‘Governance with teeth’

by Brian Bakst

With a faculty union election looming in the University’s future, clarifying what a potential union would resemble tops the agenda for union organizers.
Retaining a faculty governance structure and avoiding the “blue-collar” stigma often associated with unions are among the goals of faculty members. But questions still abound whether these goals are feasible.
“If we do this — and we have put it on the road to be done — we are doing something new under the sun and we have to invent it,” history professor Sara Evans said Thursday at an open faculty forum attended by about 50 professors.
University Faculty Alliance co-coordinator Tom Walsh has said he wants a union that creates “faculty governance with teeth.”
By that, Walsh said he means he would like to retain a democratic faculty governance group, such as the Faculty Senate, but also have a union to bargain for terms and conditions of employment.
Rutgers University in New Jersey, where faculty members have been unionized since 1970, has this type of arrangement. Rutgers is one of only two of the top 50 research institutions in the country to have a faculty union.
Wells Keddie, chairman of the union negotiating committee at Rutgers, said the arrangement has historically been very productive at the school.
Keddie said the union deals with compensation and benefits issues. The faculty governance group deals with more procedural matters of work environment and faculty policies, he said.
“All faculty unionism does in higher education is consolidate and codify power in the hands of faculty,” Keddie added.
Despite the arrangement, all is not well at Rutgers. Keddie said the American Association of University Professors, which represents Rutgers faculty members, and the school’s administration have been embroiled in heated contract talks since May 1995.
“We are getting nowhere,” Keddie said, adding that the two sides have exhausted the mediation process and are hoping to salvage contract talks. The professors association would likely be the University faculty’s bargaining agent if a union is approved here.
Last winter, Rutgers faculty members voted to set up a structure to strike, Keddie said. “We have been forced to seriously think about the first strike in Rutgers history,” he added.
The possibility for strikes that comes with a union have led some at the University to be skeptical about voting to form one. Faculty Consultative Committee Chairwoman Virginia Gray said those who invest research money in the University may seek to invest elsewhere if a union is instituted. Research would be halted if a unionized University faculty ever decided to strike, she said.
The University expects to receive more than $300 million in research grants this year.
But with tenure reform as the impetus for a union drive, the University may lose either way.
If the Board of Regents imposes stringent changes to the tenure code, some faculty have said they will consider accepting job offers at other institutions. That would mean that some professors would take individual-specific research grants with them. Individual-specific grants are tied directly to the professor who is doing the research project.
Still, union organizers told faculty members who attended Thursday’s forum that collective bargaining would help give faculty leverage in negotiations.
Ernst Benjamin, an AAUP national staff member, told forum attendees of the situation at his own school, Wayne State University in Detroit. Benjamin said the unionized school uses collective bargaining to strengthen other parts of faculty involvement in university affairs.
“If the senate isn’t strong enough, the bargaining process can be used to strengthen it,” he said.
At the University of Cincinnati, union representatives negotiated a contract that put a faculty member on the school’s board of trustees.
But Benjamin said a faculty senate and a union have to work with each other. He said if one tries to undercut the other it can only lead to breakdowns in faculty unity, which can give administrators an advantage in negotiations.
Although Gray said she would be open to the possibility of working together with the University Faculty Alliance, Walsh said recent developments may make that collaborative effort difficult.
Walsh is upset that the Faculty Senate may consider the regents’ or Dean E. Thomas Sullivan’s tenure proposals for the Law School. Walsh said simply discussing the proposals is in violation of the cease-and-desist order.
Alliance lawyer Steve Gordon addressed the tenure issue in response to one faculty member’s question. “To whatever extent you participate in those discussions, you are aiding and abetting in the regents’ violation of the law,” he said.
The University Faculty Alliance has sent letters to Faculty Senate members and regents asking them to stop negotiations, Gordon said. He said the alliance has not ruled out the possibility of filing a lawsuit to do this.