By Brian Sherrill, Staff Writer
Unionizing faculty supporters and some students chanted and rallied across the bridge from the Quad to the Millennium Student Center and down to the stage near the Nosh the morning of September 27. The demonstrators were attempting to put pressure on their administrators by demanding their voices be heard among the Board of Curators.
They were trying to start productive conversations about the benefits of joining a union during the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ budget crisis.
Dr. Lauren Obermark, assistant professor of English, said, “The rally was a powerful and visible statement for the university community and its students.” Obermark hopes that students realize this is a faculty movement protecting their students’ education. “Faculty members want changes and a voice in how the university works, because this will improve our working conditions, which in turn will make us stronger teachers. A union would give faculty representation in the decisions the university makes. We work with the students, and we’re committed to maintaining a strong educational culture on campus,” she said.
Obermark also said that UMSL has many excellent professors who are struggling to get by without benefits and job security.
Jennafer Alexander, an adjunct instructor at UMSL, said, “If the vote for a union passes, we hope to exercise our right to bargain collectively with the administration over the terms and conditions of our employment.
Alexander said most adjuncts work for poverty-level wages, teach at multiple campuses to make ends meet, have no job security, and no access to decision-making processes. “If we hope to maintain high standards as researchers and educators at UMSL, then we will need the legal protection of a faculty union. Better working conditions for educators will mean better learning conditions for students,” Alexander said.
Dr. Wally Siewert, the director of The Center for Ethics in Public Life, said at the rally that the administrators have been working hard under tough circumstances. “But it shouldn’t all be on their shoulders and there is a big voice missing from the discussion. Students deserve a supported faculty that makes sure you get what you need for your education. Faculty deserves fair compensation and a seat at the decision making table for their institution which they have grown to love. An administration deserves to know exactly where their faculty stands, what their needs are, and to know that their faculty has their back when they go to deal with the State and the [UM] system.”
UMSL’s faculty wants to protect their students’ education and in order to do that, Siewert said they need to use our right to organize and have a union election via a fair and swift process. “First, we want this election administered by a neutral third party,” said Siewert. “Secondly, we want this election to be ready to go and called into place when 30 percent of faculty members have signaled their support for a union election. Thirdly, we want a mail-in ballot. We want to make it as easy as possible for every voice to be heard. So if you think the working conditions for your faculty are important, and you think the decision making process of all that happens here at UMSL are important, what we’d like for all of you to do is get involved. You can go to www.umslunited.org. It takes two minutes to sign a petition and send a letter to the Board of Curators.”
Sunny Hutton, graduate, education, also said at the rally that the UMSL administration has made decisions that have negatively impacted the university’s sustainability, faculty, and staff’s commitment, which disadvantages UMSL students academically.
Hutton said, “When the board drove our university into a financial hole, it mimicked the actions of the federal government and Wall Street. They bailed themselves out, maintaining their positions and salary while hourly wage workers were fired. Tenures were taken away along with implications of raises. Adjunct professors are teaching half of department courses and high turnover rates are happening due to the fact that they are leaving for better [paying] jobs. We will hold the UM board curators accountable to a fair and timely election process.”
Dr. Pamela Stuerke, UMSL faculty senate chairwoman and associate professor in the College of Business Administration, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “This doesn’t seem to be a divisive issue on campus. We have a really fabulous system of shared governance here. We’ve been told by people at other institutions that what we have here is how shared governance is supposed to work. A possible outcome of a union contract is that shared governance and faculty council–along with its almost two dozen committees–could end.”
The previous school Stuerke worked for was a union school. She said, “My experience there with respect to the issues that tie into shared governance was very negative. The relationship broadly between faculty covered under the union agreement and the administration was at best adversarial on both sides.”
Adriano Udani, an assistant professor of political science at UMSL and member of the organizing committee, told St. Louis Public Radio, “Given the budget crisis at UMSL, I think we all agree and believe that a collective bargaining unit that speaks for all faculty is going to increase UMSL’s capacity to address the long-term issues in a collaborative manner. We have a legal right to organize, and I think the university has a legal obligation to provide a fair process.”
The group, however, has not reached 30 percent support needed and the foreseen outcome is still unclear. The Service International Employees Organization effort has been working with tenured, non-tenured, adjunct instructors, and other faculty members at Washington University, St. Louis University, and Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville.
To view highlights from the event, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThxmzokKT3g&feature=youtu.be
To read what adjunct instructors, Sarah Lacy and Michael Smith have said, visit http://thecurrent-online.com/opinions/umsl-faculty-pushes-to-unionize-on-campus/