By Brian Sherrill, Staff Writer
Some of the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ faculty members are attempting to unionize for the ability to collectively bargain with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) for better salaries, working conditions, faculty governance, and legal protections. However, the faculty is split on the topic campus-wide. Earlier in October the pro-union Organizing Committee (OC) held “office hours” in the Nosh and invited all faculty to meet with an SEIU representative.
Also in October, a website called UMSL Excellence (umslexcellence. org) was created by a group of about 30 faculty members who oppose the SEIU. As the landing page on the website states, “On the narrow question of whether the faculty of the University of Missouri-St. Louis should be represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) at this time, we have decided that we are opposed.”
The website claims that unionization with SEIU would weaken UMSL’s research funds, lessen not-tenure track (NTT) faculty benefits, and hurt UMSL’s budget. The site also claims that a union at UMSL would be seen as unproductive in the eyes of state legislators and the UM System.
Participants at the UMSL United rally on September 27 claim that unionization at UMSL could provide faculty greater consistency in salaries across all disciplines, better job security, legal advice/protection, and more bargaining power. They also said that a union could protect pensions and benefits.
Dr. Keith Miller, an Orthwein Endowed Professor for Lifelong Learning in the Sciences, said, “Justice is inhibited by gross mismatches in power. Unions address the power mismatch between administration, and faculty and staff.”
If unionization comes to a vote among the faculty, those in favor may benefit from the fact that adjunct professors make up a majority of UMSL’s faculty. Adjunct instructors are more likely to gravitate towards organizing because they are part-time, have median salaries between $18,000 and $25,000 a year, less job security, no benefits, and no vote in senate committees.
The UMSL Excellence website includes a list of concerns pertaining to the SEIU. At the top of the list is, “SEIU is proposing taking 2.5% of your pay if you join the union, and up to 2.13% of your pay even if you choose not to join the union.”
Dr. Sarah Lacy, assistant professor of anthropology and archeology and organizing-committee (OC) member, said, “We are a state university in an open-shop state. We cannot take a fee from faculty who do not join a union. This is different for closed-shop states or at private institutions, but here, this cannot happen.”
Stacy Manuel, the SEIU representative for this campaign, said, “After an election, whenever that may be, faculty members will choose a bargaining team and begin negotiating with administration. Once faculty members have a contract they are happy with, they will vote on that contract. Once there is a majority vote to approve it, raises go into effect, and that is when those who elect to join the union begin to pay dues – not a dime is paid before a contract is approved by the membership.”
Drucilla Wall, associate teaching professor of English, said, “I can’t afford that [2.5%]. And in order for that to be worth it, for me or anybody like me, lower paid full-time faculty members, the union would have to deliver more than that amount every year. I don’t think [the university] has the resources to do that even if our state legislature and our university’s system wanted to. I don’t think they can afford to award everybody those raises. And if they do then where will the money come from?…And our state legislature is highly unlikely to raise taxes to give us more so where is the university going to get the money for those raises?”
Dr. Lea Kosnik, associate professor of economics, also commented, “Missouri has a Republican supermajority in the House that already undermines taxes for higher-education. The Missouri legislature also hates unions, so they might just choose to lower our funds even further and disperse those funds elsewhere. Where are those raises going to come from? They are likely to come immediately from other areas within our university.”
Interim Vice Provost Chris Spilling said, “You only have to look at the recent history behavior of the legislature to problems on the Columbia campus. The legislature became punitive when the university failed to deal with those issues, and they cut money from the Missouri System budget. You’ve got a Republican supermajority that might well see this as an unproductive move. I cannot speak for the legislators but you would have to look at recent actions of the legislature to make your own interpretations.”
In response to worries over actions that state legislatures might take, Manuel said, “First, administrators everywhere have kept their high salaries. Second, faculty members will set the priorities that they negotiate in their union contract. Administration is responsible for UMSL’s budget, and the priorities in the budget have not been focused on faculty compensation. SEIU has a strong membership, and the power to work for and win more funding from the legislature…The UM system has not funded UMSL at the same rate as the other UM schools. Again, this is a matter of priorities. By coming together and forming a union, UMSL faculty members will have the power to fight for the raises and improvements they deserve.”
For much of 2016, SEIU had been only attempting to unionize faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Education. According to the UMSL Excellence website, “SEIU seeks to disenfranchise the College of Business Administration, the College of Optometry, and the College of Nursing.”
Wall said, “The thing I find most disturbing is that three of the major units of the university are now excluded from the whole thing. It appears to me and others that the union has cherry-picked or even gerrymandered who they want to include in the voting process.”
Spilling said, “They excluded those colleges for which there was little sympathy for unionization. The unions will narrow until they get a foothold into the institution.”
In response to questions of money reallocation for union raises and its exclusion of the three colleges from the voting process, OC member, Lacy said, “We will negotiate contracts that cover everyone in the colleges, not just those in the union. So if we negotiate raises, even those who do not join the union will get the benefits. Raises wouldn’t just go to the union members… About the colleges not covered (Business, Optometry, and Nursing); they are also the highest paid faculty on campus, so I get why they are afraid to lose their six figure salaries, ignoring the fact that there are people with PhDs in the College of Arts and Science making $40,000 a year. I do not honestly believe the university would cut anyone’s salary. They would likely find themselves in a lawsuit or a mutiny. But I could see those people not getting raises for a while to cover other raises… I would just point to the precedent on other campuses of not including those colleges? It is not unique to UMSL.”
From the administrative perspective, Spilling said, “What we want, is for the faculty members to do their due diligence to look into the benefits for them in unionization. And then to make a rational and informed decision and I think what we’re trying to do is provide information as an administration that helps make that an informed decision. We ask them to be careful, ask the right questions, and expect answers. We encourage the faculty to go to the committee sessions, get informed, rationalize in their own mind, and vote their conscious. The senate has formed an ad hoc committee to study how the senate should promote dialogue in this situation. Neither for nor against, and only there to provide information and promote dialogue.”
The Faculty Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Information Sessions has been created and tasked with setting up meetings with all parties involved in the union debate. The committee has agreed to maintain strict neutrality on the issue while it sets up larger public forums to discuss the union issue that will involve representation from all sides. There will be public notices coming up about those meetings soon.