall polling station, where faculty from departments on the south side of the mall and Boynton Health Service voted, officials said the number of faculty members who have voted has met expectations.
“Roughly over one half of the people on our list have already voted, so we’re in good shape,” said BMS mediator Pete Obermeyer, who was serving as an observer at Kolthoff. “It’s been steady all day with no real back-ups.”
Mathematics professor George Sell said all the faculty members he has talked to are going to vote.
“From what I’ve heard, most people are voting,” he said. “Although, if they weren’t going to vote, they wouldn’t admit it. This is Minnesota,” he added.
Faculty members said the polling locations were convenient, and they were well-informed as to which of the five sites they were assigned to vote at.
Most faculty cited regent-faculty relations, not the salary increases promised by the American Association of University Professors if they unionize, as the main issue in the election.
“The regents’ vision of what’s best for the state and the University isn’t what’s best for faculty,” said a professor of French and Italian who asked that his name be withheld to protect the secrecy of his ballot.
Sell said this lack of trust between the regents and the faculty is the reason for concern about tenure.
“The current board hasn’t shown they can be trusted with tenure,” he said.
But one professor of psychology, who also asked that his name be withheld, said he isn’t convinced a faculty union is the answer to problems between the regents and the faculty.
“It’s a privilege to teach at a university, to get paid to research and teach what you love,” he said. “There is a lot of dead weight among the faculty here who are protected by tenure. I work hard enough to know I’d keep my job if tenure was dismantled.”
He also said that while salaries at the University are lower than salaries at some comparable institutions, a union isn’t the way to solve that problem.
“Hard-working faculty get paid well,” he said. “If faculty don’t like the salaries here, they don’t have to stay.”
The union drive began last spring when the move to reform the campus tenure code gathered support among regents. Faculty groups objected to provisions of several proposals that increased administrative authority to fire tenured professors.
The most controversial proposal, which the board unveiled last September in Morris, called for more stringent post-tenure review and layoffs in the event of program termination or problems with faculty relations.
The Sullivan II proposal, a compromise between regents and faculty plans, doesn’t include the “proper attitude” clause that gave administrators the power to fire professors based on individual performance. The current compromise plan was enacted for the Law School and Morris when those faculty members voted against joining a potential union.
Nevertheless, faculty groups like the faculty alliance and the AAUP continued the campaign for a union.
The AAUP has shifted the focus of its campaign in recent days to the question of faculty salaries, which the association maintains would be raised with collective bargaining.
Tilsen said official statistics on faculty turnout won’t be available until the election results are announced tonight.