University of Oregon faculty on track to unionize

University of Oregon faculty members Tina Boscha, Karen McPherson, and Deborah Olson deliver union authorization cards signed by more than 1,000 of their colleagues to the state Employment Relations Board.

[UPDATED BELOW]

By STEFAN OSTRACH, Special Correspondent

EUGENE — A majority of the 1,912 faculty at the University of Oregon (UO) have signed cards requesting union representation by United Academics of the University of Oregon (UA-UO). The union will be affiliated with both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

“I never thought it would happen,” said history professor Daniel Pope, who has been involved in efforts to unionize the faculty in Eugene since the 1970s.

Pope said several factors led to the successful outcome, especially the growing concern among faculty about the  “corporatization” of the university.

Workers in manufacturing, transportation, and service industries are all too familiar with the speed-up and  growing trend of employers to use contingent workers, temps and/or part-timers who have no job security or benefits. These same trends are eroding working conditions at universities and prompting faculty to organize.

Also, the summary firing of UO President Richard Lariviere by the State Board of Education and Gov. John Kitzhaber earlier this year “showed the powerlessness” of the faculty, Pope said.

UA-UO is seeking certification under Oregon public sector labor law’s card-check provision. It is the largest group to organize under card-check since the law was enacted in 2007. If the Employment Relations Board (ERB) finds that the signed cards represent a majority of the UO faculty, the union will be certified and the university administration will be required to start negotiating a first contract.

However, the collective bargaining process could be delayed if 30 percent of proposed bargaining unit members sign a petition specifically requesting a secret ballot vote. If they do so, the ERB would set a date for an election.

The university administration also could delay or even derail bargaining by filing an objection to the definition of the bargaining unit. Some observers expect the administration will, but at press time no objections had been filed. [The deadline for objections is April 4.] UPDATED BELOW.

It is unusual — but not unprecedented — to include all faculty in one bargaining unit. If certified, the unit will be composed of tenured, tenure-track, non-tenure track, adjunct, emeritus, library, research, and post-doctoral scholars. Only faculty at the law school would be excluded.

Tenured and tenure-track faculty have much more job security, so they are often thought not to share a community of interest with part-time and temporary teachers. Although UA-UO says it has majority support among each of the faculty groups, its activists much prefer a broader effort including all of the faculty.

Tina Boscha, who has been teaching English composition since 2003 on short-term contracts with no job security, says all faculty share the same interests. “We all perform the mission of the university — teaching, research, and service,” she said. This effort is “not just for non-tenure track — it’s across the board.”

Tenure-track professor Jane Cramer said she was inspired to join the union campaign after seeing alarming trends starting under former UO President Dave Frohnmayer  to “corporatize” the university.

“There has been a dramatic increase in students and a decline in resources for instruction,” she said, noting that the number of students majoring in her department has doubled, yet only one tenure-track position has been added.

“The administration is using non-tenure track teachers routinely now,” she said. “ They used to use temps only to substitute for absences. Some departments have to hire at 0.49 full-time to keep them under the line for (insurance) benefits.”

Cramer said some classes have gotten so large that students are sitting in the aisles. “They’re mad, and they should be,” she said. “A world class university should focus on academics.”

Boscha also is concerned about the  students. “Bigger class sizes are hurting students,” she said. “Poor faculty working conditions mean poor learning conditions.”

Another faculty concern — health care benefits — echoes workers in other  workplaces.

“We’ve seen a non-transparent erosion of health insurance,” Cramer said. “We’ve had no voice. We can’t even get information on what the changes have been. Our union will be able to demand information and have a seat at the table.”

AFT, which already represents some 1,300 graduate teaching fellows at UO, provided considerable staff resources to the organizing effort.

Faculty activists credit the involvement of the AAUP as well.

The AAUP’s participation showed “we were respectful of professionalism,” Pope explained.

A longtime member of the AFT, Pope said some professors, especially in the sciences were concerned that unionizing would result in “leveling” faculty down to a common level of compensation, without regard to merit. The AAUP supplied copies of collective bargaining agreements that demonstrated that contracts could “set floors and provide clear procedures,” as Cramer described. Similar to union-represented professional athletes, faculty would remain able to negotiate higher compensation.

Formerly bitter rivals, AFT, which is an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, and AAUP, an independent union, have been working jointly for some time. The two have organized joint bargaining units for faculty at Rutgers University in New Jersey, the New York State University System, and others.

(Editor’s Note: Stefan Ostrach, a retired Teamsters business agent, is a special correspondent in Eugene.)

 

UPDATE:

Minutes before the 5 p.m. April 4 deadline, University of Oregon filed objections to the definition of the bargaining unit as proposed by faculty members.  If upheld by the Oregon Employment Relations Board (ERB), the objections would exclude most of the academic employees from the bargaining unit. ERB procedures provide for a hearing on the objections within 21 days from receipt of the objections.

 

FURTHER UPDATE:

After a meeting between Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber and interim UO president Robert Berdahl, University of Oregon backed off its challenge, and the faculty union was certified April 27. Story here.

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