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Faculty members at Oregon State University could soon have their own labor union.

Since mid-February, organizers have been meeting individually with faculty members to discuss the matter and asking them to sign cards authorizing United Academics of Oregon State University to negotiate on their behalf.

Once organizers believe they have signatures from most of OSU’s 2,500 or so teaching and research faculty, they can file the authorization cards with the Oregon Employment Relations Board and ask the state to certify the union. A card-check certification process requires support from a simple majority of the bargaining unit — 50 percent plus one.

By early March, “We Are UAOSU” posters with the group’s mission statement and the signatures of hundreds of faculty members had already begun popping up on the Corvallis campus.

“We’ve got over 1,000 faculty signatures there, and we’re continuing to build,” said Marisa Chappell, an associate professor of history who’s involved in the effort.

Not everyone at OSU thinks unionizing is a good idea — a group called Oregon State University Excellence has formed to oppose the effort — but organizers are confident they’ll have more than enough authorization cards to seek certification by the time spring term ends next month.

“We’re filing before summer,” Chappell said.

Power in numbers

United Academics of OSU would be a local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors, which has had an advocacy chapter (though not a full union) at OSU for some time. Between them, AFT and AAUP represent about 280,000 faculty and staff on college campuses across the country.

The amount of dues has not been set, although most faculty unions affiliated with AFT and AAUP generally charge between 1 and 2 percent of salary, according to the United Academics website. The website also notes that most unions push for “fair share” contract provisions that allow them to collect dues from every member of the bargaining unit, whether they decide to join the union or not.

While the parent unions would provide professional staff, assistance with contract negotiation and other services, the local would be governed by officers elected from the membership, organizers insist.

“The purpose of these organizations is to provide support to us,” said Gloria Ambrowiak, a faculty research assistant in the Crop and Soil Science Department. She’s not worried about union bosses exerting too much control on the OSU local, she added, because “no one’s going to take that.”

Some classes of workers at OSU have been unionized for years: The Service Employees Union International represents the university’s 1,530 classified staff, and OSU’s 1,800 graduate student employees are affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.

And faculty unions are already in place at five of the state’s eight public universities — the University of Oregon, Portland State University and Eastern, Western and Southern Oregon universities.

Not all classes of faculty would be included in the union. While organizers are targeting all teaching and research faculty, from post-doctoral employees and contingent faculty to full professors, they are not attempting to unionize what OSU calls “professional faculty,” a large category that includes administrative employees, counselors, information technology specialists, marketing and communications staff and a host of other workers, many of them on short-term contracts that may or may not be renewed at the university’s discretion. Department heads and other managers are also excluded.

Within those target groups, however, organizers are casting a wide net. In addition to recruiting faculty on OSU’s main campus in Corvallis, they’re also going after those at the university’s satellite locations in Newport and Bend, as well as Extension Service personnel scattered throughout the state.

And organizers insist they’re not just counting cards until they have the numbers to swing certification.

“We don’t want to get 50 percent and then stop,” said Mark Novak, an assistant professor in the Department of Integrative Biology. “We want to talk to everyone and have everyone tell us why they either do or don’t want to sign.”

“We’re building an organization of faculty,” Chappell added, “so we want as large and broad and inclusive a group as we can.”

Voices of dissent

University officials declined to talk about the union organizing effort, citing legal restrictions.

“We are bound by law. There are strict regulations that determine what we can say,” said Vice President Steve Clark, the university’s chief spokesman.

“President Ray will not be making any statements about that.”

Some Oregon State faculty, however, have been speaking out against the union campaign.

A group calling itself Oregon State University Excellence launched a website this spring listing a number of reasons to oppose the union push. Among other things, OSU Excellence argues that union organizers have failed to articulate a clear set of goals; that the union would not help increase state support for higher education or raise faculty salaries; that the card check process stifles debate of the union question; and that affiliating with a union would drive up administrative costs and bureaucracy on campus.

