News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Who's afraid of the big, bad union?

I must, first, engage in some full disclosure.  I was a member and an officer of the faculty union at NSU.  Among the offices served, I was secretary, treasurer, president, the bargaining team negotiator, and  grievance officer.  I participated in negotiating a number of collective bargaining agreements, although some of them were imposed on the faculty by the Board of Regents because the faculty could not agree to or vote for some of the provisions.  I was also  president of the state-wide union for a term.

After serving a term as state president, I chose not to run for that office again.  In fact, shortly after my term as state president ended, I resigned from the union.  The main reason was that the union did not know how to represent college faculty and, although it claimed to provide benefits to the faculty, the reality did not live up to the claims.  As a consequence, membership in the union declined to the point that only a ridiculously low number of faculty were members.  The union officers and staff made claims that the faculty could easily see through, and faculty tend not to be stupid and gullible.  

Until, I came to Northern, I had no experience with faculty unions.  At the college I worked at previously, there was no union.  However, at the recommendation of the administration and senior faculty, we were encouraged to join the American Association of University Professors, which was regarded as the professional organization that informed faculty and maintained the standards of the profession. I belonged to AAUP, which is now one of the major organizations that represent college faculty in collective bargaining. 

I joined the union when I arrived at Northern for two  reasons.  When I took the job in 
South Dakota, I was heavily involved in some projects in Illinois dealing with the humanities.  I had to inform some colleagues of my move and that I would no longer be in a position to work on those projects. The day before I left Illinois to move to Aberdeen, I received a call from a professor at the University of Illinois with whom I had worked on the projects.  He spoke bluntly:  "You've taken a job at Northern State College?" he asked.  "Do you have any idea WTF you are doing?"  I had no idea what caused this very aggressive response on his part.  As it turned out, Northern was on a list of institutions censured by AAUP for violations of academic freedom.  The professor who called had served on an AAUP committee which came to Northern and investigated the matter.  He referred me to a report on the committee's findings, which were published in the AAUP journal, Academe.   The findings were not at all complimentary of either Northern's administration or its faculty.  The report suggested that Northern did not know much about academic freedom or particularly care about it. 

The second reason I joined the union was that professors in the department I was joining, Language and Literature, approached me about joining.  Beginning that fall, South Dakota universities were operating under their first year of a collective bargaining contract.  The union was  brand new on campus.  About 75 percent of the faculty had joined.  The explanation of why the faculty had voted so heavily to form a union coupled with the information I had from AAUP made joining seem like a professionally wise thing to do.

When I met with the Northern president for my welcome aboard, I told him that I had concerns about the AAUP censure.  He explained that he had been in touch with AAUP and was working at meeting the conditions which would have the censure removed.  Many years later, after he had left the system, it was removed. 

I retained my membership in AAUP while being a member of the faculty union.  In fact, as an officer, I relied upon AAUP staff and informational materials more for advice on academic freedom and faculty governance matters than I did our parent union, the South Dakota Education Association.  The SDEA and its higher education affiliate modeled its collective bargaining representation after industrial labor unions.  Its staff and officers kept insisting that the college faculty situation was the same as that of the public school teachers with their boards and administrations.  They treated the faculty that way.  This was simply not true.  The responsibilities and duties of college faculty are markedly different; their relationship with administrators and with students is different.  AAUP understood these differences; SDEA and its parent, NEA, denied these differences.  That is a major reason why membership in the faculty union among South Dakota regental institutions declined rapidly after its initial years.

I cannot fault the SDEA totally for the loss of confidence in the union.  It did not meet faculty expectations, but those expectations were often misplaced.  The vast majority of the faculty thought that once the union had been certified and they paid their dues, they could sit back and the union would take care of everything for them.  They did not understand that they were the union and they had to participate in its running.  Our parent union did not understand that it had to inform faculty members in how to be members of a professional union; rather, it made claims about all the things it was doing for the faculty which did not stand up under scrutiny.

At one point, many faculty in the state realized that the union  was not working out as well as they had been told it would.  They mounted a campaign to end their affiliation with the SDEA and the NEA and join with  AFL-CIO.  At that time, I was an officer in the state organization, and my position was that if the union was to change its affiliation, it should be with the AAUP.  The effort to change the affiliation was voted down by the membership, but matters did not improve.

The problem, as I indicated, was that the faculty have to undertake a good part of the work.  Union staff members cannot do it all.  That work centers around matters of academic freedom and academic due process.  Faculty have to be as vigorous in discharging their responsibilities as they are in using their rights. The union does not, as is popularly believed, automatically come to the support of faculty who run afoul of the administration and the regents.  The union does have to guarantee that due process is followed; that faculty who are fired or the subject of disciplinary action have a full explanation of the charges against them, have a chance to present their side of the case before a hearing board that includes their peers, and that they are treated honestly and fairly.  Northern was censured by the AAUP because if failed to meet those standards.

The union does not stand in the way of anyone being fired or disciplined for just cause.  And it does not automatically defend and protect faculty whose performance is not up to standards.  It does insist that due process be followed in administering any discipline.  

The first two years of union representation in South Dakota went fairly well.  Even though most of the faculty did not take active roles in the matters of governance, enough of us did that we effectively dealt with problems that came up.  The first major problem we faced at Northern came when the president left to take the presidency of another university and we had a new president.  Most of the faculty were wary of the new man who, among the candidates who were interviewed, did not seem the best fit for Northern.  But the regents have the final say on the hiring, and they hired a man who created turmoil as soon as he hit the campus.  His first major move was to get rid of the administrative staff and replace them with people of his choosing who would be beholden to him for their administrative positions.  He got rid of the vice president and dean of the college, the director of admissions, the admissions staff, the vice president of student affairs, and he disbanded all the academic departments and reorganized the college to eliminate department chairs.  

