On eve of election, union campaign ends

Jennifer Niemela

After three years of campaigning for a union, the professional civil service workers’ collective bargaining drive is coming to an end.
The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees and the University must stop campaigning before Monday, according to an election order issued by the state Bureau of Mediation Services. The mediation service defines campaigning as organized activities like mailings, but said that employees can continue to debate among themselves.
The union election begins Monday when the mediation service will mail ballots to the approximately 2,200 professional civil service workers, asking them to vote either yes or no to collective bargaining representation by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Ballots in the mail-in election must be returned by Tuesday, May 6; the votes will be tabulated May 7.
“It’s been a long, slow campaign,” said Steve Philson, senior scientist and union activist. “There haven’t been many changes in our concerns, except we used to be more worried about pay cuts, while now it’s that our jobs will disappear.”
Union advocates are pushing for legally binding contracts and more representation in policy decisions that affect them.
The body that currently represents the professional workers is the Civil Service Committee, which would be drastically altered if the professionals vote in the union. Because the committee only represents non-union civil service workers, the professionals would be cut from committee representation.
The committee has twice lost chunks of its constituency to AFSCME, first in 1992 when 2,800 clerical workers joined the union and again in 1993 when 1,200 technical workers did the same. In five years, the committee has lost almost half of its workers.
For some pro-union professional workers who feel underrepresented at the University, the choice is ultimately between the committee and AFSCME. The committee currently represents the 4,500 civil service supervisors and professional workers who are not unionized at the University; if the professionals vote for AFSCME in the upcoming election, the committee’s constituency will shrink to 2,700 supervisors.
The committee would continue to exist, “but with a considerably reduced constituency,” said Sue Carlson-Weinberg, the committee’s chairwomen. “It’s reasonable to assume that our role would be more meaningful if our size was greater.”
The committee, which was formed by the Board of Regents in 1945, is a consultative body that presents recommendations to the board and the University president regarding the employment of civil service workers. It also appoints representatives to the University Grievance Board and University Senate committees. Civil service workers are not voting members of the Senate.
Some committee members feel that this representation is adequate and that, despite the fact that they don’t have the power to directly affect policy, their recommendations are taken seriously by the board and president.
“The committee decided that (professional workers) already had a negotiating body,” said committee member Maureen Brown. “We’re there to represent the interests of (civil service workers).”
Committee members say its policy of shared governance — being involved in the consultation process of decisionmaking and impacting policy in that way — is enough.
“The committee’s objective is to be involved on all levels,” said committee member Don Cavalier. “We think the best way is to work as a team on all levels.”
Some committee members say that by voting for a union, professional workers would actually eliminate their eligibility to affect University policy. The committee is the appointing body for the civil service seats on senate committees, and AFSCME workers aren’t represented by the committee.
“It seems that would be the greater loss,” said Carlson-Weinberg. “They won’t have the ability to participate, won’t have a vote on resolutions. We have been receiving visits from provosts; we have a scheduled visit with University President-elect Mark Yudof. We do have an on-going dialogue with the administration. I don’t know if the bargaining units have the same kind of meetings with administrators.”
However, union activists say the committee’s consultative status makes it an ineffectual negotiating body. They say the lack of individual legal employment contracts negates any influence the committee might have over University-wide policy.
“That’s a legitimate claim,” said committee member Barb Nesheim, a professional worker who supports the union effort. “We have no sway over decisions. I’ve been in a union, and I got much better representation from the union.”
Union activists contend that while the drive for a union isn’t intended to pit one organization against the other, the fact that the committee went on record last November as opposed to the drive doesn’t make it a friendly entity.
“I think they’re trying to do good, but the civil service rules are not binding,” said Phil Norcross, a senior editor in the Office of Research and Technology Transfer Administration. “I don’t have much use for a set of rules that could change overnight.”
However, committee members say they went on record about the union because some of their members had been pictured in AFSCME literature, and some constituents requested that they clarify their position on the matter.
“It wasn’t a motion opposing a union drive; the civil service committee doesn’t chose to unionize,” said Cavalier. “We never meant to say we’re against unions. Unions are fine, but as a committee, we represent non-unionized members on campus.”
Nesheim, who voted on the issue, said the vote wasn’t included in the meeting’s agenda and took the members by surprise.
“There was no discussion; I was surprised because we normally don’t vote on things that aren’t on the agenda,” she said. “But I wasn’t surprised at the result.”
Most of the committee members stressed that professional workers should be informed on the issues and vote, while shying away from declaring their opinions on the drive.
“Professional workers must not assume that a non-vote is a ‘no’ vote,” said Carlson-Weinberg, adding that they should “get factual answers to their questions.”