On the last lap

by Jennifer Niemela

The last weekend of campaigning before the faculty union election saw prominent defections from the cause as union advocates made their final push to persuade professors to vote “yes” to collective bargaining.
The elections will take place Tuesday and Wednesday and will determine whether the University Faculty Alliance will become the Twin Cities’ faculty union. Professors at the Twin Cities campus, except those in the Academic Health Center and the Law School, will be eligible to cast ballots. A simple majority will determine the vote, the third such referendum in 20 years.
In a last-minute turnabout, 15 regents’ professors sent an e-mail Thursday to various faculty members in opposition to unionization.
The e-mail message cited turnover in the University presidency and the Board of Regents as reasons the faculty should not unionize.
Unionization, said the letter, would “hamper (President-elect Mark) Yudof’s efforts to make needed changes quickly to improve faculty morale and working conditions. And there is the possibility of a new regent-selection process.”
Regents’ Professor John Chipman said the reason for sending the e-mail days before the election was to clarify the regents’ professors’ stance on unionization. The group of 20 senior faculty members unanimously backed the union effort last fall as a bargaining chip in the tenure battle between the faculty and regents.
When more than 30 percent of faculty members at Morris, Crookston and the Twin Cities campus except the Law School signed the requisite union cards to force a union election, the state imposed a status quo order which prevented further tenure negotiations.
“We felt we had an obligation to state our position on unionization,” Chipman said of the fall letter. “The union drive was the only way to stop the regents from implementing a tenure policy.”
When union drives failed at various stages at the Law School, Crookston, Morris and the Academic Health Center, regents enacted compromise tenure codes for those faculties.
Regents even responded favorably to faculty members’ requests to resume formal tenure negotiations; both sides expressed a desire to ask the state to lift the status quo order to allow the negotiations.
With the tenure issue largely moot, union supporters have been forced to look elsewhere for a cause to rally faculty solidarity.
Faculty groups have turned to promising pay raises to entice faculty members to vote for unionization.
Although union advocates have not discarded tenure as a main concern, they emphasized in recent public statements that a union would be able to bargain for higher salaries.
American Association of University Professors General Secretary Mary Burgan acknowledged that salary raises are now a main issue in the faculty union drive.
The association compared salaries at the University to salaries at Rutgers University, whose faculty is unionized and represented by the AAUP. The average salary at the University is $73,000 compared to $90,800 at Rutgers, which is located in New Jersey. Adjusted for the relative cost of living, the Rutgers salary represents $78,000 in the Twin Cities.
Even if a union could guarantee increased salaries, some faculty members say that wouldn’t be enough to make them vote union.
“Personally, salary is a non-issue,” said Paul Strykowski, Faculty Senate member. “I’m comfortable with the way the University is governed, and salary increase isn’t an overwhelming enough factor to make me vote for a union.”
Chipman, a professor in the music department, said professors don’t go into academics for high salaries.
“The emphasis on improving salaries is misplaced,” he said. “The emphasis should be on preserving the quality of this institution.”
However, a salary increase for some faculty members would mean stronger links between different sections of a department because it would create a more equal environment.
“It would help equalize the salaries of faculty,” said Genevieve Escure, an English professor. “There are (salary) inequalities between associate and full professors and department heads. A union would help equalize that and would create links between faculty.”
Union advocates say that although salary increases are an important component to the union election, the issue comes back to tenure. They argue that the loss of tenured positions would mean lower salaries on average because non-tenured faculty members get paid less than tenured faculty.
“Universities are stratified by class,” Burgan said. “Those that have (tenure), get. Those that don’t will struggle in limbo. We need to have a variety of people on the same plane to have an effective learning institution.”