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?
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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