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Faculty unions continue to prompt questions at Washington U., UMSL

College of St. Louis community college meramec, umsl and washington university
St. Louis Public Radio file photos

As faculty members at the University of Missouri-St. Louis continue talking about forming a union, part-time teachers at Washington University are working under the first semester of their union contract.

And though some Washington U. adjuncts have questions about how much benefit the union will actually provide, organizers say the contract is working well, though they acknowledge that a period of adjustment is normal when conditions change.

“There's a lot of work that still needs to be done,” said Michael O’Bryan, a part-time English instructor who helped negotiate the four-year contract. “We’re in the process of designating a system of stewards who will represent the bargaining unit, and of setting up union staff who will be specifically dedicated to contract enforcement and redress grievances.

“We’re looking forward to all of that and we’re optimistic we’re going to be able to use that structure to help, but these things take a little bit of time.”

Nancy Cross of the Service Employees International Union, which has organized units at Washington U. as well as Saint Louis University, St. Louis Community College and St. Charles Community College, is also working to unionize faculty at UMSL, both full-time and part-time.


She said that as higher education relies more and more on part-time faculty members instead of full-time, tenured professors, there is an increased need for an organized response to administration. In the last few years, Cross said, about 13,000 faculty members “at some of the most prestigious schools in the country” have joined the SEIU.

“We think that they need representation to help better their lives, to increase job security, workplace protections and to work together for stronger academics,” Cross said.

But not everyone who is affected is convinced that unionization is the best route toward those goals, or that the SEIU is the best organization to help.

“I think one of the biggest problems is the ill fit between SEIU and academics,” said Jeff Stockton, who teaches part-time in the Washington University business school.

“They just don't understand that academics do by nature basically challenge assumptions. They're less willing to simply hand over and defer to other people's judgment, and just do what they're told.”

He also said the union has not always given complete and correct information to adjuncts, many of whom teach just at night.

“The communication in general is just very sloppy,” Stockton said. “It’s unclear.”

Faculty numbers flip

To figure out why faculty organizing is increasing on college campuses nationwide, you just have to look at one set of numbers, according to researcher William Herbert.

“At one time, faculty composition was 75 percent tenure-track faculty and 25 percent non-tenure track,” said Herbert, who heads the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College in New York.

“Those figures have flipped over the decades, and now there is a vast majority of faculty on non-tenure track. As a result, there has now been, particularly in the past four years, a groundswell of unionization and collective bargaining among the non-tenure track, particularly in the private sector.”

For those part-time faculty, a career in academia may require cobbling together teaching assignments at several campuses.

Increased use of part-time faculty has brought a 'groundswell' of union activity on college campuses, according to researcher William Herbert.

The increased activity nationwide has also resulted in increased militancy. Just this week, unionized professors at 14 of Pennsylvania’s state colleges walked off the job in a dispute over pay and benefits, canceling classes for 100,000 students.

In the St. Louis area, as the SEIU stepped up its organizing efforts, it met with different responses from the schools involved. At St. Louis Community College, President Jeff Pittman acknowledged teachers’ right to organize and provided a clear avenue for them to do so.

Elsewhere, the response was more neutral, with schools providing information but generally taking a more hands-off attitude. At Webster University, though, the administration openly and actively opposed the union’s effort to organize faculty, and adjuncts responded by voting against forming an SEIU chapter.

Herbert said such responses – pro, con or neutral – generally represent a broader philosophical approach. “How one responds to those kinds of efforts will reflect our values,” he said.

He wasn’t surprised to hear there was some grumbling among adjuncts at Washington U. in the first semester in which their contract was in effect. Both he and Cross at the SEIU said that such situations bring with them a learning curve, as both sides get used to how a union operates.

“It does take time,” Herbert said. “So the first contracts are usually just the beginning stages of a long-term relationship that can be extended and developed as time moves forward in terms of the positions that are negotiated.”

