Guest commentary: Effort to unionize UI faculty is cause for concern

Guest commentary: Effort to unionize UI faculty is cause for concern

By Richard Blahut

It is with great concern for the University of Illinois that I write this letter, putting thoughts in writing that I would prefer to leave unwritten. Unfortunately, an effort to unionize the campus faculty is underway, much of this effort behind closed doors.

Proponents, though claiming to have the faculty interest at heart, are unwilling to have an open election or debate, preferring to meet with faculty one-by-one privately, to collect signatures after presenting only one side. My purpose here is to present the other side as I see it. Fairness requires that both sides be heard.

I came to the Illinois faculty 20 years ago after a very successful career in the corporate world. I chose Illinois when I decided to join academia because of excellence in scholarship and unsurpassed collegiality. No other university can match this excellence. No other university can match the warm environment of my department, the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, or its superb record of scholarship. I hold that this university is a valuable asset of society and it is our duty to protect it.

During my eight years as head of the electrical and computer engineering, I spent countless hours traveling the world and talking to our alumni, to major corporate leaders, to our local leaders, to parents and to potential students. I watched as we garnered many tens of millions of dollars from alumni and others for scholarships and fellowships, for faculty chairs and professorships, for course development, and, yes, for a new ECE building.

I have studied the kind of people who are sought out by us and others for donations. I know how these people think and the kind of appeals to which they respond. They donate to strength, not to weakness. They give to opportunity, not to difficulty.

Tension on our campus will certainly dissuade future gifts. The potential donors will make it their business to know about us. Indeed, all our continuing efforts at enhancing the reputation of this university may now be at risk.

I do not think that my concern is premature. The Chicago campus of the UI was on strike recently for two days. Reports reach us that the atmosphere of collegiality is gone from that campus. That strike is a damaging and indelible embarrassment both to the Chicago campus and to the Urbana campus. The public does not always distinguish these two campuses. Young men and women now deciding, with their parents, which university to attend in the fall will notice this chaos. Some of these students will go elsewhere, not here.

It must also be said that recruiting top faculty will be harder. There will be some faculty candidates unwilling to join a union. Others will see an additional uncertainty about the future of this campus, and so choose a position elsewhere. Further, some of our top faculty members will leave a unionized campus. To those who dispute this, let me say that I would not have joined this faculty had it been unionized 20 years ago, nor would I stay. Many current faculty members will leave, and their departure will be noticed.

I know that one response to this article will be to call me a name, to dub me "anti-union," and hope that this is enough to dismiss my remarks. To this, let me say that I grew up in a union household, that my father and uncles were dedicated union members. I fully appreciate the good the unions have done for unskilled laborers and for skilled tradespeople.

However, the real point here is that a faculty is not a collection of interchangeable workers. It is a merit-based profession of research and teaching. This is not the blue-collar class for which unions were created. Some union proponents have claimed a similarity to organizations of professional athletes. I cannot guess how they see an analogy between my career and that of a professional athlete, but I am quite sure that the financial world of athletics is very different from the financial world of a university.

A union will take 1 to 2 percent of our salaries from this community in the form of union dues. Perhaps the state can be persuaded to make up these funds, but because the state contributes only a small fraction of our university budget, a large percentage increase of the state budget would be required. It is a false dream to imagine that a union can compel the state of Illinois to a double-digit percentage increase in the state's contribution to our faculty salary.

My last topic is self-governance. We do have an existing faculty senate, and a faculty that comes forward when the need arises. We have dislodged two university presidents with entourage, a chancellor and perhaps others. The faculty has stood up to the UI Board of Trustees and won. The current administrative leaders are quite popular with most of us. I, for one, do not want to drive any of them away. Nor do I want to see them replaced with administrators whom we do not recognize as peers. And finally, to close, I mention that it certainly is a sound maxim that the last thing a troubled marriage should do is to invite a lawyer to share the marriage bed.

Richard Blahut is the Henry Magnuski Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the UI.

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Lostinspace wrote on March 16, 2014 at 3:03 pm

If I understand, there are three reasons to oppose unionization: donors will stop giving, top faculty recruits will stop coming, and faculty take-home pay will be reduced by a one-to-two per cent "tax" on base salary.

The first two reasons constitute an opinion with which not all would agree; as for the third, you say that if your salary is $150,000, you would lose two or three thousand dollars a year in union dues.  Union dues at my own university were a maximum of 1% for tenured faculty and .75% for others.  It could be that someone making $50,000 might be willing to contribute 30 or 40 dollars (tax-deductible) a month for representation and bargaining power.

I'd like to see the organizers' response to these three reasons, none of which speak to the concerns of the underpaid and vulnerable, by the way.

As for the "secrecy," was the anti-union letter signed by 120 senior faculty members open to debate and election?  How about the letter in support of Richard Herman, signed by 48 senior faculty members?

I will not speak to the strength of the faculty senate.  Its stance and effectiveness are not a secret.

Sid Saltfork wrote on March 17, 2014 at 10:03 am

Dr. Blahut's reasoning for the untenured faculty to not unionize is the expected reactionary response.  Two tiers of faculty would come into existence with unionization.  The department heads like Dr. Blahut, and "highly sought after" faculty who automatically are given tenure would work on individual contracts just as the administrators.  If the contract offers enough; the "highly sought after" would come, or remain.  The untenured faculty would receive fair pay, defined working conditions, and security in employment via a union contract.  If they became tenured, they would work under an individual contract.  

Now, what does Dr. Blahut say about the current problems for the untenured faculty?  Well, he ........., er...... what does he say about them?  Are they the "skilled tradespeople"?  There are objections to unionization from those who have tenure; but they offer no solutions to the problems of the untenured.