Administrative personnel are not covered by the due process provisions in the collective bargaining contract, so the president can fire them at will.  And he fired anybody who did not take an obsequious attitude toward him.  What happened was that we had a number of administrators who no longer had jobs.  Most of them were tenured faculty who had been appointed to their administrative jobs from their teaching roles, and what the new president did not realize was that he could fire them from their administrative jobs, but he could not fire them from the faculty.  They came to the union for help, and, as they were experienced classroom professors, were assigned to teach classes in the disciplines in which they held rank.

As a member of AAUP, I consulted--sometimes on a daily basis--with the staff in Washington, D.C., on legal aspects and how best to resolve the matter of the displaced professors.  Being warned against taking actions that could result in another censure, the administration followed the recommendations and the fired administrators were quickly reassigned to teach classes.  They were experienced and their work in the class room was welcomed by the department heads, and they taught classes that required experience and advanced knowledge.  Those people who were fired and did not have faculty appointments were simply out on the street.  There was nothing the union could do to help them except encourage faculty and administrators who had worked with them to keep their eyes open for other opportunities and supply letters of support.

 The matter of abolishing the existing departments and appointing co-ordinators rather than department chairs was a sham.  It was supposed to save money by giving whoever headed the departments more classroom responsibilities and not as much released time for administrative duties.  It did not work that way.  The new president made the department head positions very attractive and comfortable for his sycophants and played favoritism openly and sometimes lavishly.  He developed a cadre around him who would do what he told them to without question and who acted as informants on the faculty.  He punished severely those who opposed any idea of his and rewarded the obedient ones quite handsomely.  The union was the major barrier to the kind of dictatorial power he hoped to exercise over the faculty.

The former administrators that the union helped keep their jobs and develope a satisfactory resolution to their situations did not become dues-paying members of the union, although they did give it credit for its actions on their behalf.  And the union assisted with her faculty problems.  One year some young faculty thought that academic freedom meant that they could turn their grades in whenever it was convenient and took off for the summer to work on projects they had lined up.  We union officers had to track them down and tell them if they did not get their grades in at the time specified, they would be fired for failing to discharge specified duties and obligations and for gross negligence in their conduct.  The grades came in, but one was fired anyway because they came in so late and were the subject of very justified student complaints.  The union supported the firing.

In other matters, the union stepped in and helped to ease out a man who had a problem with alcohol that was evident in his work.  We developed a section in the collective bargaining agreement through which professors who were not performing well would be put on constructive plans to improve their teaching and research, but would face dismissal if they did not improve.  We agreed to a plan for merit pay, but after a few years found that it was a ploy for rewarding favorites and did not identify meritorious performance and reward those who worked hard and effectively.  In fact, merit pay divided the faculty and was one of the motives behind many who dropped out of the union.  For merit pay to work, it must be administered by people of unusual intelligence and integrity and fairness, and those are not qualities that the new president wanted in his cadre.  He wanted only to build his power base.  Even the administrators who had to decide whose performance deserved merit pay said it was a near-impossible matter to designate one person more meritorious than others and it created a devastating morale problem.  - 

In cases where we found faculty being treated wrongly and unjustly, I wish I could say the union was more successful in resolving their problems.  Many of the problems that appeared unjust were the result of personal animosities between an administrator and a faculty member and the administrator used his position to fabricate demerits against the faculty member.  In a couple cases, the problem was that faculty members were clearly superior in their jobs than the people who were supposed to supervise them.  Administrators who feel threatened by their faculty want to be rid of them.  Even though we helped prepare very strong cases in behalf of the faculty,  and in some cases proved that administrators had simply misrepresented and lied about the faculty, we hardly ever prevailed.  The presidents are given final determination on such matters and they are more interested in maintaining loyal and obedient academic henchmen than they are in retaining bright and capable faculty.  The fact that our best efforts failed to obtain justice is such situations caused a further lack of confidence in the union.  In two cases, the defense presented through the union was rejected on the campuses, but went on to the courts.  In both cases the faculty were reinstated in their positions and were compensated for what they went through.  But those settlements are often reached in judges' chambers and the faculty and public do not hear about them.

A discussion about faculty unions takes place in The New York Times between Stanley Fish, a college dean, and a faculty member who worked under him.  Like many professors, Fish thought that unions were inappropriate for faculty members because it put them in the same category with ordinary laborers.  He explains how what has happened in Wisconsin with the taking away of bargaining rights from public unions has caused him to change his mind.   He provides a perspective and experience that many of us in the academic trenches can relate to.

Most of what people hear and believe about unions are not true.  Most of the problems in the world are generated by malicious people who aspire to roles of superiority over other people and do not hesitate to slander those people with mean and vicious falsehoods.  America is experiencing an upsurge in the influence of those kind of people.  And unions work for honesty, fairness, and justice in the work place.  That, of course, is not what people like Gov. Walker say.  That is because unions stand between them and the full reaches of dictatorial power they want for themselves.  Unions try to instill those qualities into the work place through negotiation and agreement.  But when that does not work, they have found more aggressive measures may need to be taken.  

The hatred of the working class has become so intense among those who wish to subjugate workers that the Governor of Maine has even ordered art work about the working class removed from the state capitol. 

We can hope that the better, more intelligent angels of human nature take over, as they did with Stanley Fish.   Otherwise, we will have warfare in the streets.  And I have lived through that, too.  I'd prefer returning to the bargaining table.  

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States