The Efforts of Higher Education Unions (October/November 2016)

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By Susan Krumholz

President, UMAss Faculy Federation, Local 1895

 

As I am writing this, we are barely a month into the new school year, and it is already a particularly busy one. National, state, and local matters are challenging us all at the same time.  And that is no coincidence.

 

The upcoming elections are dominating the news, as they are consuming our time and energy. At this moment the Presidential election looms large, and the consequences are no less than the future direction of the Supreme Court (and I could go on?!). Statewide, we are all working together to defeat Ballot Question Two that, if passed, will hurt our public schools, and benefit the big money interests supporting the question that would use a victory to try to negatively impact unions across the Commonwealth.  And those are only two of the political issues demanding our attention.

 

Here at UMass Dartmouth we face several challenges this academic year, the first of which is searching for a new Chancellor, the administrative leader of the campus.  This is always an important position, but for us, at this time, it takes on special significance.  In the twenty-six years I have been on this campus we have had a somewhat steady turnover of Chancellors (Presidents prior to merging with UMass) and Provosts (the campus’ academic leader, for those non-university readers); five and five if my counting is correct. At a time when were are emerging as a top 100 National University, according to the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges ranking, UMass Dartmouth struggles to define its place in the UMass system.  We are not recognized for any special identity (we are not the flagship - Amherst - or urban - Boston - or Meehan's campus - Lowell), and so we continue to be somewhat "invisible" in the public eye.  It is going to be important that we find leadership in a steady individual with a strong academic background and the ability to illustrate the ways education can nourish and raise up the Southcoast region.

 

Our second challenge is that we expect to return to the bargaining table this fall, at a time when there are some real concerns about the governor’s commitment to public higher education.  I don’t suspect I need to explain to any of you the significance of each round of collective bargaining, so I will use this to segue to what I want to talk about—the state of unions in higher education.

 

Last month we all witnessed a disgraceful attempt to bust higher education unions—and the power that faculty, when supported by students and other unions, can have.  If you aren’t familiar with the Long Island University lockout, here’s a brief overview.  Faculty had a contract set to expire August 31st.  They had been negotiating with administration since April.  On August 31st the faculty were presented with a “final” proposal from administration that contained significant concessions. Despite concerns about the terms of the proposal, union negotiators promised to bring it to membership for a vote at the conclusion of the Labor Day Weekend, as was customary.  On September 1st administration locked out faculty, insisting that they would find “replacement teachers.” Faculty immediately lost their salaries and health insurance and were locked out of their university email accounts.  The lockout lasted twelve days, during which time union members from around the country, students, and others put pressure on the university’s president Kimberly Cline to end the lockout.  The most impressive (and possibly most important) support came from the almost two hundred students who threatened to drop their classes until the faculty returned.  The lockout ended with a one-year extension of the existing contract.  It was a victory, however temporary.

 

An officer of the LIU Faculty Federation said in an interview that one of the consequences of the lockout was that full-time faculty and adjuncts, who are all part of the same union, really came together to support one another.  At UMass Dartmouth, tenure/tenure-track faculty and full-time and part-time adjuncts are also in one union.  Despite some occasional tensions, and some seemingly unanswerable questions (i.e., how do we pressure administration not to increase the percent of teachers who are not tenure track while not threatening the livelihood of adjuncts), we work well together.  Around the country, and particularly in Massachusetts, there has been a surge in adjuncts organizing, especially at private universities where tenure track faculty are less likely to be unionized.  At private colleges in the Boston area, adjuncts comprise an average of 50% of all faculty.  Adjuncts often earn wages that keep them below the poverty level, and even in this time of expanding health insurance, most get no benefits.  A quick Google search reveals the emergence of adjunct unions at five of the major private institutions in just the past year. According to the New Faculty Majority, a group dedicated to organizing adjunct faculty, unions lead to better working conditions and “faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.”  I couldn’t have said it better. 

 

According to AAUP only about 21% of all faculty and 35% of public university faculty are unionized.  Despite what those numbers suggest, unions remain vitally important.  In a recent column in HigherEdJobs.com, the interviewer cites an article (link inactive) that says, “with a legal faculty union, the administration by law must listen to faculty views and truly share governance of the university.”  And a recent article in The Nation (Chen, “The Solution to Higher Ed’s Bad Pay is Unions,” April 13, 2016) says that on average, unionized faculty in public, regional universities earn 15%, or about $21,000 in pay and benefits, more then their non-union peers. And in these challenging times, let’s remember that the most important part role of our unions is BUILDING COMMUNITY.