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UMSL is latest campus target for union organizing

Millennium Student Center at UMSL
File: Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

After successful organizing campaigns with part-time faculty at Washington University, Saint Louis University and St. Louis Community College, a union is now turning its attention to the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

And a top UMSL official wants to make sure that teachers on campus know what is at stake.

The Service Employees International Union, which has been active on campuses nationwide, began distributing cards recently at UMSL, where scores of jobs were eliminated earlier this year because of a budget crunch.

The union wants to gauge support for a possible organizing campaign. It urged people to sign, saying that such support is designed to “stand with my colleagues and to win a voice for ourselves and for the students that we teach.”

The card added: “Through winning a union, my colleagues and I will earn the right to bargain collectively and as equals with our employer over our pay, our working conditions and other conditions of our employment.”

Adriano Udani, an assistant professor of political science at UMSL who is a member of the organizing committee, said the cards were distributed to various types of faculty – junior and senior level, tenured and non-tenured – to start the conversation about the benefits of joining a union.

“As educators,” Udani said in an interview, “we care a lot about UMSL. We’re really just looking to establish a collective bargaining unit that speaks for all faculty.

“Given the budget crisis at UMSL, I think we all agree and believe that a collective bargaining unit that speaks for all faculty is going to increase UMSL’s capacity to address the long-term issues in a collaborative manner.”

When the SEIU began organizing drives for adjunct faculty on other campuses, administrations differed in their response. Washington University waged an extensive informational campaign, and St. Louis Community College was generally supportive. At Webster University, though, officials were openly opposed to the unionization effort, and the drive there lost.

In response to the distribution of cards at UMSL, interim Provost Chris Spilling sent out a message to campus faculty, urging them to be sure they understand what could be at stake before they sign.

Signing the union card in effect grants the union the exclusive right to represent you on a variety of issues that have historically been part of the ‘shared governance’ model used at the University of Missouri-St. Louis,” Spilling wrote in boldface type. 

“Many of these issues could no longer be discussed on campus between faculty and administration. Instead, those negotiations would be held among union representatives and lawyers and human resources employees representing the Curators of the University of Missouri.”

He added that defining precisely what signing the card means can be tricky.

“There have been situations where the union attempts to minimize these provisions, sometimes referring to them as just a method to show you may be interested. Or, simply a device for you to ‘get more information.’ They may even go so far as to say that it is ‘non-binding’ and merely a ‘preliminary step.’ Those terms can be misleading. 

“If the union gathers a majority of Union Cards from a group they seek to represent, the union commonly then ‘demands recognition’ by the employer, taking the position that all of the people who have signed have clearly designated the union as their representative. Of course, that could be different than what the faculty members were told when they signed. It could certainly be different from what the faculty member intended.”

He added: “It matters not what the union says, it matters most what you sign.”

'We have a legal right to organize, and I think the university has a legal obligation to provide a fair process. -- Political science professor Adriano Udani

Udani says Spilling’s cautions may be overstated.

“I consider it as the beginning of a conversation,” he said. “I think that the administration and faculty have a duty. That duty is to educate the public about the process. We're not doing anything wrong right now. We have a legal right to organize, and I think the university has a legal obligation to provide a fair process, which is what we're asking for.”

Even though he does not have tenure, Udani said he does not feel threatened by the substance or the tone of Spilling’s campuswide note.

“I don’t necessarily feel scared by it,” he said. “I think I’m comforted by the fact that it’s not only me. All of us have the same commonality of concern for raising the standards at UMSL. I think having that shared experience and commonalities between different levels of faculty at UMSL reassures me that this is a process that’s worth pursuing.

“But I am scared that UMSL is going to potentially not offer this kind of community and collaboration that's going to attract the very professors and students. As a public institution, I'm concerned about that, offering a very collaborative environment that energizes this region and also attracts really good urban students.”

A budget shortfall and a decline in enrollment led the campus to eliminate more than 80 positions earlier this year. Udani said the crisis “really focused our attention to the longevity of the institution that we’re committed to and the teaching and the research that it has. So it certainly concerned us about resources for students and support staff that are very much a part of our departments and really at the heart of getting things done.

'Be precise and deliberate in your review of any legal document seeking your signature or any other expression of assent that the union may put in front of you.' -- Campus email from interim Provost Chris Spilling

“So when those resources diminish, that starts a conversation among the educators to try to install some collaboration and approaches to try to at least stop that. I think we're all committed to try to maintain, if not improve, the quality of our teaching and research, but I think if anything the budget crisis brought to our attention that we have to work together, both the administration and across the different groups of faculty.”

Udani said there is no timetable for the unionization process, noting that many people are off campus for the summer.

But as the process accelerates, Spilling’s message was be sure you know what you may be getting into.

We urge you to be precise and deliberate in your review of any legal document seeking your signature or any other expression of assent that the union may put in front of you,” he wrote.

“One last thing. We have been told that some individuals have already signed a Union Card or have given their expression of assent and are now realizing what they may have done and wish to revoke it. If you are in that category, we suggest you send a letter to the union, (certified mail may be the best), informing it that you intend to revoke the prior authorization.”  

The University of Missouri’s Board of Curators holds the license for St. Louis Public Radio.

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.