These Faculty Organizing Victories Show Labor Doesn’t Need the Courts On Its Side

Daniel Moattar

At University of Iowa and Fordham University, two new faculty unions just won key victories. (Creative Commons)

At the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa and Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty, two new fac­ul­ty unions recent­ly won key vic­to­ries by adopt­ing uncon­ven­tion­al strate­gies adapt­ed from ser­vice-sec­tor orga­niz­ing. In con­tract nego­ti­a­tions for the aca­d­e­m­ic year, con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty at both schools, orga­niz­ing with SEIU Fac­ul­ty For­ward, mount­ed high-pro­file cam­paigns that pushed admin­is­tra­tors to the nego­ti­a­tion table despite oppo­si­tion to union certification.

In each case, sep­a­rate con­cerns over anti-labor laws and courts pushed fac­ul­ty to bypass NLRB elec­tions and aim straight for the nego­ti­a­tion table. Ford­ham even­tu­al­ly changed course after its cam­paign suc­ceed­ed — win­ning a promise from the university’s pres­i­dent that he would no longer oppose a union election.

At Ford­ham, non-tenure-track fac­ul­ty end­ed nego­ti­a­tions in July, lock­ing down major rais­es: Fordham’s low­est-paid instruc­tors will see pay increase by as much as 90 per­cent with rais­es of at least 67 per­cent for all but two depart­ments employ­ing non-tenure-track staff. By the spring of 2021, Fordham’s adjuncts will earn up to $8,000 per class.

At one point, they offered a $20 increase in pay,” said Ashar Foley, a lec­tur­er in Fordham’s depart­ment of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion and Media Stud­ies. Our tac­tic was to get stu­dent sup­port, fac­ul­ty sup­port, to show up at their alum­ni events and at par­ent week­ends if we did­n’t have a con­tract by the fall.”

Although Ford­ham pro­fes­sors were pre­pared to move for­ward with­out offi­cial recog­ni­tion, fac­ul­ty and com­mu­ni­ty pres­sure led Ford­ham to accept con­tin­gent faculty’s right to orga­nize — paving the way for a vote to unionize.

Ford­ham is in the pub­lic eye a lot,” Foley said. We made it show that we would go to the pub­lic with our demands. As nego­ti­a­tions pro­gressed, the tone changed.

Then, on August 6, con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty — many of whom pre­vi­ous­ly lacked health insur­ance and sick leave — won a range of new ben­e­fits. Fac­ul­ty hired for at least a full year will now receive ful­ly-fund­ed health­care for them­selves and their depen­dents — along with retire­ment con­tri­bu­tions and oth­er insur­ance cov­er­age, includ­ing life and disability.

The wins came after sev­er­al actions tar­get­ing Iowa’s admin­is­tra­tion, espe­cial­ly con­tro­ver­sial pres­i­dent Bruce Har­reld, one of the state’s best-paid pub­lic ser­vants. Har­reld, who had no pri­or aca­d­e­m­ic expe­ri­ence, entered the admin­is­tra­tion from the cor­po­rate sec­tor despite a fac­ul­ty vote of no con­fi­dence. In a series of actions, fac­ul­ty and sup­port­ers marched on cam­pus, staked Harreld’s 12,000-square-foot offi­cial res­i­dence with yard signs, and staged a sit-in in Harreld’s office. After 24 hours, the union end­ed the sit-in — slat­ed to last three days — when admin­is­tra­tors caved.

I guess we were a thorn in his side,” said Faye Bar­tram, a vis­it­ing assis­tant pro­fes­sor in Iowa’s his­to­ry depart­ment. Bar­tram says her new con­tract will help her address health issues that affect her teach­ing. Now I’ll have full health insur­ance,” she said, plus life, dis­abil­i­ty, depen­dent cov­er­age, and accrued sick leave. We had none of that before­hand. It’s good for my health, for my teach­ing, and it’s a lot of peace of mind.”

Iowa has real­ly exten­sive anti-bar­gain­ing laws,” said Alex Nie­mi, a vis­it­ing instruc­tor in Russ­ian. We’ve just found oth­er ways to make our voic­es heard. I’d say that it could be a mod­el for oth­er peo­ple who live in right-to-work states.”

