URBANA — The campus senate at the University of Illinois will take up the contentious issue of faculty unionization next semester, planning its first general discussion on the topic in recent memory.
Members of the Senate Executive Committee agreed informally this week to schedule a "balanced" discussion about collective bargaining next spring as the issue continues to heat up on campus.
The Campus Faculty Association , which supports unionization, has been assessing faculty support for collective bargaining for months, meeting with professors one on one across campus.
Last week, the provost's office sent a communication about faculty collective-bargaining efforts to department heads — and posted it on the UI's website — that the CFA says is misleading.
The document, "Frequently Asked Questions about Potential Faculty Unionization at Urbana-Champaign ," describes the process for certifying a faculty union by collecting signatures on union authorization cards, how professors can revoke their signatures on those cards if needed, and how collective bargaining might affect merit pay and tenure, among other issues. It also notes that most of the UI's research peers across the country do not have faculty unions.
Provost Ilesanmi Adesida said people on campus were asking questions about the issue and the campus put out "the facts as we know it." He said the issue is ultimately up to the faculty to decide.
"I'm agnostic on this," he said.
CFA leaders say their effort, which has been under way for 18 months, is not an official union campaign. Organizers are trying to visit 2,000 faculty members on campus to gauge their support for collective bargaining, said CFA President James Barrett, UI professor of history.
"There is no collective-bargaining campaign, there is no card drive," Barrett said. "It's strictly factual."
Those who support a potential union are being asked to sign a copy of the CFA's mission statement, which includes collective-bargaining rights for faculty, he said.
That has caused confusion among some faculty members about whether they're actually signing union authorization cards, said education Professor Nicholas Burbules, a member of the Senate Executive Committee, who said he's received several complaints about the union's tactics.
"I don't see why people are being asked to sign anything" if there is no card drive, Burbules said.
Barrett said it's the best way to see if professors are committed to the idea of collective bargaining. It's also helpful for younger faculty members who don't yet have tenure protection and may be fearful of publicly backing a union, if they see other names on the list, said Kathy Oberdeck, CFA member and professor of history.
"It tells them they're not alone," she said.
Burbules and campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said that some professors at the UI Chicago, where faculty recently unionized, didn't realize their signatures would ultimately be used to certify the union.
Barrett said he wasn't aware of that problem in Chicago and said the CFA has no intention of using the signatures collected now for an official unionization campaign.
Burbules said some professors also have complained that they were interrupted while working in their offices or were visited multiple times by union organizers.
"I've never taken a position on unionization publicly," Burbules said, but added he's concerned about the process taking place "behind closed doors" rather than through an open campus debate.
CFA representatives said they've been careful to try scheduling visits in advance and not interrupt work, to use personal emails rather than the campus email system for communications if at all possible, and to avoid repeat visits to professors who don't support the union.
Professors who are skeptical of collective bargaining say their primary concern is that it would weaken shared governance, which gives faculty a role in the operation of the university.
The senate — made up of elected faculty members, students and academic professionals — is the proper place for an open discussion of collective bargaining and what it could mean for the campus, Burbules said.
Barrett welcomed that idea, as long as the discussion includes pros and cons on collective bargaining.
"It would be very useful to have an open discussion on this campus," he said.
Matt Wheeler, chairman of the Senate Executive Committee, said he would wait to hear from appropriate senate committees before setting a date or format for the discussion. The senate's General University Policy Committee plans to submit an agenda item outlining parameters for the discussion early next semester, said Burbules, who chairs that panel.
Barrett, a longtime member of the senate, said a faculty union is not a threat to shared governance or merit-based pay for professors. The CFA's mission statement states that it "strongly supports the ideal of shared governance."
Meanwhile, the policy committee of the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors is also studying the collective-bargaining issue, said Leslie Struble, chapter president.
The national AAUP, headed by UI Professor Emeritus Cary Nelson, supports faculty collective bargaining but the local chapter has not taken a position to date, said Struble, a UI engineering professor. The chapter focuses on advocating for faculty interests within and outside the university, she said.
Struble said a previous straw vote showed chapter members evenly divided on the issue of faculty unionization on the Urbana campus, with opponents concerned that it would weaken shared governance.