Ohio University faculty considers unionization, other options

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(Faculty activists John Gilliom, left, and Kevin Mattson, right. Photo by Damon Krane)

By DamonKrane
May 2004
The InterActivist Magazine (Athens, Ohio)

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“A feeling of helplessness is what’s driving this,” said Electrical Engineering professor Brian Manhire.

“All faculty committees are advisory,” Professor of Political Science John Gilliom explained.

“It is precisely that point,” said History professor Kevin Mattson, “that make some faculty very interested in the idea of collective bargaining. ”

Upset with the current state of Ohio University and lacking any formal decision-making power within university governance, many among OU’s faculty are examining ways to increase their influence — including forming a faculty union.

Last November, nearly 100 faculty members (roughly 1 out of every 8 who teach at OU’s main campus) attended a meeting with a representative from the American Association of University Professors. The AAUP is a national faculty rights advocacy group with many local chapters that serve as recognized unions. According to Political Science Professor John Gilliom, many more faculty would have liked to attend the meeting but had scheduling conflicts, including teaching responsibilities during the afternoon meeting. Gilliom told The Athens Messenger he w as attending on behalf of six other faculty members.

“Seeing that many people show up at four o’clock in the afternoon when everyone has classes and other things to worry about in the middle of the week, I was pretty impressed,” said Journalism professor Joe Bernt. “It told me that there are some pissed
off faculty.”

Faculty Grievances

Throughout February and March, faculty activists waged a campaign against planned reductions to the health care benefits of OU’s faculty, administrative staff and classified
employees. (For more on the healthcare campaign, see last month’s InterActivist.) On March 18, OU President Robert Glidden announced he would recommend the Board of Trustees not reduce these benefits. Faculty activists declared this a major victory but not an end to their efforts to achieve greater influence at OU.

“This is not a single-issue movement,” said Bernt.

In addition to concerns about salaries, benefits, and the impact of new general education requirements, many faculty are finding their basic vision of the university at odds with the course set by upper administrators.

Before healthcare took center stage, the most prominent issue was OU’s purchase of a $3.7 million airplane, which attracted harsh criticism from across the state.

The Toledo Blade wrote, “…at a time that tuition soars, layoffs or program shut downs have occurred or are imminent, state funds for higher education are cut, and higher education costs keep rising faster than the cost of living… Such a huge amount of money being spent as perks for the few, rather than on the student body or faculty and programs, is offensive on its face… public university funding arguments have, not surprisingly, lost credibility with the legislature and public.”

The Findlay Courier expressed similar outrage: “Over the last couple of years as cash-strapped states have cut their higher-education budgets, most schools have raised tuition dramatically instead of cutting back on unnecessary expenses… How many students’ education could have been paid for entirely by the money that will pay for OU’s jet?”

In an April 5 e-mail interview with The InterActivist, OU President Robert Glidden conceded, “The timing of the airplane purchase was awkward to say the least.” Nevertheless, he maintained “we got a very good deal,” since the future cost of OU’s plane would have been higher while the trade-in value of OU’s old planes would have been lower. According to Glidden, the older planes also required expensive upkeep and repairs that the newer plane does not.

Many faculty critics contend that even if the plane itself was “a good deal,” it was not worth the cost to public support for higher education in Ohio.

“The plane purchase is what drove me over the top,” said Brian Manhire. “We’ll never know just how much damage it has done to the university’s reputation,” he lamented. “We are public servants, not the leaders of private corporations.”

“Corporatization” of the University

And yet universities across the country are looking more and more like private corporations, according to groups like the American Association of University Professors and the faculty activists with whom I spoke. This “corporatization” of higher education, they said, includes the erosion of “shared governance” as decision-making power is centralized in the hands of upper-administrators, whose positions proliferate along with their salaries and perks. Meanwhile, institutional spending priorities are shifted from academic programs to campus beautification projects and athletics, and costs are increasingly passed on to employees, students, and their parents through student tuition hikes and reductions in overall employee compensation. Ultimately, critics charge that “corporatization” is a severe threat to the educational missions of state supported universities like OU as well as to their basic public character.

“As tuition dollars have been going up, I’ve been very concerned with the type of student recruitment that you’re starting to see on this campus,’ explained Kevin Mattson. “All the beautification, the new student center – the university is obviously not trying to appeal to first generation state college students, but it’s the kind of Miami University future we’re heading towards. I really honestly am worried about this administration reaching a point where they are not going to be able to make the case that OU is a public institution any longer.”

As for the declining attention paid to education and academics, “All you have to do is look at our library,” said Joe Bernt.

“We put our books and our journals that are older than about 5 years into an old car dealership [that houses the library annex] way out there on Columbus Road, rather than building a library which we desperately need. If we were a real university, the library would be open every day except Christmas, rather than being closed constantly, every break.”

And while OU is about to build a new student center “on the backs of future students of this university,” Bernt asserted that “it’s not a student center, it’s a university center. It’s not a student union,” which he said would be a place students themselves controlled.

“There was a time when universities, while elitist, at least stressed the values of humanities and social sciences, as opposed to only worrying about professional programs and sciences where you can get big time government grants,” said Bemt.

“In many ways this university runs a kind of marketing system, a kind of branding system. Pay us your money; stay here four years; get out; make your money, and give it to our foundation-that’s the grand scheme. We process you, stamp your certificate, and you go forth and maybe do something with your life. Do we care if you get an education? Maybe some people do, but I’m not sure if that’s the real purpose of the university any more.”

“The Administration” or “Management”?

In discussing the power structure of the corporatized university Professors Gilliom and Mattson made it a point to distinguish upper administrators from the majority of employees classified as administrative staff.

“We’re not talking about secretaries and people who are doing the nuts and bolts work that this institution relies upon,” said Mattson.

Gilliom suggested “a new language which talks about ‘management’ – or something to identify the folks over in Cutler Hall and elsewhere who are pulling big bucks out of the public trough, and are truly controlling decision-making at this university.”

Bernt didn’t waste time mincing words on this management-faculty divide. “There are more Vice Presidents than you can shake a stick at on this campus. What the hell do they do?” he asked. “They get pretty good salaries. Somebody pays for them –mostly students.” Meanwhile, he charged, “The faculty who bring in all the tuition dollars, and all the state subsidies that match those tuition dollars, and most of the grants, are being told they’re going to get crappy raises, have to pay more and more for health care, have to produce more, have larger classes, have to get grants… The working conditions get worse and worse and worse.”

“The way I see it, unless we organize and unless there’s a collective bargaining unit for faculty, we’ll just be run down,” said Bernt.

Unionization and Its Alternatives

Collective bargaining is what unionization is all about. A faculty that has voted to form a union enables itself to negotiate a legally binding contact with its employer concerning the terms of employment. There is considerable support for unionization among dissatisfied faculty members, but it is not unanimous.

Pro-union faculty activist Kevin Mattson said, “We work with people who will say ‘I’m adamantly opposed to a union, but I want to get voice somehow at this institution.’ And I’m comfortable with that.”

Gilliom, who expressed some reservations about “union bureaucracy,” sees two ways the
faculty might be able to gain greater influence without unionizing. The first is to elect a slate of activist candidates to Faculty Senate; the second, to forma strong local chapter of an advocacy group like the AAUP.

However, Gilliom expressed doubt that these alternatives would be enough.

Gilliom explained that the Senate is particularly good at “working with the administration to develop educational policy.”

“But its strength in that area makes it particularly weak to deal with more conflictual areas, like on healthcare and salary,” he said.

Furthermore, according to Gilliom Faculty Senate can not provide OU faculty with the support of a national organization, and even a national advocacy group could not negotiate a legally binding contact with the administration. Thus, Gilliom said he tends to favor unionization.

“We already have bureaucratization in the university. So it’s a choice between a bureaucracy that I would have a voice in or a bureaucracy that I don’t have a voice in.”

