Inside Higher Ed: Why they are rallying

By Scott Jaschik, for Inside Higher Ed

February 23, 2011




Between the colourful rallies and counter-rallies, and legislators fleeing their own states, the debate over the right of public employees to unionise has captured national attention in the past two weeks.

Most of the notice has gone to Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, is attempting – as part of broad changes in the laws of collective bargaining for state employees – to reverse recent legislation that granted faculty members at University of Wisconsin campuses the right to unionise. Some college faculties have voted to do so, as part of a major organising drive by the American Federation of Teachers. But those votes are so recent that none of the locals in Wisconsin has negotiated a contract to date.

In Ohio, however, where there is also Republican legislation that would bar collective bargaining at public institutions, unionisation of faculty members is not new at all. The American Association of University Professors has 11 locals with contracts. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association also have faculty chapters in the state. Many of the state’s locals have been through numerous rounds of negotiations.

Much of the debate over public employee unions in the national press has been somewhat theoretical, with conservative legislators talking about the need for states to have flexibility and union leaders talking about the need for their members to have a voice. Higher education has not been central to the debate in Ohio, even though its unions are very much covered by the legislation. Education unions have been repeatedly criticised by legislators backing the bill, but the emphasis has been on public schools (even though the same unions also represent college faculty). The Ohio Board of Regents has not spoken out on the proposal in that state. Faculty union leaders, while not the focus of the debate, have lobbied hard against the bill, and many of them rallied with thousands of other union supporters on Tuesday in Columbus against the legislation.

Most college faculty members nationally are not unionised. A Supreme Court ruling has largely blocked faculty union organising at private colleges, while state governments regulate collective bargaining in the public sector. Union organising of faculty has made the greatest inroads in the Northeast, Midwest and West, and has had little impact in the South (except in Florida).

Inside Higher Ed asked faculty union leaders in Ohio, the state with both a strong base of academic unions and a current proposal that would end collective bargaining, why they are so concerned – and what contract provisions they see exemplifying their role.

The answers provided by Ohio’s unions didn’t emphasise money, perhaps because these days there’s not a lot of money to go around. Instead the responses focused on the way contracts can force colleges to maintain equitable, predictable policies and procedures that relate to everything from how one is evaluated for tenure to how many courses one teaches.

In terms of the complaints from those critical of unions, the answers from union leaders very much back up the idea that good contracts limit some flexibility of managers (for good reason, the academic labour leaders would say). But many of the measures of which the union leaders say they are most proud don’t have apparent financial costs to the state – or have relatively modest costs, contrary to the view some Republicans promote of union demands bankrupting states. (One key point: the comments below are from full-time, tenure-track faculty unions, as Ohio does not permit part-time unions, although adjuncts and their allies have been pushing for that right.)

Sherry Linkon, an English professor at Youngstown State University who is an active member of the faculty union (an NEA affiliate), said that she is always struck by the complaints she hears from non-unionised faculty members elsewhere about how campus politics or a lack of clarity create tensions over tenure or promotion decisions. While faculty members at Youngstown State aren’t always happy with the outcome of such decisions, she said, the procedures are clear (and in the contract) on some of the measures that lead to so many disputes elsewhere.

For example, the contract at Youngstown State is specific that research efforts aren’t just traditional laboratory and publishing work, but also include “the scholarship of teaching” (Ernest Boyer’s term for a range of scholarly activities designed to improve pedagogy) and discipline-related work with the local community. Many colleges pay lip service to this broader definition of scholarship, Linkon said, but faculty members elsewhere report all the time that their efforts outside traditional publishing don’t “count” and that they can lose tenure bids as a result. If an administrator at Youngstown State tries to question the legitimacy of such contributions, Linkon said, “it’s something we can point to. It’s in the contract.”

Linkon is co-director of the university’s Center for Working Class Studies – a position that she said makes it all the more important that she actively work with local organisations that aren’t academic, and that such work be recognised.

Similarly, she said, when there are pots of money for professional development or conference attendance or research, at other universities faculty members complain about favouritism in the awarding of funds. She said that the contract at her university provides specific criteria that create confidence in the fairness of the system – even if everyone wishes that the pots had more money in them.

Stephen H. Aby, education and sociology librarian at the University of Akron and a past president of the faculty union there (part of the AAUP), cited the criteria for merit pay as a key issue there. Many union critics (not just of faculty unions) argue that collective bargaining makes merit pay impossible. Aby said, however, that the key provisions on merit pay at Akron didn’t end merit pay, but defined it. He said that the union secured contract provisions establishing that individual departments have a say in defining measures of merit appropriate to their departments and (related to the first provision) that these measures can vary from department to department.

Aby said that decisions on merit pay made prior to the contract, typically by department heads using their own judgement, “often seemed subjective” to faculty members. He said that unions have every right to push for “objective and fair merit pay guidelines”.

A more recent victory, Aby said, was domestic partnership benefits (cited by several other locals in the state as well). Aby said that Akron was “well behind the country” on the issue, and that the benefit costs the university very little money. But he said the measure was “huge in terms of the message it sends” about the university being inclusive. Also, he noted (as did other locals on this and other issues) that once the university agreed to add the benefit to the faculty contract, the university also offered the benefit to non-unionised employees.

Rudy Fichtenbaum, an economics professor who is the chief negotiator for the AAUP local at Wright State University, sent his testimony to a legislative hearing about various benefits won in contracts: minimum salaries, domestic partner leave, paid parental leave, preventive dental care (including for children of faculty members), vision insurance and more.

He also cited an agreement in the contract for 2005-08 in which the administration pledged to increase the number of tenure-track faculty members – a major goal of many professors nationwide – and did so. The bargaining unit of tenure-track professors increased to 460 from 407. (The numbers are going back down now, as the university has not replaced many of the 24 who took early retirement, but Fichtenbaum cited the pre-economic downturn gains as an example of using contract negotiations to advance an important principle about the role of full-time professors.)

Jack Fatica, who teaches accounting and is president of the AFT local at Terra Community College, said that faculty workload has been an issue on which he is proud of contract advances. Full-time professors at Terra work a 5-4 schedule, not the 5-5 that is common at many community colleges. Fatica acknowledged that some might look at that victory and wonder from a state perspective why it wouldn’t be better to have faculty members teaching still more classes. But he said that the course schedule is about quality of instruction.

“The quality time that this frees up is the time to be innovative, to not just take out last year’s notes, but to update and improve every course, and to get more involved with students and with the campus,” he said.

Fatica said he did not think that his colleagues would have the schedule or the time to improve their courses without the union. “I think being unionised has given us respect from management,” he said. “We’re professionals and we want to act as professionals.”

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