There's an organizing campaign underway at my university. Here is why I am supportive of this effort.
The decision to begin building a union is often a reflection of two things: Current events in a particular labor market and a desire to provide safety for workers in that market into the future.
I’m from Appalachia. My community was filled with railroad workers and coal miners. I had friends whose parents worked at the uranium enrichment plant in Piketon, Ohio. All of these people – the railroad workers, miners, and uranium plant workers – belonged to unions. Unions which fought for safer work practices, fairer schedules, and better pay. Unions that worked to ensure the safety of their members, often after accidents or strikes or contract negotiations which exposed how poorly workers had been treated by their employers.
There is a renewed interest in such protections in the United States as workers all over the country, in education and retail and food service, are organizing for fair pay, for fair schedules, for fair treatment.
We often treat the work of academia as a calling, rather than as labor. We often groan about the need to protect our time, but not often the need to protect ourselves. Which can sometimes mean we find ourselves laboring virtually round-the-clock, including during times in the year when we’re not officially on the clock. For untenured or non-tenure track faculty, it can be difficult to know when you can say no to something. There is an often constant worry that if you don’t say yes to everything you’ll not be seen as a team-player and will face repercussions of some kind in the future. This pressure can be particularly potent for faculty from minoritized communities who don’t move through the ranks in higher education the way their white counterparts do.
In essence: Our generalized framing of academic labor as a calling has helped create an inequitable distribution of the work of academia throughout the university and inequitable distribution of pay as well.
At the same time, higher education in the United States is at a crisis point. Funding from the federal and state government remains low. Both President Gregory Crawford and Vice President for Finance and Business Services David Creamer pointed out during the spring 2022 budget symposium that Miami University receives the fewest state dollars of any public university in Ohio. This, as the potential student body is shrinking and overall student debt increasing.
Transparent decision making only becomes more important when an institution faces financial challenges, but, all too often, that transparency is lacking.
During the height of COVID 19, we saw how willing some institutions were to use the cover of the pandemic, the cover of crisis, to make potentially culture altering choices. At Miami, many of us watched as our visiting professor and instructor colleagues were not renewed, leaving about 150 people without jobs, or health insurance, during a global pandemic. Other institutions encouraged faculty into early retirement without replacing their lines, leaving their programs scrambling to figure out how to cover class and service assignments with fewer faculty. Which may be a situation we soon find ourselves in here at Miami.
One of the slides Dr. Creamer showed during the budget symposium seemed to suggest one way Miami may work to address the financial challenges it faces is by not replacing faculty lines which go vacant. Such a choice could undermine the mission of the university. Miami prides itself for being “high touch” and undergraduate focused, but how can it remain so if it shrinks the faculty?
And, importantly, how will decisions about what lines will be filled and what lines will be allowed to remain fallow be made?
A union, though imperfect, provides workers some protection from the caprices of employers. It also forces institutions to make decisions in a transparent and open way. A union, through the negotiation of a contract, can help establish procedures about everything from workload to pay to how staffing will be filled or will be cut.
The contract here is the key. It’s negotiated by union leaders with employers and then voted on by union members. It is, at its very core, a document created by and for employees.
I don’t know what the future holds for higher education. I don’t know what the future holds for Miami University. But I do know that we no longer live in an environment where we can treat our jobs as callings and not as work; not as the labor they are.
This is not about any one personality or set of personalities; not about particular politicians nor policies. It’s about being proactive about protecting our jobs and those of our colleagues. It’s also about being proactive about protecting the things we care about in higher education in the face of a looming industry wide crisis.
Now is not the time to sit back and watch what others do. In Ohio, the only public universities to operate without unionized faculty are Miami, Ohio State University, and Ohio University. At Ohio University, my undergraduate alma mater, they are facing a budget crisis, with at least three faculty recently being told their contracts would not be renewed.
One of those faculty reportedly taught in the African American Studies program and the two others in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. Those terminations were made as the university considers the “possible restructuring of colleges and departments.”
Perhaps such a restructuring is necessary. Perhaps such a restructuring will be necessary at Miami University one day.
If it is, there is nothing now in place that would guarantee the decisions made about such changes have to be made transparently. A union contract, should Miami faculty vote to create a union, would force such decisions to be transparent. Shared governance under a contract would not mean that a handful of faculty were consulted about something, but that particular, negotiated procedures are followed to minimize harm to faculty and to the university’s mission.
In a way, forming a union is an attempt to do a bit of future-proofing. Should hard times continue coming our way, a union contract can help set up a way through that is transparent, that faculty have some say in, and that does not come as a surprise.
People will use fear to convince you that a union is not good. That it is a waste of money. That it is a performance of distrust.
A union, I would argue, is a form of care. Care for yourself. Care for your colleagues. Care for the institution. As faculty, we might not face mine collapses or train derailments or radioactive leaks, but we do face threats of both a financial and ideological nature. Those threats can have devastating consequences in the near term, but if we don’t find a way to protect what we care about those threats could continue to be devastating in the long term as well.
A union is one way to begin protecting ourselves, and our profession, from the worst of such devastation.