Spirited debate at UMSL

So far, there has been no formal response from the University of Missouri system about the SEIU’s organizing efforts at the St. Louis campus. But in response to news conference questions earlier this month, interim system President Mike Middleton made clear he doesn’t think faculty members need a union.

“I think we have a shared governance system at the University of Missouri system that is well equipped to handle the concerns of faculty, students and administrators,” he said. “I do question the need to bring in a third party to be engaged in our fairly well-established process of shared governance.

'If the shared governance were working, you and I would not be having this conversation.' -- Union organizer Nancy Cross

“I would rather relate directly with our faculty than to have to relate to a third party to address their concerns.”

Not surprisingly, Cross disagreed.

“If the shared governance were working,” she said, “you and I would not be having this conversation.”

Would-be union organizers at UMSL filed papers with university officials last month that they said should trigger an election about whether the SEIU would form a chapter on campus. But university officials said no election can be held until the system approves the proper process and procedures, and a system spokesman said there is no timetable for that to occur.

Cross said the union is prepared to wait “a reasonable amount of time for them to respond.”

“They’re obligated to do that under the law,” she said. “If they don’t do that, then we’ll have to go to court to get them to do that.”

She acknowledged that because UMSL is a public university, and the system is governed by a Board of Curators, circumstances are different than they are elsewhere.

“It's more convoluted,” she said. “At the community college level, it's done right with that community college, right then and there. The issue here is that UMSL is part of the University of Missouri system, so the chancellor does not get to make that decision on his or her own. They have to go through the Board of Curators.”

An additional wrinkle is that the university is in the midst of searching for a new president, whose views on unionization could play a role. But as that process plays out, UMSL faculty members have been carrying on lively debates for months, online and in person, over the benefits of a union.

Proponents have argued that by joining the SEIU faculty members would get a stronger voice in how the campus is run, along with improvements in areas such as wages, benefits and job security. Approving a union would not hand any power over to outsiders, they say, because union officials would come from the ranks of the faculty itself.

A fact sheet on the question put the issue this way:

“Forming a union can only guarantee one thing: when workers stick together we have more bargaining power than we do as scattered individuals.” 

Opponents, though, say that any change in the balance of power that a union brings would hurt whatever collegiality exists on campus, without bringing any benefits. In an interview, history Professor Kevin Fernlund put it this way:

“Unions are very polarizing, and in the case of the academy, you're talking about trying to make one culture, a union culture, work in a completely different culture, a culture of higher education, a culture of the academy. It's literally a cultural clash.”

'You're talking about trying to make one culture, a union culture, work in a completely different culture, a culture of higher education, a culture of the academy.' -- UMSL history Professor Kevin Fernlund

Fernlund said he already has a voice in how the UMSL campus is run, by electing a member to the Faculty Senate, which works with the administration in a shared governance system. He doesn’t see what he would gain with the 2.5 percent of his salary he would have to pay in union dues.

“We're not a business,” Fernlund said. “There's no profit to try to argue over and try to share. There's just allocated money. So the union would not be able to win any more money for the faculty. It might be able to argue for a redistribution of existing money, but there's no profit out there somewhere that could be shared equitably.

“There are problems. Since the Great Recession, every state has had problems, and UMSL is no exception. But SEIU is not the solution to those problems. A stronger and more vigorous economy, and more tax receipts to Jefferson City, that's the solution.”

How will the union fight end at UMSL?

Cross insisted that the union will win the right to organize. Then, she said, negotiations will follow.

“If we win the election, they're obligated to bargain with us,” she said of the Board of Curators.

Fernlund sees a protracted battle ahead, but he doesn’t think the SEIU will come out on top.

“I think we're going to be able to preserve our faculty governance and preserve our academic culture,” he said. “It will be a long fight. They have all kinds of resources, and they have everything to gain and nothing to lose. So they will try to wear us down, but I think we'll prevail.”

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.

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