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Faculty Organizing at the University of Washington

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Faculty at the University of Washington are considering unionizing, the only sensible move for faculty around the nation. Unsurprisingly, the Seattle Times is opposed to it. Unfortunately, from what I understand from a couple of sources, these arguments against unionization, especially that UW promotes its administration from within and thus we are all on the same team, are likely to win out. That’s a bad argument because it’s not like the faculty in the humanities and social sciences and arts are treated any better at UW today than anywhere else. But of course that’s where the core of union support always is in the university, whether the graduate students or the faculty. Assuming business will always be opposed, it’s often up to the sciences and some of the other professional schools like nursing to decide in the end. The two professors making these arguments are leading UW professors in the sciences. So I don’t know. I’m hardly surprised that department chairs and others who simply don’t see themselves as workers or see themselves as needing protection from university administrations or see any need for solidarity with either humanities professors or contingent faculty would oppose unionization.

But the problem with these arguments is that there is literally zero downside for faculty to unionize. You have workplace protections you didn’t have before. You have a committee to negotiate a contract rather than relying on the administration and the state alone. You have a grievance procedure. You have a way forward for dealing with workplace safety issues–which is an underrated problem on university campuses in the older buildings. You have real lobbying at the state legislature level. All of this for the price of union dues, which aren’t that high. The claim made in the article that unionization would stop UW from recruiting the finest faculty in the nation is flat out laughable. There’s no reason that a union can’t work with administration on issues that are common to both faculty and administration. That relationship doesn’t have to be constantly confrontational if the administration doesn’t try to rule without faculty input. But faculty who have not been at unionized campuses really have a hard time seeing these benefits because they don’t come from workplaces with a culture of thinking of themselves as workers, as opposed to awesome researchers are totally where they are because of their own awesomeness (as opposed to their social class, educational opportunities beginning at the K-12 level, and pure luck on the job market that probably explain more than their special brilliance or whatnot). So let’s hope the University of Washington faculty vote in this campaign, but it doesn’t sound too promising right now.

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  • MaureenDowdsLudes

    If you work for someone else, you need to be in a union.

    • J. Otto Pohl

      Double that if you work for a university or college. Administrators as a class in the Marxist sense do not share the interests especially economic ones with the faculty who are definitely occupy a position in relation to them analogous to that between factory owners and factory workers. Although one gets the feeling that world wide administrators would like to restructure that relationship so that it more closely resembles that between absentee noble landlords and serfs.

      • Snarki, child of Loki

        “…administrators would like to restructure that relationship so that it more closely resembles that between absentee noble landlords and serfs.”

        I’d be willing to help them toward their goal of being “absentee noble landlords”, if they’d just get on the damn “B-Ark” already!

  • Bruce Vail

    Is the Seattle Times opposed to unionization? or is it just the authors of this particular op-ed published there?

    • Linnaeus

      I don’t know if the ST ed board has published an editorial on this effort, but given its historic hostility to unions, they’re probably opposed.

    • ColBatGuano

      The Seattle Times is opposed to anything that helps workers at the expense of business. They just found some cutouts to make the argument for them.

      • Linnaeus

        These faculty members appear to be part of the “UW Excellence” group that is opposed to faculty unionization. They got started up a couple of months ago.

    • The political positions of the Seattle Times are almost uniformly horrible.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    Not that anyone’s actively recruiting me from my current, union-free academic workplace, but I would see the presence of a faculty union as making any job much more attractive. My guess is I’m not alone. However, in my experience, job advertisements don’t mention faculty unions. Perhaps they should!

  • Linnaeus

    But faculty who have not been at unionized campuses really have a hard time seeing these benefits because they don’t come from workplaces with a culture of thinking of themselves as workers, as opposed to awesome researchers are totally where they are because of their own awesomeness (as opposed to their social class, educational opportunities beginning at the K-12 level, and pure luck on the job market that probably explain more than their special brilliance or whatnot).

    The UW AAUP chapter has been spearheading the unionization effort and, not surprisingly, there has been a lot of discussion on their email list about the unionization drive (I was a subscriber until about a month or so ago).

