The faculty of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville might organize as an official union in response to the ongoing budget stalemate in Springfield.
SIUE’s faculty are among the few employees at the university that are not part of a union. There are about 15 bargaining units for various employees at SIUE, including groundskeepers, the SIUE Police Department, technical and clerical staff, broadcast engineers, building service workers, electricians, food service workers and others.
But the tenured faculty have never been part of a union, and even after the non-tenure-track instructors organized in 2004, the tenured faculty never moved forward with being recognized as a bargaining unit.
However, now the Faculty Association is seeking to organize the 400 professors at SIUE — and not because they’re unhappy with working conditions or their salaries. In fact, the organizers say they’re very pleased with both the administration and their compensation.
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“This is not a dispute about wages or working conditions,” said Charles Berger, English professor and co-chairman of the petition drive. “This is about making sure the faculty has a stipulated role in making decisions that could seriously affect the quality of the education we provide, and tarnish our academic reputation for years to come.”
Berger said SIUE is doing better than most because its enrollment has continued to rise, but that faculty members are worried about the budget crisis and ongoing proposals from the governor’s office for cuts of 20 to 30 percent of the university’s budget.
Berger called it an “abdication of the state’s responsibility” to fund higher education.
“We are the guardians of the quality of education here,” he said. “If it’s a question of programs being cut or resources allocated ... we want an additional say.”
According to Illinois Education Association organizer Michael McDermott, SIUE is one of very few state universities where the faculty are not already in a union. That means that faculty also enjoy fewer protections from layoffs and other measures, while union employees will be able to bargain on behalf of its members and to have "a seat at the table" when programs are cut or reduced.
That’s what they want, Berger said: a seat at the table.
“We really think to preserve the academic quality that we’ve achieved and the prestige of the institution, unionization is key,” Berger said.
Co-chair Linda Markowitz said they believe that a well-educated population makes for better citizens, and reducing or eliminating educational options to Illinois residents is bad for the state.
“Cutting the state budget in higher education — really, in all education — helps in the short term, but in the long term it has very detrimental consequences for Illinois,” she said. She pointed out that SIUE’s stated mission is to create “lifelong learners and critical thinkers.”
Cutting the state budget in higher education — really, in all education — helps in the short term, but in the long term it has very detrimental consequences for Illinois.
Linda Markowitz, SIUE professor
“With cuts in state funding, we won’t be able to provide that kind of education,” she said. “We can’t do that as the class sizes grow bigger, and we won’t have time to actually talk to the students.”
McDermott said as far as he knows, SIUE is the only university where faculty are organizing in response to the governor’s proposed cuts. However, he said most other university faculty are already organized.
“Throughout the state, I can’t imagine there’s one public university or college not concerned with the governor vetoing the budget and preventing them from getting one dollar of support since July of 2015,” McDermott said. “The governor is just out of touch. He doesn’t know how to govern. He doesn’t understand the impact he is having on people and on the state.”
Catherine Kelly, spokeswoman for Gov. Bruce Rauner, declined to comment.
“There’s no movement in Springfield,” Berger said. “If we as a faculty have a union that spoke with one voice, it would help everybody ... The longer this goes on, the more it starts to fray the education structure.”
If we as a faculty have a union that spoke with one voice, it would help everybody.
Charles Berger, SIUE professor
McDermott said the organization will need signatures from 50 percent of the faculty, which would then be submitted to the state’s Educational Labor Relations Board. If they have sufficient signatures, they would be automatically approved as a bargaining unit.
Technically, the group could garner a minimum of 30 percent of signatures, and then call for an election in which a simple majority would suffice. But McDermott said they don’t want to go that route; they prefer to conduct the petition drive direct to the labor relations board.
Markowitz also said the union drive was not adversarial toward the SIUE administration at all. “We have a great administration at all levels; that is not the issue at all,” she said.
McDermott said that layoffs at universities also hurt local economies. The laid-off employees end up on unemployment, don’t spend as much money in the community, and may end up leaving the sate. “It hurts not only the people who lose their jobs and the students who can’t go to school, but it hurts the local economy,” McDermott said. “It’s dominoes falling that are all negative.”
So far, Berger and Markowitz said most of the professors they’ve approached are open to the idea. “A lot of us are scared. Not as much about our jobs, but how it is going to affect the (university),” Markowitz said. “We didn’t get into academia for the money. We got into it because we believe in education, and we want to make a difference in our country. This is making that more difficult.”
Berger said that in many respects, the faculty see this move as an insurance policy, so that if a full-scale crisis arrives at SIUE, the faculty can have a seat at the table. “Some do feel we should wait a little longer and see what happens,” he said. “That’s the most resistance we’ve had.”
McDermott said they hope to have enough signatures by the end of the spring semester, and get the organizing done over the summer so that the union could begin bargaining in the fall.