How a faculty union can strengthen shared governance

How a faculty union can strengthen shared governance

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Dear Colleagues,

We, the undersigned, have over 200 years of combined service in faculty governance. From the beginning of our effort to form a faculty union, one of our motivations has been to strengthen the voice of faculty in shared governance.

When the faculty last voted on whether to form a union in 1997, we fell short by fewer than 30 votes. Nevertheless, our organized resistance to the Board of Regents’ attempt to undermine tenure led to a strong faculty voice in shaping the revised tenure code and spurred deeper engagement in faculty governance, representing a high point in effective shared governance. Through shared governance we ensured that our tenure code remained among the strongest in the country and inspired the Regents to endorse the strongest protections for academic freedom in the country.

Given these achievements and the continuing commitment many faculty have to the serious work of the Senate and its committees, we have no desire to eliminate or weaken shared governance. However, we are troubled by the lack of progress on faculty-initiated reforms, a concern shared even by those who do not publicly support forming a union. As one long-time senator said at the February 4, 2016, Faculty Consultative Committee meeting, senior leaders “have squelched virtually every single initiative faculty have brought forward over the past few years.”

For example, faculty, including through the relevant Senate committees, have for many years been discussing the need to improve our uncompetitively sub-standard sabbatical and parental leave policies. Response from the administration has been distressingly slow, and recent signs of progress seem to have been spurred by our efforts at forming a union. In the area of parental leave, the faculty union at UMD recently won a full semester off with pay for women giving birth, which is certainly a start toward a parental leave policy that seriously addresses the needs of all new parents. Terms and conditions of employment such as sabbatical and parental leaves are matters that a union would empower us to sit across the table with the administration as legal equals to negotiate in a binding contract – a striking contrast with our strictly consultative role in shared governance.

There are concerns about rumors that a unionized faculty could not participate in the Faculty Senate. This misperception arises in part because unionized faculty in Crookston and Duluth do not participate in the University Senate. The administration has also claimed that the Public Employment Labor Relations Act (PELRA) prohibits their participation in faculty governance. We disagree. PELRA explicitly states: “This subdivision does not prevent communication between public postsecondary employers and postsecondary professional employees, other than through the exclusive representative, regarding policies and matters that are not terms and conditions of employment.” The statute seems to contemplate an institution like a Faculty Senate. PELRA only requires that the University negotiate exclusively with the union on terms and conditions of employment.

Unionized faculty at Duluth and Crookston did not contest their removal from the Senate, but we are confident that faculty on the Twin Cities campus would demand continued participation as a condition of our first union contract. Given the explicit provisions of PELRA and the public statements by the administration about the value of shared governance, we hope and expect that this demand would be met.

Many of our colleagues also worry that a union will create an adversarial relationship with the administration. This outcome is a possibility but not inevitable. Under our current shared governance, without a union, sharp disagreements occur regularly between the administration and the faculty. We are reassured that colleagues on campuses with faculty unions report that their unions work collaboratively with the administration on issues of common interest. There are disagreements, of course, just as there are here today, but the collective bargaining process gives faculty a binding mechanism to work through them and reach an agreement that both parties support, and to assure that the administration respects the institutions of shared governance. The University of Oregon’s first contract, for example, explicitly incorporated protections for their Senate and University constitution. When their Board of Trustees attempted to alter policies and practices without consulting the Senate, they violated the union’s legally binding contract. The faculty union compelled the administration to sit down with faculty to negotiate the changes in policy in accord with the procedures outlined in the constitution. We encourage you to read these reflections by faculty union leaders at Rutgers and Western Washington University on what unionization has meant for shared governance there.

How might a union affect the current work that we do through shared governance? The faculty union would negotiate terms and conditions of employment while the Faculty Senate would govern matters not explicitly subject to collective bargaining, such as student evaluations, conflict of interest, and campus sustainability practices. Specifically with regard to the tenure process, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that a union can negotiate the procedural steps of the tenure process but not the substantive criteria for tenure; the union also cannot invoke the contract’s grievance process to challenge tenure decisions. The tenure code would continue to govern in this important area.

The experience of colleagues with faculty unions persuades us that a union will provide us with a stronger voice in shared governance and create a more productive relationship between the faculty and the administration. We have a long and proud history of faculty governance on our campus, one that we value deeply. Our effort to form a faculty union on the Twin Cities campus will work with, and not against, that system of governance. It will be up to us, together, to ensure that result when we negotiate a union contract.



Lisa Albrecht

Bruce Braun

Marilyn Bruin

Teri L. Caraway

Cesare Casarino

Juliette Cherbuliez

Anna Clark

Jerry D. Cohen

Susan Craddock

Irene Duranczyk

Edward Eiffler

Meredith Gill

Lisa Hilbink

Mindy S. Kurzer

Christine Marran

M.J. Maynes

Rick McCormick

William Messing

Riv-Ellen Prell

Paula Rabinowitz

Naomi Scheman

JB Shank

Ruth Shaw

Karen-Sue Taussig

Eva von Dassow

Tom Walsh