More than 50 faculty members have signed an online declaration of opposition.

“I think this university is a pretty special place. For an outside organization to come in here and quietly try to get this done without having an open discussion about it – that just doesn’t feel like the way OSU gets things done,” said Keith Leavitt, an associate professor of business.

“We just need to slow down for a minute and have a discussion about what we’re doing.”

Leavitt, who set up the website for OSU Excellence and was the first to sign the online petition, said he worries the organizing campaign could create lasting divisions between faculty members and damage relations between faculty and administration.

“This is a place that runs on consensus and relationships,” he said. “I don’t want it to turn into some other university.”

Mathematics professor Ralph Showalter, another faculty member who signed the petition, said he sees no real benefit to union representation.

“For tenure-track faculty, it’s a no-brainer ‘no’ — they don’t need the extra protection of job security, and they have plenty of opportunity to express their opinion to the administration,” he said. “The question is, why complicate our lives with the extra conflict that goes with it?”

Showalter said OSU already has a strong shared governance model and adequate grievance procedures. And if faculty members think they’ll be able to bargain for higher salaries, he said, they’re gravely mistaken.

“That’s just not going to happen,” he said. “The money’s just not there.”

National groundswell

Nevertheless, union affiliation for faculty members is on the rise across the country — at least in states that don’t restrict or prohibit public employee unions.

In 2012, 368,473 faculty members at 519 institutions or systems of higher education in 31 states and the District of Columbia had union representation, according to the most recent edition of the Directory of U.S. Faculty Contracts and Bargaining Agents in Institutions of Higher Education.

That number was up by almost 50,000 faculty members since the directory’s previous edition was published in 2006, a 14 percent increase, and while current numbers are not yet available, research suggests the upward trend shows no signs of stopping.

“There’s been a stark increase in organizing efforts on college campuses in the last five years,” said William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, City University of New York, which publishes the directory.

“So it looks like (union affiliation) is growing, and growing at a relatively rapid pace.”

One big reason for the recent growth in faculty unions, Herbert says, is a national shift away from hiring tenure-track professors, who can expect relatively high pay and good job security, in favor of contingent faculty, who generally carry much heavier workloads for much lower pay and rarely achieve tenure.

According to research cited by Herbert in a recent conference presentation, only 33.5 percent of instructors on U.S. campuses in 2009 were tenured or tenure-track faculty, compared to 78.3 percent in 1969.

Setting the stage

Organizers for United Academics of OSU say it’s too soon to know what contract issues the new union will focus on if it achieves certification, adding that a survey will be conducted to gather input on priorities from the bargaining unit. For now, they’re hearing lots of different suggestions from faculty members as they gather authorization cards.

“That’s the process: We’re talking to people,” Chappell said.

“However those conversations go, that’s really the key to building what we’re trying to build — it’s the collective faculty voice.”

One issue that comes up frequently, organizers say, is the question of shared governance.

While the Faculty Senate gets a say in matters such as academic regulations and curriculum, it has no decision-making powers when it comes to things such as university budgets, faculty assessment mandates and the structure of academic units.

Some problems that arise never get addressed because there is simply no formal procedure for dealing with them, according to Novak.

“Right now it has to seep into the Faculty Senate to become an issue to be discussed,” he said. With a union, he added, “we would have a formal means of communication.”

And then there are the fundamental workplace issues such as pay and benefits.

“As faculty, we should have a stronger voice in the running of the institution and in our working conditions,” Ambrowiak said. “Of course, there’s also added job security — that would be nice.”

Some critics of the United Academics organizing campaign counter that OSU functions pretty well already and that forming a union would only create an adversarial relationship between faculty and university administrators.

The union’s supporters, however, reject that claim.

“I think it’s only adversarial if the administration tries to make it adversarial,” Ambrowiak said. “I have no ill will toward the administration.”

“We all care about this institution,” added Chappell. “We all want this institution to be its best.”

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Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.


Special Projects Editor

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald