At some public universities, giving collective bargaining rights to faculty has become part of the shared governance equation. That equation changed this past winter in Wisconsin and Ohio, as newly-elected governors and state legislatures enacted laws cutting the benefits of all public employees—university faculty among them—and eliminated most collective bargaining rights.
Faculty members protested in the capitals of both states, and faculty senates passed resolutions condemning the new laws. At Ohio University, which does not have collective bargaining, the faculty senate passed a resolution challenging the presidents at other state universities to oppose the law as it was being considered.
“It seemed among faculty that Columbus was exercising control that it hadn’t in the past, and there was a lot of displeasure when we saw that the university presidents in Ohio agreed with the law,” says Joseph McLaughlin, an English professor and president of OU’s faculty senate. “When we pressed our president, he wasn’t opposed. That rankled faculty.”
In Wisconsin, a controversial budget repair bill championed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker survived court challenges and in June was deemed constitutional by the state’s supreme court.
The decision was especially galling to the professors at Wisconsin’s state universities who had only received the right to bargain three years earlier. Michael Draney, who heads the faculty senate at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay notes that the faculty there had already lost a 2 percent pay raise and lost another 3 percent for the past two years due to furloughs.
“The faculty were very unhappy. We felt that not only did we take a pay cut and lose rights, but we were underappreciated,” says Draney, who was organizing a faculty union just as the new law passed. “We felt that the administration was being very quiet and that they were not on our side.”
Draney adds that the school administration was largely at the mercy of political forces. “It definitely put us under a strain initially. They were really constrained by what they could do. We don’t see them as collaborators with the state government.
“As soon as they realized how unhappy we were, they made gestures,” Draney continues. “They started having informational meetings with everybody in one big room about what they knew and what the possibilities were.”
The administration offered to dip in to its “rainy day fund” to offset the 12 percent cut in faculty benefits mandated by the new law, Draney says, only to be thwarted by the state in using the money that way. “But they have been using it to alleviate the fiscal crisis on this campus. No one was laid off.”
The events of the past nine months have had other consequences, says OU’s McLaughlin. “There’s been a lot of pushback in Wisconsin and in Ohio. It’s worked a lot of people up.”
One example occurred on the UW Green Bay campus, where the faculty went ahead and voted 117-2 to unionize, even without collective bargaining rights. Draney explains that the faculty members want a more unified front going forward. “The whole union voting process raised people’s awareness on the faculty side about our situation as employees and how vulnerable we were,” he says.