    Granted, we’re talking about self-selected, small sample sizes, but I was struck by just how status-conscious some of the faculty opposed to unionization are. They really do see themselves apart from other employees of the university and also from adjunct faculty.

    • And if active AAUP members are not supportive of the effort, it’s pretty unlikely the campus as a whole is. Bleh.

      • Linnaeus

        Again, it’s a small sample size, so I’m reluctant to draw a strong conclusion from this, but it is discouraging nonetheless.

        • human

          Well, yeah. Academics in general are absurdly and horribly status-conscious, and thus really easy to gull with arguments that appeal to a potential loss of said status. Most of them know jack about unions because they’ve never had to work at the sort of job that’s still unionized in this country, so they think unions are totally for dirty ucky blue-collar workers with grimy hands and stupid brains.

          When I was a grad student and we tried to organize a union, one thing the university said which resonated with a lot of grad students was that we weren’t really workers, we were more like apprentices (and therefore it made sense to treat us like shit).

          Well our efforts failed and in the process I decided I didn’t actually want to be a history professor, thanks much, so I quit my Ph.D. program and got into an actual building trades apprenticeship.

          At the end of my first year I got a hefty raise and now I’m making way more than those “I don’t really see myself as a worker, I’m more of an apprentice” snootyfaces. Oh and I get retirement benefits and all that other stuff. Joke’s on you, motherfuckers!

          ‘Course I don’t dare mention that I went to grad school until I’ve spent enough time on a job site that the guys have gotten to know me. Otherwise they’ll assume I think they’re dirty ucky grimy-handed stupid-brained losers. But it’s fair enough because going by probabilities, it’s a reasonable conclusion.

  • mombrava

    I’ve had final round interviews at both union and non-union universities. The union ones are manifestly more attractive, largely because what you’re potentially getting yourself into is much, much clearer, and the prospective negotiations are much smoother. That said, I am still at the junior level. Someone at the senior level who doesn’t feel the need to be bound to collective bargaining agreements might feel differently, even if they aren’t entirely justified in doing so.

  • Warren Terra

    From what I’ve heard second-hand about the unionization drive, there is a huge two-tier problem about it. The “faculty” now consists of two very different groups of people, with very different situations and interests: the “full-time” faculty, who are still in pretty good shape (except perhaps for job security?), and the “contingent” faculty, who just get comprehensively boned right now. At least some of the full-time faculty are afraid of giving the contingent faculty the voting rights to control the situation.

    One question is whether there’s a good solution. One idea is to eliminate the two-tier system by largely or entirely getting rid of the lower tier of contingent faculty; this would in some ways be ideal, because it would mean transforming “surviving” contingent faculty to full-time and higher status, but would require firing a lot of the current contingent faculty, possibly most of them. Any solution that doesn’t involve firing a lot of contingent faculty is seen as likely to involve leaving the subordinate position of the contingent faculty in place, or else dragging the full-time faculty down to their level. You can see why full-time faculty would be reluctant to give voting rights to contingent faculty – especially as the full-time faculty already have a faculty senate that could in theory be a forum for collective action.

    So, basically, it’s Divide And Conquer all over again …

    • J. Otto Pohl

      I am not sure how adjuncts became so prominent in the US and simply don’t exist in most other countries. But, it may be that unionization in the first place required standard contracts that prevented adjunctification. A completely unionized campus and the existence of adjuncts as they exist in the US are incompatible.

    • Our union, which is AAUP, has just made huge strides in dealing with these problems by creating whole new classes for our growing number of lecturers, which at present have to be renewed every year, teach 4-4, and make something like $45,000. Now, there will be three tiers of lecturers, topping out with a Teaching Professor position that will still be a 4-4 load, but with 4 year contracts and a salary of something like $70,000 and with the same annual raises as the rest of the faculty. It will still be a hard job and still ultimately underpaid but they will be making more than most assistant professors at least and have some real job security.

      So there are ways unions can help mitigate these problems at the very least. But if you have no union, forget about it.

  • Yankee

    I’m hardly surprised that department chairs and others who simply don’t see themselves as workers

    Compare and contrast with yesterday’s Kohlers post. Educated hypocrites.

  • J. Otto Pohl

    I have noticed a number of department chairs have used the position as a stepping stone into administration followed by a move into politics. I think the step into administration also occurs in the US. Although the step into politics seems to be part much more prominent in the former second and third worlds.

    • BubbaDave

      Yes, although Elizabeth Warren made a bit of a splash….

      • Hogan

        Not by coming up through university administration, though.

      • Warren Terra

        The experiences of Steven Chu aren’t a great advertisement for moving from academia to government.

        Though Kissinger and Summers seem to have handled it fairly well. On the other hand, no right-thinking person likes or particularly respects them, while people do respect Chu. Maybe that makes the difference.

  • Robert Cruickshank

    Worth noting that every other publicly funded 4-year university in Washington State, except UW and WSU, have faculty unions. That includes Western Washington University and The Evergreen State College. Faculty at those schools appear to be doing just fine, with no loss of precious status and no breakdown of collegial relations between faculty and college administration.

    But facts don’t really matter to those faculty who oppose a union.

    The real question here is just how widespread the views are of these opponents. When we organized the UW graduate students into a union 15 years ago, there was loud and well-organized opposition from some of the more privileged grad students in departments like Chemistry. But it turned out they were unrepresentative of the bargaining unit.

    I’ve seen the same discussions on the AAUP listserv over the years as my good friend Linnaeus has, though I stopped subscribing a few years back, so I’m not as up to date as he is. But I suspect it’s many of the same people, and I’m certain that it’s the same arguments. The question again is whether there’s a silent majority of UW faculty who support a union, or whether the opponents really do speak for a majority. I suppose we will find out.

    • Linnaeus

      True enough. I honestly can’t say if my observations are an accurate indicator of the views of the UW faculty generally. I wouldn’t be surprised if a good portion of the faculty are indifferent.

    • djw

      When we organized the UW graduate students into a union 15 years ago, there was loud and well-organized opposition from some of the more privileged grad students in departments like Chemistry.

      My experience with some of the Chemistry students in particular was that this was the product of a lie they were being told, fairly aggressively, by the department chair and some other faculty members, that a union contract would standardize pay across all departments, rather than establish a floor. This was an obvious falsehood, but many of them believed it. In cases where you could convince them of that, their resistance dissipated considerably.

      • human

        We got that too; it’s one of the boilerplate lies that comes in the standard university anti-union kit, I guess.

      • Barry_D

        “My experience with some of the Chemistry students in particular was that this was the product of a lie they were being told, fairly aggressively, by the department chair and some other faculty members, that a union contract would standardize pay across all departments, rather than establish a floor. This was an obvious falsehood, but many of them believed it. In cases where you could convince them of that, their resistance dissipated considerably.”

        I’d also imagine that they have rosy view of their future employability, both within and outside of academia.

        Which is pretty f*cking dumb of them, but it takes effort to raise one’s eyes up and look around.

  • DAS

    t the problem with these arguments is that there is literally zero downside for faculty to unionize. 

    In general, I would rather be in a unionized workplace than a non unionized one, but “no downside” is quite an overstatement. Your union may choose to push for things that are actually not good for your department or your students because “principles”.

    For instance, your local may decide to oppose efforts to allow certain majors to enforce stricter course repeat policies because “if we have a policy, it must be consistent”. Or your union may insist that faculty promotion committees include all eligible members in a department even if one such members already got the university sued for creating a hostile work environment.

    I think some of this might be an AFT (tthe union that pushed for common core) vs an AAUP thing, or a matter of our local, but whether a union really is a force for good depends on the union and who’s on it. In particular, in our union, a lot of our best faculty members are too busy doing their jobs to get involved in the union.

    • For instance, your local may decide to oppose efforts to allow certain majors to enforce stricter course repeat policies because “if we have a policy, it must be consistent”.

      Is there a single instance of a faculty union ever even claiming this is something they could bargain over?

      Or your union may insist that faculty promotion committees include all eligible members in a department even if one such members already got the university sued for creating a hostile work environment.

