Then again, maybe not

by Jennifer Niemela

By only 26 votes, University faculty members voted not to become the only leading research institution in the nation to have a unionized faculty.
The drive for a faculty union, which began last spring in the wake of proposed tenure reform by the Board of Regents, culminated Wednesday in a vote of 692 votes against collective bargaining and 666 votes for it.
A press conference Wednesday night with the American Association of University Professors and the University Faculty Alliance was lighthearted with leaders joking at one point about the “renegade regents professor who voted for the union.”
Nearly all the University’s elite regents professors circulated an 11th-hour letter opposing unionization, a move some blamed for the proposal’s narrow defeat. Regents Professor Eville Gorham, by contrast, has been outspoken in his support of a faculty union.
The AAUP and the UFA, which collaborated in the union campaign, said the close vote would make the regents, the state and the public take notice.
“This is moral, if not a legal victory,” said V. Rama Murthy, president of the AAUP’s Twin Cities chapter. “The faculty is united to regain lost ground.”
The ballot asked one question: Do you want the University Faculty Alliance as your exclusive representative for the purpose of collective bargaining with the employer regarding terms and conditions of employment?
If faculty members would have voted to unionize, the alliance and the AAUP would have merged. A second election would have been held to determine the leadership of the new collective bargaining agent. Although the election failed, AAUP leaders say the association will remain active in tenure negotiations with the regents.
“The AAUP will be a loud and powerful voice in discussions on tenure,” said member Sara Evans. “We’ll be there as the voice for the faculty.”
Last spring the regents, under pressure from the Legislature to cut expenses and make changes to the tenure policy, began reforming the code that had been used since 1985. Previously, the code had remained virtually unchanged since its inception in 1915.
Proposals by the regents included sections that called for authority to lay off faculty members in times of fiscal stringency, program termination or if faculty members lacked an industrious attitude.
The board, which was barred from deliberating on tenure reform because of a cease-and-desist order placed on tenure negotiations in September, may begin proposing more reforms as soon as the results are made official. The state’s Bureau of Mediation Services places a cease-and-desist order on negotiations when a group is driving for a union. It serves as a gag order during the union drive campaign to prevent managerial, or in this case, administrative, interference in the election.
Board of Regents Chairman Tom Reagan said the loss of the union election wasn’t a victory for the board.
“The regents are prepared to work with whomever will be the faculty’s leader,” Reagan said.
UFA chairman Tom Walsh blamed the loss on a letter from the regents professors published Monday in The Minnesota Daily urging faculty members not to vote for the union.
“The regents professors cost us the election,” Walsh said. “It’s obvious that such a prestigious group of professors could cause the vote to shift by 15 or 20 individuals.”
The regents professors, whom originally supported the union drive as a stalling tactic in tenure negotiations, came out in opposition of the union late last week.
Gorham, the self-proclaimed “renegade regents professor,” said he didn’t agree with his colleagues’ opinion on the union. Citing 51 members of the National Academy of Science who hail from unionized institutions, he said the argument that pronounces collective bargaining as hampering to the quality of the University was incorrect.
“If it was a stigma to be unionized, these members of the academy would be teaching at other institutions,” he said. “It is possible to preserve the merit of an institution when it’s unionized.”
AAUP and UFA leaders wouldn’t speculate on whether they would try to unionize again in one year — the earliest time possible under state law. But they did say that the University will see the union issue come up again within the next few years.
“This can happen in the future,” Walsh said. “The regents can’t be stopped by (the faculty) appealing to their reason, because (the regents) aren’t reasonable. Next time we’ll find the crack to destroy the Death Star.”