Metro-East News

SIUE faculty form union to have ‘seat at the table’ in budget talks

The faculty of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville have approved organization as an official union — one of the last groups of employees on campus to do so.

The organization will represent 400 tenured and tenure-track professors, the largest group on campus not represented by a union. It is organized through the Illinois Education Association-NEA. Papers were filed with the state labor board on Friday.

Under state law, if the petitions calling for organization are signed by more than 50 percent of the group intended to be represented, no election is necessary to approve the union. A press release from the SIUE Faculty Association indicated they had met that threshold.

“Faculty now will have a stronger voice in the future of SIUE, by bolstering political pressure in Springfield, and locally through the binding provisions of a union contract,” said Kim Archer, SIUE music professor and interim co-chairwoman of the organization.

SIUE’s faculty are among the few employees that are not members of a union. There are about 15 bargaining units at SIUE for groundskeepers, the SIUE Police Department, technical and clerical staff, building service workers, electricians, food service workers and others.

The non-tenure track faculty organized in 2004, leading to speculation that the tenured faculty might join them. But efforts to do so never gained a foothold at SIUE until the state budget stalemate in Springfield, now in its second year.

The SIUE Faculty Association said they did not move to organize because they are unhappy with their working conditions or salaries. In fact, they say they are pleased with both. Instead, they said they are concerned about the impact of looming budget cuts, which could eliminate as much as 30 percent of the university’s money — depending on which version of the state’s budget is eventually approved.

Regardless of who the leaders are at SIUE or at the state level, we must have a voice at all levels — with an augmented role in decision-making on campus, and beyond the university where, frankly, up to this point we have had no direct unified voice for state lawmakers and the governor to hear

Charles Berger, SIUE English professor and spokesman for the organization campaign

“This effort is not aimed at our administrators and new chancellor, with whom we look forward to addressing common concerns,” said Charles Berger, SIUE English professor and spokesman for the organization campaign. "We also share the common values which underscore our belief that SIUE is a great place to work and its students deserve a high-quality education."

But when the cuts come, organizers said, all the bargaining units at SIUE will gather around a table to work with the administration on how to administer the cuts, and the unions will have a voice in which programs are cut or reduced. And unless the faculty are organized, they said, they won’t have a seat at that table.

“Regardless of who the leaders are at SIUE or at the state level, we must have a voice at all levels — with an augmented role in decision-making on campus, and beyond the university where, frankly, up to this point we have had no direct unified voice for state lawmakers and the governor to hear,” Berger said.

IEA Higher Education Director Michael McDermott said SIUE isn’t the only campus to go through with unionization during the state budget crisis; tenure-track faculty at Northern Illinois University also have formed in the last few months.

“The situation in the state made it necessary to organize so faculty here can carry out SIUE’s mission,” McDermott said. “The state’s failure to support higher education with necessary funding is forcing campus administrators to take measures that negatively impact SIUE faculty, staff and its students.”

Faculty at SIUE’s sister campus in Carbondale have been represented by a union since 1996. But its path to unionization was not as smooth.

“When the union was organized, that administration took extremely hard positions against the union and attempted to separate themselves by having an ‘us vs. them’ attitude,” said Morteza Daneshoot of the SIUC Faculty Association during a visit to SIUE earlier this year. “That kind of mentality did not help what we were trying to do, which was to become a partner in the whole thing.”

Daneshoot was a key leader on the organizing committee in Carbondale two decades ago. Members of the SIUC union came to Edwardsville to answer questions in a public forum regarding unionization in a university environment.

Daneshoot said that an earlier attempt to organize Carbondale’s 700 faculty members in 1989 failed because there were two organizations trying to pass union petitions at once, and the vote was split. But when it eventually succeeded, he said, SIUC spent $200,000 in legal fees trying to block the union and another $250,000 to a Chicago law firm for the initial negotiations.

Since then, he said, relationships have been mixed; some administrators would work with them to resolve problems, while others would not even meet with union representatives, he said.

But Berger said Carbondale’s history is “diametrically opposite to the history of SIUE.” All the Edwardsville organizers said that for the most part, the faculty and administration have had congenial relationships at SIUE.

“There’s no history of that kind of turmoil,” Berger said. “But what’s coming down from the state is unprecedented.”

We fully support and trust in their ability to make prudent decisions. Within the spirit of shared governance that has played a major role in SIUE’s growth and success, we look forward as an administration to further conversations with our faculty in order to continuously enhance the student academic experience and to maximize the working environment for everyone.

New SIUE Chancellor Randy Pembrook

Berger said SIUE’s faculty members wee a “disruptive and calamitous” future on the horizon, and said the union would be an “insurance policy to hedge against disaster.”

IEA representative Bret Seferian, who also visited in March, said at the time that he believed SIUE’s administration was remaining neutral. “I know what it looks like when a university is actively trying to block you, and that isn’t happening here,” he said.

Indeed, both interim chancellor Stephen Hansen and new chancellor Randy Pembrook took neutral stances on the issue of faculty unionization. Upon his arrival earlier this fall at SIUE, Pembrook said he believed there are “pluses and minuses” with being a union member or not, and that “ultimately it’s up to the faculty.”

After the vote, Pembrook reiterated that it was a faculty decision.

“We fully support and trust in their ability to make prudent decisions,” Pembrook said. “Within the spirit of shared governance that has played a major role in SIUE’s growth and success, we look forward as an administration to further conversations with our faculty in order to continuously enhance the student academic experience and to maximize the working environment for everyone.”

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald

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