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Committee forms to unionize University faculty members

October 7, 2010

Around 30 faculty at UW-River Falls have formed an organizing committee with the attempt of unionizing the faculty under the American Federation of Teachers said Political Science Professor Wes Chapin.

The option to have a union representing the faculty and academic staff was made possible when the Wisconsin state legislature in June 2009 passed the higher education collective bargaining legislation.

Currently, the only way faculty can discuss issues related to their jobs is through the Faculty Senate. However, in terms of taking an active role in the process, the UW-System makes the proposals, and the state ultimately passes them, Chapin said.

“In a free society, faculty and academic staff should be free to negotiate and have a seat at the table,” Chapin said.

UW-Eau Claire and UW-Superior faculty voted on joining a union this past spring.

A faculty member at UWEC, Michael Penkava, who is currently on sabbatical in Budapest Hungary, explained one reason why faculty at UWEC voted on joining a union.

“In the summer of 2009, a 2 percent [pay] increase was rescinded as well as a 3 percent additional cut imposed under a completely fallacious concept that this was a furlough,” Penkava said in an e-mail. “Keep in mind that every faculty member was not only required to teach every class, but also to engage in every other duty with no change, and we were told it was perfectly acceptable to take days like Sunday as a furlough.”

Even though the UW-System wants to eliminate the employee furloughs and bring back the 2 percent wage increase for faculty and academic staff for the 2011-2013 budget, this is all being decided without the input of the faculty, Chapin said.

Based on feedback from faculty at UWRF, there are several reasons why some of the faculty members want to join a union. It is not just about a pay increase but involves everything from the working environment to sick leave, Chapin said.

Geography and Mapping Science Professor John Heppen said he would like the union to set out a clear system for paying faculty for teaching summer and J-term courses and independent study.  Currently, faculty members are paid less for teaching during the summer then during the school year, Heppen said.

A contract where faculty get paid the same rates as in the school year would create a greater incentive for faculty to teach those courses and ultimately create more opportunities for students to take summer and J-term classes, Heppen said.

Besides the faculty, which includes tenured professors and those that are on a tenured track, the academic staff also has the option to unionize. The academic staff comprises two categories: instructional academic staff (adjuncts and non-tenured track) and non-instructional staff.

For some staff and faculty, one of the drawbacks of a union may be the union dues, which are around 1 percent of a faculty or staff member’s gross salary, Chapin said.  Under Wisconsin law however, paying the union dues is not mandatory, Heppen said.

The academic staff members at UWRF are currently farther behind the faculty on trying to form a union. One reason for this may be that many of the adjunct teachers are part time, which eliminates the time that they can spend discussing and moving forward on a plan to unionize, Chapin said.

The organizing committee was formed to help inform faculty and raise support for a union and consists of a representative from virtually every academic department on campus, Heppen said.

A questionnaire should be ready by Oct. 7, which will give the organizing committee more information from the faculty about their thoughts on unions. This will give the committee a better idea as to whether they should move forward, Chapin said.

The administration and the UW-System have a stance of neutrality according to Heppen; Provost and Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Fernando Delgado reiterated that opinion.

“The faculty and academic staff have many issues to consider,” Delgado said. “I am neutral on the matters of affiliation with AFT and of entering into collective bargaining.”