      This seems highly unlikely to me and again I’d like to see an actual piece of evidence that this has ever happened, although it’s at least possible. It seems far more likely that a union would fight to get the offending member excluded from the evaluation process.

      In particular, in our union, a lot of our best faculty members are too busy doing their jobs to get involved in the union.

      This has nothing to do with the quality of the union and a lot to do about selfishness. Now, I get that selfishness–there are definitely sacrifices to be made in order to be a highly productive scholar and I make those sacrifices too, but it’s not as if faculty members would suddenly be involved in the union was awesome or something. The reality is that most unions, like most organizations in the entire world, do some good things, have some internal problems and bad personalities, and are run by a few people for the benefit of a much larger group of people. Very little one can do is going to transform those fundamental dynamics.

      • Lee Rudolph

        It seems to me that DAS has made it pretty clear that he’s reporting on actual things that actually happened in his AFT shop; in which case, giving more details might really not be appropriate. If he confirms my hypothesis, will you take his word for the rest?

        • CD

          I’m with Erik – the first item re course repeats is completely nuts. It’s not something faculty unions do. The second is slightly less nuts, in that there is some interest in consistent P&T policies, but I can’t think of a case where the union trumped the faculty code in this way, if that’s what was going on…

        • DAS

          The thing with course repeats is indeed something that happened. To clarify, it wasn’t something that came up in collective bargaining, but that our union local president and all the union people made it clear in our faculty senate the position of the union was that if we were to have a course repeat policy, it had to be consistent.

          The promotion committee thing was admittedly a hypothetical I posed to the union president based on the union’s opposition to letting a faculty member have a promotion committee that didn’t follow the rules (the story is too complicated to type up on my cell phone’s virtual keyboard). I asked the president if the union would be OK with a faculty member who got the university sued for creating a hostile work environment being kept off a promotion committee, and she said that such a person had to be on the committee if he was eligible and there were only 3 (minimum size of the committee) such eligible people in the department … and if this was a problem, the union would have to decide (following a hearing in which both sides would make their case) whether the situation merited an exception to t the rules.

        • Barry_D

          “It seems to me that DAS has made it pretty clear that he’s reporting on actual things that actually happened in his AFT shop; in which case, giving more details might really not be appropriate. If he confirms my hypothesis, will you take his word for the rest?”

          That’s not pretty clear; it’s raising strawmen.

          And even if it were true, there’d be 1,000 examples of amok administration making loathesome decisions – on DAS’ campus alone.

          • DAS

            Not on my campus. We’ve been pretty lucky with the quality of our administration. There’d only be 100 examples of loathsome administration decisions. OTOH, at some of our sister institutions, the administration already makes thousands of loathsome decisions and if it weren’t for the union, at the one of our sister institutions would have been completely destroyed by administrative incompetence, so I am perfectly aware of the need for unions. I am just disputing the overstatement above no downsides for unions.

            I also should add: some of our administration’s recent shadiness (e.g. trying to get out of actually giving promised startup funds to science faculty) our union won’t do anything about because many in the union leadership view our startup packages as special treatment, which they disdain. It was the department chairs who got our new faculty their startup funds back, not the union.

  • DCGuy

    The UW President is someone who has long styled herself as an activist and is carer UW faculty. I know her because she was highly touted in my field when she finished grad schoo. Instead, she’s one of those people who was the next big thing that never happened. Her research was never very innovative and I wouldn’t be surprised if administration was her ticket to promotion. She was a do nothing president of our sub discipline’sorganization and although she still has fans, thee also are people like me who figured her out long ago. She reminds me of Shalala the great liberal sticking it to janitors at U Miami. The university overseers probably saw the precise as someone who would maintain their status quo.

    • Linnaeus

      I can’t speak to her academic work, but Cauce is popular among UW’s faculty. One of the arguments against faculty unionization is that she is “one of us” and ought to be given a chance to prove that her administration will be truly different than that of her predecessors.

  • bratschewurst

    All you need to know about that editorial is this: when discussing faculty unionization rates, the authors mentioned neither the Yeshiva case, which made organizing faculty at private universities very difficult, nor the fact that faculty at public universities in some states are prohibited by state law from unionizing.

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