Leaders debate faculty union

Brian Bakst

Universities traditionally pride themselves on promoting independent thought.
But when faculty members believe their academic freedom is threatened, is collective representation for faculty the answer? Supporters of a faculty union say it is, though not everyone agrees.
Academic freedom is the engine of a successful university, said Tom Walsh, a leader in the effort to unionize faculty memers. “You take the engine out, and the car won’t go.”
Walsh, a University physics professor, and the University Faculty Alliance — a coalition of 140 faculty members — are urging colleagues to sign cards so the state will allow them to hold a union election.
The University Faculty Alliance has more than 700 of the 1,000 signatures — which would comprise one-third of the faculty — needed to revitalize the campaign to unionize. The issue was last voted on in 1978.
Union research experts and faculty members disagree on the impact a union would have at the University. While some cite numerous advantages of a unionized faculty, others are more skeptical.
The alliance began its drive after the Board of Regents and administrators called for an evaluation of the faculty tenure code last fall. Regents expressed concern that the existing tenure policy did not leave the University enough flexibility to eliminate positions when departments are downsized or eliminated.
After months of debate over who should suggest changes to the code, the Faculty Senate brought its proposal to the June regents meeting. The proposal included provisions for longer pre-tenure probationary periods, more temporary teaching appointments and a more thorough post-tenure merit review process.
“The revisions that are on the table now, in our view, are pretty far-reaching,” Walsh said. “If the regents go beyond those, we would move fairly rapidly” to get the remaining 300 cards signed.
But Walsh said the summer break has slowed the drive for signatures because fewer faculty members are on campus.
If 1,500, or half of the faculty members on the Twin Cities campus, return signature cards, no election is necessary and the University Faculty Alliance would become the faculty’s union.
But Walsh said the need for the faculty to unionize goes beyond the tenure debate. He said poor administrative systems are having a drastic effect on the University. “It is becoming clear that the University is a leader in ineptitude.”
He said mismanagement of research grants, bureaucracy caused by a bloated administration and having only three faculty members on the presidential search committee are examples of problems in governance.
Research grant mismanagement by central administrators has led to decreased opportunities for graduate student researchers, Walsh said. He said professors have to hire fewer graduate students because the University charges too much to providers of research grants in overhead costs.
Benefit packages for graduate research assistants divert funds that could be applied directly to research costs, making graduate students less attractive as employees. With fewer graduate students involved in research, education and hands-on experience are sacrificed.
Walsh said the administration is too expensive and not focused enough on the University’s teaching mission. Administration consists of too many high-paid middle managers, he added. More than 100 administrators make more than $90,000 each.
Also, disagreement among regents and administrators on issues such as last spring’s General College controversy does not provide a healthy governance, Walsh said. University President Nils Hasselmo suggested GC be closed, but regents disagreed and voted to keep GC.
Walsh said a union would help streamline the administration by making it more effective and less bureaucratic. During union-administration contract talks, faculty members could demand a leaner administration as part of any agreement. “If the (University) becomes better at the top, the production will go up” among faculty, Walsh said.
Some agree a union would be a watchdog of the administration. “Management has more of a free hand in institutions without unions to institute new terms,” said Beth Johnson, administrative director of a think tank that studies academic unions.
Johnson said national rates of faculty unionization, which grew in the 1970s, have leveled off in recent years. The blue-collar stigma unions evoke has kept faculty in large research institutions from unionizing, she added.
Only two of the top 50 research institutions have faculty unions: Rutgers University and the State University of New York.
Salary competitiveness is the major reason for faculty members at large research institutions to remain non-unionized, said Daniel Rees, University of Colorado-Denver economics professor.
Rees, who has done extensive research on union-related issues, said unions compress salaries and treat all faculty equally.
“Faculty at the top universities are very protective of their independence,” Rees said. “They are stars of their profession.”
Top faculty members generally go to nonunion universities where they can demand top salaries for their expertise, Johnson said.
But one unionized public university, Rutgers, pays its faculty an average of $96,000 a year. The nonunionized University of Minnesota faculty make an average of $61,800. Overall, University faculty members make $9,700 less than the average for the top-30 research institutions.
In 1978, when the last union election was held, a group led by current Arts, Sciences and Engineering Provost Phillips W. Shively was successful in getting 1,032 of the 1,735 faculty members who cast a ballot to vote against unionizing. The group said under a union, decisions would be centralized, the role of faculty governance would be sacrificed and seniority would replace merit as a basis for salary.
Rees added that aside from equal salary consideration for all faculty members, unions have little effect on the overall level of faculty salaries. He said unionized faculty members tend to earn only 1 percent to 2 percent more, if any difference exists at all.
One reason faculty unions have little effect on salaries deals with the ability to strike. Forty states do not allow public sector employees such as faculty members at universities to strike. Minnesota public employees are among the 10 exceptions, so University faculty could strike if they were represented by a union and were between contracts.
Walsh said a faculty union is also necessary so faculty salaries can be reevaluated. He said real income, or income when taking inflation into consideration, has declined during the past 20 years.
Regardless, some faculty members do not embrace the union concept. Virginia Gray, incoming Faculty Consultative Committee chairwoman, said faculty salaries have done well in comparison with those of unionized faculty members at other universities. She added that a union would create more bureaucracy at the University.
A focused lobby effort by the faculty is the solution to declining salaries, Gray said.
“We have to lobby the administration to get money that does come to the University to put more faculty in the buildings,” Gray said. “We have to lobby the state to get a larger portion of their revenue.”
Even if Walsh and the University Faculty Alliance get the signature cards they need, it will not ensure a union. The cards would then be filed with the state Bureau of Mediation Services. The names on the cards are not made public.
After the cards are filed, potential unions would emerge to compete for the position of faculty representative. Walsh said there would be fewer agents on the ballot than there were in the 1978 election. Four unions were on that ballot and some say that was the reason the vote was split.
Walsh said he predicts the University Faculty Alliance and the American Association of University Professors would be put on the ballot jointly.
Filing for an election would not produce immediate results. The union drive that culminated in an election in 1978 began in 1974. Court battles delayed that election. Administrators would most likely try to block the current union drive in court, Walsh said.
Even if a union is elected, the effects of the representative body would also be delayed. Faculty retention rates directly relate to the length of time a union exists.
Immediately after a union is instituted, faculty members upset by the existence of a union sometimes leave, according to Rees’ research. He added that after five or six years, faculty members adjust to the union and retention rates increase.