Process Blog Home

United Academics: A New Faculty Union at the University of Oregon

dreiling-borderMichael Dreiling is an Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Oregon and is the first elected president for their new faculty union, United Academics. Dreiling specializes in political and environmental sociology, social movements, trade globalization, and peace studies. He is author of two books and numerous research articles. He is presently writing several papers and a third book based on comparative studies of energy-environmental conflicts (Energy Industrial Complexes). Professor Dreiling is also active in the nonprofit world to promote nonviolence, an environment safe for future generations, and an economy that is fair for all. A Bold Peace—a feature documentary film on Costa Rica’s demilitarization, coproduced with Matthew Eddy—reaches toward that vision of a better world.

This post is the second in a series on labor and academia. See part one and check back over the coming weeks for more!

After years of scattered administrative responses to declining state support at Oregon’s flagship university, faculty organized their own union. United Academics’ organizing drive and first contract responded to declining tenure-track faculty ranks, rapid growth of contingent faculty, and increased administrative expenditures by shifting the campus conversation toward a renewed focus on the academic mission. The new union negotiated minimum salary floors for all contingent faculty, extended the length and security of contracts, established a series of annual raises for all faculty (averaging over 20% for five years), extended sabbatical eligibility to career non-tenure track faculty (NTTF), locked in promotion raises, and constrained the use of term-to-term adjunct faculty contracts. In short, the union inverted the lopsided administrative calculus that favored a strategy of meeting rapid growth in undergraduate enrollment with low-pay, contingent faculty. By significantly increasing pay and longer term contracts for NTTF, the first collective bargaining agreement (CBA) helped restructure administrative incentives to favor new tenure track lines and more secure, professionalized NTTF positions. It is no longer so easy to exploit contingent faculty.

Jointly affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), United Academics AAUP/AFT Local 3209 began organizing in 2008 when a group of faculty met to share concerns and consider strategies for moving forward. Initially, activists were comprised of faculty— like early leader Marie Vitulli (Mathematics)—who were determined to work on unionization alongside a small contingent of faculty active in the AAUP chapter on campus. A vote by AAUP chapter members showed strong, majority support to pursue unionization. Together they set the stage for a joint organizing effort by AFT and the AAUP, the terms of which were spelled out between national representatives of the two organizations. After two years of bumps and stalls, a significant AFT staff change in mid-2010 brought new organizers with previous UO experience to the UO campus. Alongside new staff support, a growing body of faculty activists carried the campaign forward and formed the foundation for the first-generation of faculty union leaders. By early 2011, this committee drew faculty from a range of departments across the university, including librarians, research associates, non-tenure track faculty, and tenure-track faculty. An interdisciplinary academic community was forming alongside an emergent union identity inclusive of all ranks and classifications of faculty.

Tasked with talking to hundreds of faculty about unionization, the staff organizers and faculty Organizing Committee focused on identifying commitments from faculty and hosting informative events. Though initial assessments raised some skepticism, evidence was growing by 2011 that an election victory was possible, if not likely in the coming 2011–12 academic year. In the spring of 2011, well-attended events included a financial audit by accounting Professor Howard Bunsis (AAUP) and a University Senate–sponsored debate among esteemed faculty over the case of unionization. Momentum in favor of unionization was strong and growing.

At the same time, growing support for unionization was perceived as a threat by many in the central administration and among some faculty. During the spring term of 2011, a mantra of anti-union talking points grew louder. Mass emails from administrators and an anti-union faculty blog included a wide range of claims that: a union would lead to mediocrity; a union could result in layoffs; a union could result in salaries actually being lowered; a unionized faculty would have to cede their shared governance role, ending partnership with the administration; a union would reduce collegiality; a union would equalize all salaries with pay caps; and a union would centralize and bureaucratize the university. Opposition from some administrators and the cadre of faculty opponents elevated the pitch of the debate even as the profile of the union campaign grew.