“I’m not sold on unionism” said Chemistry Professor Ken Brown, who fears it would institutionalize an “us vs. them” relationship between the faculty and manager-administrators.

On the other hand, Brown said administrators have already created that adversarial relationship and ignoring it isn’t likely to make it go away. He also claimed that while studying healthcare plans at other Ohio schools, he discovered that the unionized faculty at the University of Cincinnati pays less for healthcare than lower income university employees who are not unionized.

“That’s the power of a union,” said Brown, adding that he had no objection to OU’s classified employees becoming unionized, even though, with some working under his direction, he is practically their employer.

“They need the help,” said Brown, as these employees lack the job security enjoyed by tenured professors like himself.

According to a March 4 story in The Athens News, classified employees (technical and clerical workers) are indeed currently considering unionization.

For now, faculty activists are reinvigorating the local AAUP chapter as an advocacy group rather than a collective bargaining agent.

Opposition to Unionization

One person unequivocally opposed to a faculty union is Ohio University President Robert Glidden.

“No, I do not favor a union,” Glidden told The InterActivist. “And I wonder if the people who do favor it understand how different the climate at Ohio University would be with a faculty union. Can anyone name a distinguished university with a faculty union?”

“Rutgers University,” responded an astounded Kevin Mattson. “Western Michigan University has a faculty union. Hofstra University, CUNI SUNY and the University of Connecticut all have faculty unions. Is Glidden suggesting that Rutgers isn’t a good or ‘prestigious’ university?” he asked.

Questioned about reports of faculty being threatened or reprimanded for pro-union activity, Glidden said, “I seriously doubt that that is true,” but that he “would certainly oppose reprimanding or threatening faculty for pro-union activity.”

Glidden stated that the administration has no plans to actively oppose unionization.
Nevertheless, Gilliom and Mattson said that if a drive to unionize began, they expect upper administrators to hire legal consultants specializing in antiunion campaigns.

“When the secretaries and administrative staff tried to unionize a number of years ago, [the administration] brought in a specialist union-busting law firm from out of town to advise them” said Gilliom.

When asked why some faculty members may also oppose unionization, the professors I spoke with offered a host of possible reasons.

“A lot of faculty resist being unionized because the idea of a union is like my father being a machinist,” said Bernt. “It evokes images of the longshoremen, or the Wobblies organizing unskilled laborers.”

Manhire agreed.

“Professors like to think,’Oh, we’re not just labor,”‘ he said.

Ironically, the unionization rate of full-time faculty members in the US is nearly double that of the overall workforce: 25 percent compared to less than 13 percent.

According to Gilliom, some higher paid professors worry that unionized employees would vote to institute salary caps. However, Gilliom said an AAUP representative told him unions frequently negotiate minimum “baseline” salaries instead of caps.

“So there might be a slight impact on some of the high flyers to meet the baselines and make sure some professor over in Art isn’t being starved out of his apartment,” Gilliom explained. “I’m OK with that.”

Mattson said there is also a widespread myth that unions are opposed to merit pay.

“Unions are fine with merit pay, as long as [management] isn’t using merit pay to pay off cronies.”

A related matter is “faculty members who are fundamentally individualists who don’t believe in collective interests,” said Mattson.

“They believe that the way you get want you want in life is to plead your own individual case. And if you don’t win, that’s because you’re probably not good enough.”

To illustrate his point Mattson told a story of being in a faculty meeting where someone “literally said, ‘If people don’t like this institution, they can leave.’ And that means he doesn’t believe in collective improvement. He believes your choices are exit or shut up.”

“We’re pretty ego driven,” said Manhire. “But things like this make us realize that as individuals we really don’t have much power. We need collective organizing. This is about people getting together and community.”

Citing the healthcare campaign and other faculty initiatives, Manhire contended, “None of this was just an individual effort.”

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One Response to Ohio University faculty considers unionization, other options

  1. Pingback: Why should minorities support white student power? | Damon Krane

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