Faculty line up on both sides of union debate

Faculty line up on both sides of union debate

URBANA — On one side you have an award-winning, internationally-known scholar.

On the other side you have an equally respected researcher and professor with just as many publications and grants to his or her name.

One believes establishing a faculty union would protect and strengthen the university. The other insists a bargaining unit for faculty would weaken the institution.

Can anyone win this debate?

Give us your take with a Letter to the Editor here

Efforts to form a faculty union on the University of Illinois' Urbana-Champaign campus in recent years have for the most part entailed discussions in offices and meeting rooms. But as union organizers ramp up their activities — asking people to sign a statement of support (an announcement disclosing numbers is expected soon) and distributing promotional literature — the discourse, if you will, has intensified.

Not long after the Campus Faculty Association, the group behind the unionization effort, delivered to every faculty member a brochure unveiling some of its more prominent supporters, an opposing group ratcheted up its campaign. That group released its own list of notable professors and their reasons for coming out against a faculty union.

Meantime, university officials, including Chancellor Phyllis Wise, have said publicly they don't see a need for a faculty union and that having one would only make dealings between the faculty and administration more confrontational. And about 140 miles north on the UI's Chicago campus, the nascent UIC United Faculty is in its 17th month of negotiating with administration for its first contract after organizing back in 2011.

Whatever happens in Urbana, it's likely the debate will continue for some time.

One union, two contracts

In the U.S., more than 350,000 college and university faculty are represented by collective bargaining units, according to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College City University of New York.

Because of a Supreme Court ruling in 1980, which stated that faculty at Yeshiva University acted as managers or supervisors rather than employees, few unionized faculty are found at private institutions, said William Herbert, executive director of the center and former deputy chairman of the New York State Public Employment Relations Board.

The majority of unionized faculty are at public institutions, and about 43 percent are at four-year institutions. In Illinois, there are about 20,062 unionized faculty. Unions are found at state universities like Southern Illinois and community colleges such as Parkland College.

"It's safe to say that when there is an effort to organize on a campus, it's democracy in action, and democracy in action takes many different variations," Herbert said.

Illinois has a public sector collective bargaining statute, which allows employees to unionize. And the process can entail a gathering of what Herbert called "a showing of interest to establish support for unionization."

"That can lead to voluntary recognition by the employer or, if employer refuses to recognize, then a petition can be filed" with the Illinois Educational Relations Labor Board.

To prove a union has support, organizers can hold an election or a card check in which faculty would sign (or not) cards stating that they favor union representation. If at least 50 percent plus one of all eligible faculty sign authorization cards in favor of forming a union, eventually the union would be able to negotiate a contract.

The Campus Faculty Association has indicated it could go the route of the card check.

"I think it's going to go much more smoothly here," compared with the Chicago campus campaign, said CFA President Harriet Murav, UI Professor of Slavic languages and literatures. "This is a campus that has a reputation for excellence. This is the flagship campus ... and I don't think administration would want to impede what we have going on here, in terms of research, teaching and public service excellence. I think the whole country will be watching closely." 

In the last year or two Herbert said there has been a "huge upsurge" in organizing among what many people call "contingent faculty." Contingent faculty, such as lecturers, tend to teach on year-to-year appointments.

The growth in organizing or interest in unionizing among nontenure-track faculty has largely been driven by their lack of job security, wanting more of a voice in the workplace such as having more of a say in what courses they teach, compensation and other issues, Herbert said.

For the Urbana campus, the Campus Faculty Association has solicited support from tenured, tenure-track and nontenure-track faculty who have a .51 full-time equivalent or greater appointment. There would be one union, but two bargaining units, each with its own contract: one for tenured and tenure-track faculty and the other for nontenure-track faculty, according to CFA spokeswoman and UI communications Professor Susan Davis.

Voice of faculty

"I'm an economist," said UI Professor of finance Jeffrey Brown, who recently signed his name to the list of professors opposed to a UI faculty union. "I can construct a set of conditions for which a union makes sense," such as when an employer dominates a labor market in a town, where there are unsafe working conditions, where the employer is not treating employees well. In those situations, unions "can be enormously beneficial," he said.