Most arguments by opponents to unionization were easily refuted in forums, mass emails, and letters to the editor. Proponents drew heavily on references to other unionized faculty at major research universities, such as Rutgers. On the whole, and though there were strong arguments to be made that faculty had long ago ceased to be in true partnership with the administration, United Academics chose to make constructive arguments, reasserting the faculty role in shared governance and emphasizing the belief that a union would in fact strengthen the University Senate, help resolve underlying deep-seated problems, address salary stagnation, and affirm the voice of faculty in new arenas.

In the late summer of 2011, it became clear to the faculty organizing committee that a card check election was forthcoming and that the Fall term of 2011 would involve a serious effort to prepare for the election in the winter or spring term of 2012. A highly visible tactic was employed that involved collecting nearly 900 faculty signatures and publicly displaying them on large posters emblazoned with a United Academics logo. The poster campaign was a success and emblematic of growing support, serving also as a rehearsal for the coming card check election. The controversial firing of President Lariviere in late 2011 only added energy to the election drive.

In early April of 2012, after many thousands of conversations and heightened opposition from administrators, United Academics submitted over 1,100 signed authorization cards to Oregon’s Employment Relations Board. The university administration immediately submitted objections. This was not immaterial. The administration wanted a bargaining unit that was so narrow that it would likely exclude over 90% of the faculty. Faculty activists and organizers long-suspected the university administration was working with an anti-union law firm. Subsequent public records requests revealed as much. Under pressure on the campus and at the state capitol, the university administration withdrew their objections a few weeks later. United Academics achieved union status on April 27, 2012.

Immediately after the election, the Organizing Committee developed a constitution and bylaws for the new union, engaged hundreds of faculty to craft a bargaining platform, and formed a bargaining team to begin negotiations. After an eventful year of bargaining, an agreement was reached. On October 8, 2013, faculty voted overwhelmingly to ratify the first collective bargaining agreement negotiated between their new union and the University of Oregon. Formal elections were held shortly thereafter, bringing formal leadership from a diverse spectrum of faculty to the fledgling union. With an executive council structured to assure representation of all faculty classifications and a representative assembly to provide input from all major units across the campus, faculty set a solid foundation to build their union under the first CBA. It was a milestone achievement.

United Academics fuses a bargaining unit that includes tenure-track and non-tenure track ranks, including adjunct/pro tem faculty, demonstrating how faculty unionization can address longstanding woes facing many large public universities. United Academics’ first contract with the University of Oregon engaged a range of problems by drawing NTTF more fully into department-level governance, setting salary floors for contingent faculty, reclassifying hundreds of term-to-term adjunct positions with career instructional or research contracts that include annual and three year contracts, avenues for promotions, merit pay, service roles, and even sabbatical eligibility. Significant raises, clear procedures for handling grievances, a minimum of 8% raises for TTF and NTTF promotion, better compensation for sabbatical, a voice in the state capitol, and much more helped move faculty and the academic mission of the university back into focus. In the course of implementing the first contract, it was clear to both university administrators and union leadership that the sheer scope of the agreement, including the reclassification of hundreds of adjunct faculty, required ongoing collaborative relationships. Unanticipated complications also arose, reinforcing a focus on problem-solving conversations between members of the university administration and union leadership. A new context of shared governance was born.

The Office of Academic Affairs and the senior administration under the Provost worked with United Academics in joint working sessions, beginning in November of 2013. Members of the university administration and leadership of United Academics routinely hold joint meetings. These regular meetings forge important relationships devoted to implementing the CBA and, more generally, to honest problem-solving at the university. A renewed respect for the process of routine communication around common problems emerged in these meetings, reinforcing the spirit of shared governance. Sitting at the table to solve problems for faculty—both in and outside of contract negotiations—proved not antithetical to shared governance but an embodiment of that principle. Indeed, even as new mechanisms for collective action were created through their union, faculty also helped institutionalize new channels for cooperation and problem solving with the university administration.

At a time when public higher education reels from numerous challenges, the unionization of faculty at the University of Oregon has added new solutions to some of the woes facing U.S. higher education. Union organization and collective bargaining can provide concrete mechanisms to elevate faculty voices in large public universities.

Chronologically Listed References

The author recounts this history as an early member of the Organizing Committee and the first President of United Academics. The following media sources offer further reference to the founding, significant challenges, and successes of United Academics’ first few years.