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Power and cost are part of UMSL unionization effort arguments

A view of the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Courtesy of the University of Missouri-St. Louis
A view of the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

The effort to unionize faculty at the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus has generated a lively online discussion on both sides of the issue.

After success in its drives to organize part-time faculty members at Washington University, Saint Louis University, St. Louis Community College and St. Charles Community College, the Service Employees International Union is taking the move one step further and trying to enlist all members of the UMSL faculty.

The union plans a rally on the UMSL campus on Tuesday, in advance of a meeting by the university system’s Board of Curators in Kansas City on Oct. 6-7.

As the school year began and faculty members returned to campus, an online forum drew spirited responses from those on both sides of the issues. Their arguments broke down like this:

For a union:

  • Letting the faculty speak with a unified voice
  • Improving shared governance of the campus
  • Rebalancing power between faculty members and the administration

Against a union:

  • Financial contributions wouldn’t be offset by financial gain
  • A union is more appropriate for part-timers than full-time faculty members
  • Public employee unions in Missouri are weak and the campus could lose public support

The union has posted an FAQ in response to questions about how it operates and what it could accomplish for members of the UMSL faculty. But that hasn’t stopped the ongoing online discussion.

Pros and cons

Those in favor of unionization say organizing would give faculty members a stronger, unified voice in dealing with the administration.

“Faculty feel like they would like to have a stronger voice in what’s going on in the university," said Wally Siewert, who heads the campus Center for Ethics in Public Life, "especially as it’s going through changes and difficulties over these years.”

And to concerns that unions are best limited to part-time faculty members, Siewert said that the fate of all teachers, full-time and part-time, is tied together. Anything that undermines the position of adjuncts, the argument goes, eventually undermines all faculty members.

Recent budget cuts at UMSL fed the union drive to a certain extent, with those in favor of the SEIU saying that their concerns about the impact of reductions in staff did not get the attention they deserved. Professors want to make sure they get their proper seat at the table.

"It has not been my experience that there’s a whole lot of shared governance," Siewert said.

"What UMSL faculty will have with a union is a voice at the table that represents them and their concerns and their ideas about the future of the faculty, and represents them in terms of their employment conditions and their ability to make sure that the students have the best possible experience."

But those wary of unionization are concerned about a number of things, including a lack of details about what the union may want to seek on behalf of faculty if it is approved as a bargaining agent. One who commented in the online discussion likened it to the “take a bite of this food and I’ll tell you what it is afterwards” game. 

And the union dues – 2.5 percent of a member’s salary – prompted concern, particularly when there isn’t a clear picture of what gains the union could bring that would offset the cost. “We need to be on guard, wary, and vigilant,” one said. “Someone is trying to get into our wallets and purses.”

Opponents also questioned what some considered unfair tactics, such as showing up at a professor’s class or home unannounced to talk about benefits of joining the SEIU. They also wondered why some potential union members got information while others got none.

Another concern is whether forming a union could cost public support for the university at a time when that support has already been shaken by recent events.

And even if a union is chosen to represent faculty, some wonder whether SEIU is the right one. "I am unimpressed," one person wrote, "not because I am against a union, but rather because I think we may need a better union than this one. Why are we asked to jump at the first union that asks us to dance?

The administration’s view

Distribution of cards during the summer, seeking a union election, led to an email last month from Erik Smetana, assistant vice president for human relations at the University of Missouri system.

He noted that under the law, Missouri is a “meet and confer” state, meaning that “the university’s sole obligation in regard to any existing or future union agreements is to, in good faith, meet with union representatives and consider their requests. The university does not have an obligation to come to agreement with the union or its representatives on any particular topic.”

Unlike the situation at private universities, he said, the National Labor Relations Board has no authority over the UM system.

“The university is not subject to binding third-party arbitration,” Smetana wrote. “The Curators of the University of Missouri are the final authority in all employee matters and, in the case of union relations, has delegated those matters to the Office of Human Resources at the University of Missouri System.”

He emphasized that no union can guarantee an increase in pay or improvements in working conditions or job security, and any strike or work stoppage by a public employee union is illegal in Missouri.

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

“It is uncertain,” Smetana wrote, “based on positions that unions historically have taken at the bargaining table, what would change should a union be elected, particularly as relates to representation of the interests of all faculty and the extent to which UMSL’s focus on individual ability, performance, and initiative would be less emphasized than factors like seniority.”

Any further response to the unionization effort by UMSL faculty, in terms of procedures or rules that would govern its response, is expected to come from the UM system. Its spokesman, John Fougere, issued this statement:

“The University of Missouri System is working on both the process and provisions for collective bargaining with faculty applicable to the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus. The University takes this work seriously and is in the process of preparing a document that is not only comprehensive but also comports with the laws of Missouri regarding collective bargaining in the public sector.”

He had no further information on when the rules and procedures would be available.

When members of the faculty organizing committee began distributing cards earlier this year, in an effort to prompt a vote on the union, the administration responded via a campuswide message from interim Provost Chris Spilling urging caution.

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.”

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.