"We're looking at a group of people, the faculty, who already have a huge voice on this campus. We talk a lot about shared governance and what that means is administrators and faculty share decision-making, share responsibility for the future of this institution. I can't imagine another organization out there where employees like the faculty have as much say as we do," Brown said.

Milton Feng, the Nick Holonyak Jr. Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has another take.

"In the past it seems administration has had a lot more power, and we figure it's good to have a balance between leadership and the faculty. In my opinion, I'd like to see the formation of a faculty union to voice our opinion, an opinion that can be different than administration," Feng said.

He said he has watched the Graduate Employees' Organization, which was founded a decade ago, achieve a greater voice on campus. A union can be a powerful voice for faculty, he said. That's why he lent his name and photo to the Campus Faculty Association for its promotional material.

The reason for the pamphleting and disclosing of some names on their website, Murav said, was to show interest in unionization has come from across campus, from people in a range of fields and among those at the peak of their academic careers.

"Sometimes some people have said a union is for the disaffected, those who can't make it academically. It seemed important to get the message out that no, on the contrary, we have Nobel Prize winners who support a union," Murav said.

On college campuses, there's no shortage of debates about academic programs and reviews, and those can often become heated.

But the union debate is different. It's political and ideological, said UI education Professor Nicholas Burbules, who has written letters to the editor and penned essays in higher education journals about the dangers of having a faculty union on campus.

His group late last month garnered about 120 signatures after contacting named or endowed chairs on campus. More names keep coming in. However, Burbules said, several people, including "good progressive liberals," told him they were hesitant to add their name to the list because they didn't want to publicly disagree with colleagues or neighbors on this issue.

"There's not a lot of secrets in any college community, let alone a small, close one like this," he said.

Burbules said he opposes the CFA's methods of visiting professors door to door, which members have been doing over the last two years to talk about campus issues and gauge interest in organizing a union. He also opposes the card drive method and said he prefers the election method because of the anonymity associated with it.

For Jeff Brown, his biggest concern "is the union will throw sand in the gears when it comes to attracting and retaining the best faculty, when it comes to promotion and tenure process, to the merit pay and review process, and a range of other decisions that are the lifeblood of the university," Brown said.

Plus, "not a single one of the institutions we consider as our peers or which we aspire to be like have a faculty union," Brown said.

The CFA's president said just because other peer institutions have not yet unionized "doesn't mean we ought not to."

"This would be a historic moment, an opportunity for administration, for the board of trustees, for faculty nontenured and tenured, to do something historic and that would really change the face of public higher education," Murav said.

"We shouldn't be afraid of being first. We like being first in so many other areas.

"We could be a model," she said.

Follow the debate

For a faculty union

Campus Faculty Association: cfaillinois.org

Opposed to a faculty union


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Rocky7 wrote on February 02, 2014 at 9:02 am

Faculty are professionals and proessionals don't need a union.  Faculty are also educated and have learned to negotiate and renegotiate their jobs to be more effective at them.

As an emeritus professor, please be advised that during my time at UIUC (about 24 years), I renegotiated my position and resonsibilities with my department head(s) at least nine times.  Whenever the department head asked me to do that 'something extra,' it opened up a negotiating opportunity that worked to mutual advantage.

With a faculty union lurking in the background, that is almost impossible.

In closing if the UIUC faculty votes fo a faculty union, they will NOT be the first of their peer institutions to have one.  Rutgers University, which is about to join the Big 10, has had one for at least 25 years.  

dadogg wrote on February 02, 2014 at 11:02 pm

Wonderful post. You are correct that the current system is wonderful for those that want to do more and more for their career. If you advance by your work and abilities, ask for more to be retained.  This is wonderful way of working without having to rely on seniority.

Bulldogmojo wrote on February 02, 2014 at 1:02 pm

One has only to think back over the last few years to recall all of the scandals the U of I administration has dragged our academic reputation through and therein lay the reason to have a unified academic front in the form of a union. This academic institution is quickly being eroded into a patent and intellectual property rights build-a-bear machine for corporate donors who are completely indifferent to our mission of "Learning and Labor".

