Lessons from theunion drive

Jennifer Niemela

Leaders of the faculty union drive that failed in an election last week blame their loss on an inability to persuade engineering professors to vote for the union.
University Faculty Alliance Chairman Tom Walsh estimated through an informal phone poll that Institute of Technology faculty members voted against the union two to one.
“It’s probably true that the majority of some engineering departments voted against unionization because they haven’t been hit as hard by the regents’ proposals,” he said.
Proposals by the Board of Regents to reform the University’s tenure code sparked the union drive last year.
The election, held last Tuesday and Wednesday, was decided by a 26-vote margin. Faculty members were voting on whether to accept the faculty alliance as their collective-bargaining agent.
The final tally of the election was 692 against unionization and 666 for it.
Mechanical engineering professor Terry Simon said faculty members in the engineering departments are generally more mobile and independent than liberal arts faculty and therefore might not favor a union.
“If (engineering faculty) don’t like the tenure code here, they can usually move somewhere else more easily than liberal arts faculty,” Simon said. “There are more research opportunities for engineering faculty, not only at universities, but in the (private sector).”
Simon also said engineering departments receive more support from the public and the Legislature because their research is more utilitarian. For example, Gov. Arne Carlson’s new budget proposal, which was unveiled at an IT forum in early February, asks for $216 million for the advancement of information and technology for the 1998-99 biennium. Although all of that money isn’t earmarked for the University, it shows that technology is high on the governor’s agenda.
“It’s easier to sell (the technology) story,” Simon said. “In recent years, the U has had to justify itself (to the Legislature), and it’s easier to justify something like a patent or a new computer than a foreign language program.”
But V. Rama Murthy, president of the Twin Cities chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said IT faculty members in the raw sciences, like math, physics, geology and chemistry, overwhelmingly supported the union effort.
“I am confident that the majority of faculty in math and physics supported the union,” he said.
Murthy also noted the late entrance of the AAUP in the election campaign as a reason for the vote’s failure. The UFA, which was the faculty organization on the ballot, began the union drive last June. The association, which is a national group of professors, didn’t get involved in the campaign until September.
“If the AAUP had been there from the beginning, perhaps more faculty would have voted for the union,” he said. The support of a national group, Murthy said, might have encouraged more faculty to vote pro-union. “We didn’t have enough time to hold a membership drive before the election.”
Walsh also cited a letter from the University’s regents’ professors urging faculty members not to vote for a union as a reason for the failure of the election. The regents’ professors, who supported the union drive last fall, said in their message that the incoming administration of University President-elect Mark Yudof would be hampered by a faculty union.
“If that letter hadn’t come out, we probably would have won,” Walsh said.
Of the 26 regents’ professors who signed the original letter, 17 were eligible to vote. If those professors had voted for the union, the vote would have been 685 for the union and 672 against.
Walsh said the elite group of professors are out of touch with most faculty members.
“(The message) was predictable because (the regents’ professors) are over-the-hill. They don’t have a good understanding of what’s going on,” he said.
But Murthy said he would have rather lost by 26 votes than won by a comparable number.
“I don’t think it would’ve been good to win by a small margin,” he said. “By losing that way, we’ve generated an enormous amount of support among the faculty. Winning by a small margin wouldn’t have created the large pool of support we would have needed” to have created a formidable collective-bargaining unit, Murthy added.
Murthy said the union’s narrow margin of failure in the election sent a message to administrators that they need to take notice of the faculty.
“I’m glad it worked out the way it did,” he said. “The vote showed that it’s essential for the faculty to have a strong voice.”
Executive board members from the AAUP and the UFA will meet on Wednesday to decide what their next course of action will be. Because of the high number of faculty members who joined the AAUP during the union drive, the association’s constitution will have to be revamped, Murthy said.
“The (current) constitution has been in place since 1972,” he said. “It’s not even gender-correct; everything says he,’ him.'”
Murthy also said the two faculty groups have no plans to attempt another union drive next year, the earliest date allowed by state law.
“If the regents try to pull something again next year, we’ll try again,” he said. “But we have nothing planned.”