Some faculty consider unionization; detractors stress failure of unions at Chicago campus

By MaryCate Most

As union organizers from the Campus Faculty Association travel from office to office, asking faculty members whether they would support faculty unionization, three University professors have taken it upon themselves to present the other side of the unionization argument.

“There are hundreds of faculty that don’t want a union, and up until now there has been no outlet to express that,” said Nick Burbules, co-author of the statement opposing unionization and professor in Education. “That is why we created a forum for people to speak out.”

Burbules, along with LAS professor Joyce Tolliver and Business professor Jeffrey Brown, created a statement on Jan. 24, opposing the formation of a campus-bargaining unit, or union. In just four days, more than 100 faculty members had signed the statement, Burbules said.

This statement was prompted by the Campus Faculty Association urging faculty to sign union cards, Brown said. However, according to Campus Faculty Association President Harriet Murav, the organization has not been asking people to sign union cards but to sign a mission statement that supports collective bargaining.

“We’ve been asking people to give their opinion,” Murav said. “It has no power — these signatures are in no way a commitment for anybody to do anything.”

Murav and Campus Faculty Association colleagues see a number of advantages in unionization.

“Faculty came here thinking this was a great university, and we’ve seen a shift where tuition gets higher and higher, where tuition gets bigger and bigger, many, many courses are taught by people who are underpaid,” Murav said.

Unionization would put a floor on the wages paid to employees, would require each union member to pay dues and could potentially unite the faculty’s voice. The Campus Faculty Association also sees unionization as a way faculty members can have a stronger influence on University issues such as tuition increases and pay raises, Murav said.

“When you raise tuition, you are closing the door to a lot of students,” Murav said. “Maybe we could live without a pay raise. We want as many students from the state of Illinois from all backgrounds to be able to attend this University, and it is very disturbing that tuition just went up again.”

Randy McCarthy, LAS professor, worked with the Campus Faculty Association in an effort to promote more faculty impact on administrative and financial issues. After working with Burbules to present a plan that compromised unionization while still dealing with the union organizer’s concerns, he was asked to leave. McCarthy believes the union organizer’s concerns are legitimate but could be solved without forming a union itself.

“Primarily I think that it would give more balance to the administration in the sense that it would give more cohesion to faculty voice,” McCarthy said. “The biggest danger is that we are a research institution, and many of our biggest faculty might not want to put time into the union, and the union would not represent the leading faculty on campus.”

If the unionization process was to legally take place, it could take place in one of two ways: either through an open faculty vote or through the use of union cards, a method in which the Campus Faculty Association would ask individual faculty members for their vote on a card. Once the Campus Faculty Association has the support of more than 50 percent of the faculty, the faculty would be unionized, Burbules said.

“If they (the Campus Faculty Association) feel they have enough interest to do a card drive, they only have a small six-month period to do it,” McCarthy said. “They have been organizing and gathering information for years, but once the card drive happens, it will happen rather quickly.”

McCarthy said historically, untrustworthy administration may also be affecting the push for unionization at this time. Following scandals surrounding the last two University presidents, who later resigned, some faculty have felt they are at the mercy of the administration, he said.

“We’ve now become painfully aware that we are at their good will,” McCarthy said. “Now you have a group of people that suddenly feel very vulnerable and more importantly, that is shifting back — the chancellor and the president are repairing some of the damage that has been caused.”

Burbules believes that staff members who are indifferent about unionization may put the views of those who oppose it in danger.

“People (will) agree to the union, saying, ‘You can establish a union if you want to, I just don’t want to deal with it,’” Burbules said. “This isn’t a sort of trial or experiment that can be tried out and then if we don’t like it we can undo it. It is very hard to disestablish. This is crossing the Rubicon — crossing a line — that once established will not be very easy to undo.”

After unionization, the faculty would be represented by the union and pay dues to the union. However, having to pay union dues is not the main concern of the professors and others who supported the statement.

“My concern is that the union will value process over outcomes and that they will serve as a barrier to the University’s ability to attract or retain superstar faculty,” Brown said.

The recent faculty unionization on the Chicago campus has also drawn concerns from faculty, he said.

“I think anyone who looks at the facts ought to be greatly concerned by what has happened at UIC,” Brown said. “For almost two years, the faculty has not received a raise. The union environment has become combative and divisive.”

The underlying problem is that no group is certain what impact unionization might have in the long run, McCarthy said.

“Even in a union, there would have to be fairly delicate negotiations,” he said. “On our campus historically, unions have not had a easy time negotiating (with administrators.)”

Currently, there is not an indication of when the legal unionization process will take place.

MaryCate can be reached at [email protected]