Our focus of a land grant University for all is being parceled out at every turn and the Administrators who throw around patronizing terms like "Visioning" and Strategic partnership" have no sincere interest in the pursuit of a well rounded education for those in all walks of life. They are now beholden to whatever gust of mercinary wind that fills their sails and takes them in the direction of self aggrandizement and personal profit.

If you want a voice at the table you have to fight for it...

“The First Amendment … presupposes that right conclusions are more likely to be gathered out of a multitude of tongues, than through any kind of authoritative selection. To many this is, and always will be, folly; but we have staked upon it our all.”  ~ Judge Billings Learned Hand

moderndaycowboy wrote on February 02, 2014 at 3:02 pm

I would say they don't have a choice. Since our state schools are now only "state located" due to their funding being routed, the money needs to come from somewhere......that somewhere is private funding.

I have zero sympathy for any faculty member that wants to join a union. They don't need it, at all. They've got a pretty sweet gig as it is.

dadogg wrote on February 02, 2014 at 11:02 pm

Yes, research and the sciences are bringing a great deal of money into the UofI and those professors should be compensated accordingly.

The only people that would benefit from a union are those that are just sitting on their tenure, without really doing anything constructive and those in the liberal sciences.

If the union comes, say goodbye to some of the best minds, as they flee to the private sector.

Bulldogmojo wrote on February 03, 2014 at 9:02 am

How narrow of you to say that if someone has tenure they are sitting on their tenure making no contribution. People are already bailing out of this university because of the scandals brought on by the administration and pension issues alone.

This is about having a voice in the process it's not about expense accounts or an extra 1% on their pay increase. It's about an equal chance at opportunity for promising academics also.

As far as your negative attitude toward liberal arts goes let me quote Pulitzer prize winning historian David McCullough...

“(Study the liberal arts) even if you want to be a scientist, even if you want to be a doctor. Johns Hopkins is encouraging people who go to medical school not to take a lot of medicine or chemistry as undergraduates. They’d much rather have you come in (having studied) the humanities. There’s a huge issue in medicine, which is a very old issue … are you treating a disease or are you treating a human being? And the answer is of course you are treating both. But you can’t ignore the human being who is lying there.  You have to understand that human being.”


Citizen_100 wrote on February 03, 2014 at 1:02 pm

Per comment above about Rutgers ... the fact that they are joining the Big Ten athletic conference does not mean we consider them a peer institution for academic purposes.  The UIUC campus has an official list of schools against which we benchmark ourselves - it includes some but not all Big Ten schools (such as Wisconsin and Michigan) as well as some non-Big Ten schools such as UC San Diego and University of Texas at Austin. 

This makes perfect sense, by the way.  There is absolutely no reason to think that just because a school has a good football team that can bring millions of eyes to the Big Ten Network, that the academic institution with which they are affiliated offers the same level of research excellence to which UIUC aspires. 

So the statement that not a single one of our peer institutions is unionized is true. 

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 04, 2014 at 1:02 pm

Sadly, they could not make a go of it even if they had a union.  Sure... a union would require a handbook of expected behavior, itemized standards of employment, and a contract requiring both sides in agreement.  The boot kissers would have a problem. The prima donnas would have a problem.  The rest would not demonstrate for a contract anyway. Their better off without a union.  The "working from home", and other perks and privileges would be impaired by unionization.  Solidarity only exists in academia when freedom of speech, or tenure are in danger.

John McNay wrote on February 07, 2014 at 10:02 pm

Factulty badly need a union. All this talk about administration respecting your ability to be involved in shared governance is just fantasy. As soon as your administration comes to an issue that they want and you don't, you will find out how "shared" the governance is. The only way to assure shared governance and academic freedom and respect for economic security is with a contract that makes the administration live up to their side of the bargain.

I had a career in a non-union company before I came to academia which had a competitive union industry. The only reason we had decent salaries and benefits was because the union negotiated for those in the other company. We had to be competitive.

Similarly, the AAUP invented the concepts of academic freedom and shared governance and our contracts across the country push non-union universities to model themselves after the best practices that we have established. But the faculty at Illinois deserve the real thing - not a knock off that is only granted to you at the administration's permission.

John McNay

University of Cincinnati