Union vote results: a relief and a warning

Five months after the Board of Regents proposed revisions to the Faculty Tenure Code that prompted a push toward unionization, the latest chapter in an ongoing debate has drawn to a close. By a narrow margin of 692 to 666, University professors voted down collective bargaining Wednesday. This resolution should come as both a relief and a warning to the University and the state.
In the most tangible sense, the union vote served its purpose well. When the regents announced the “Morris Plan” for tenure reform Sept. 5, the faculty members found themselves ambushed and vulnerable. The plan threatened academic freedom, job security and almost all authority for self-governance. Because the regents appeared determined to push the plan through, faculty members were left with little recourse but to file collective bargaining cards to trigger a state labor law that freezes work conditions until a union vote could take place. The tenure dilemma reached something resembling a resolution when the regents passed the compromise Sullivan II plan for the Law School and the Morris campus. Attached was a pledge not to discuss tenure reform until 1998, after the new administration has been in place for one year.
If the union cards were played to trump the regents, the tactic was a success. But the strong pro-union showing in Wednesday’s poll is evidence that this was more than a stalling maneuver. There has always been a small, outspoken faction of faculty members who support collective bargaining. Whether that segment has grown out of distrust of regents or through months of debate, may be impossible to say. What is clear is that only 26 votes kept the University from unionizing. Were the tenure issue currently on the table, we would undoubtedly have a unionized school.
We should breathe a sigh that unionization did not come to pass. Aside from the debate over whether a union would have made the University less attractive to potential professors or organizations that give research grants, it should come as a relief that we still have a campus that is not, at its core, adversarial. Collective bargaining would have applied the fundamentally antagonistic labor-management dynamic to academia. But the coming year offers hope, in the form of a new administration and several new regents, that the traditional model of cooperative governance may still work at the University.
The regents backed off the tenure issue enough to provide the possibility of a more amicable, cooperative resolution in the future. By the same token, the faculty members have demonstrated that they are not bluffing. But this interlude can’t and won’t last long. It may, in the end, be inevitable that the corporatization of higher education here and across the nation will make collective bargaining necessary. If that’s what it takes to maintain academic freedom and preserve a reasonable peer-review process, so be it. But unionization must remain a last resort.
In the union vote, the University has once again narrowly averted cementing today’s hostilities into a foundation for the future of the institution. If nothing else, the law of averages says such brinksmanship cannot go on indefinitely. The message in that for all parties should be painfully clear.