Chart­ing a new course

Labor board cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, which would have required Iowa’s admin­is­tra­tors to nego­ti­ate with fac­ul­ty, comes with grow­ing risks and restric­tions. With the NLRB now dom­i­nat­ed by con­ser­v­a­tive appointees — includ­ing two Trump picks—uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors have every incen­tive to mount legal chal­lenges, a prob­lem Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go grad­u­ate instruc­tors faced ear­li­er this year.

That can lead to drawn-out hear­ings, drain union funds, and, with anti-union NLRB appointees, lead to court deci­sions that entire­ly restrict bar­gain­ing rights, like the NLRB’s 2004 Brown Uni­ver­si­ty rul­ing that grad­u­ate instruc­tors had no right to a union.

We’re fac­ing a next-lev­el degree of intran­si­gence from the state, and it’s giv­ing license to a num­ber of uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tions to mess with adjuncts and grad­u­ate stu­dents a lit­tle bit more,” said Cedric de Leon, direc­tor of the Labor Cen­ter at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Amherst. This includes uni­ver­si­ties that see them­selves as very lib­er­al, but on labor are quite hap­py to let the Trump NLRB adju­di­cate their union drives.”

In Iowa, harsh restric­tions on pub­lic employ­ees bar fac­ul­ty from bar­gain­ing on a wide range of top­ics, and only require nego­ti­a­tions on extreme­ly lim­it­ed wage increas­es. Iowa con­tin­gent faculty’s gains would have been impos­si­ble to win through the state-sanc­tioned process.

At Ford­ham, a Jesuit insti­tu­tion, union­iz­ing fac­ul­ty ini­tial­ly didn’t want to give admin­is­tra­tors the chance to argue for a broad­ened reli­gious exemp­tion before the NLRB, as a pro-man­age­ment deci­sion could have had seri­ous reper­cus­sions for unions at oth­er uni­ver­si­ties includ­ing Loy­ola, DePaul and George­town. Fordham’s suc­cess­ful cam­paign, and admin­is­tra­tors’ agree­ment to drop oppo­si­tion, points to a workaround. Pub­lic pres­sure, not sym­pa­thet­ic judges, kept admin­is­tra­tors from expand­ing the reli­gious exemp­tion in academia.

For the most part, labor board elec­tions have been real­ly stacked against work­ers, Trump or no Trump,” de Leon said. A lot of strate­gies that orga­niz­ers are using now at Ford­ham and Iowa are strate­gies that the Unit­ed Farm Work­ers used in the 1960s — and I don’t think it’s an acci­dent, because farm­work­ers didn’t have the legal right to orga­nize in Cal­i­for­nia, either!”

A more mil­i­tant future

The cam­paigns at Iowa and Ford­ham are part of a grow­ing wave of con­fronta­tion­al direct actions by edu­ca­tors nation­wide, includ­ing strikes by pub­lic-school teach­ers in Ari­zona, West Vir­ginia, Ken­tucky, and Okla­homa, walk­outs by teach­ers in Col­orado and adjuncts at Loy­ola Uni­ver­si­ty Chica­go, and a con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty sit-in at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michigan.

At the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York, adjuncts are demand­ing the same $7,000 per-class wage as Ford­ham fac­ul­ty. In Chica­go, non-tenure-track fac­ul­ty at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and Loy­ola Uni­ver­si­ty Chica­go have won recent rais­es and con­trac­tu­al reforms.

What you are start­ing to see is the spread of non-nor­ma­tive direct action,” de Leon says. As the col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing frame­work becomes dis­man­tled through right-to-work laws and oth­er dra­con­ian legal regimes, you’re going to have more mil­i­tan­cy, more direct action, more strikes.”

The fed­er­al acts reg­u­lat­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing are part of a long-stand­ing com­pro­mise designed to tem­per labor mil­i­tan­cy and reduce work stop­pages. De Leon believes the Right, eager to tear up those deals, is shoot­ing itself in the foot.

They think they’re on to a strat­e­gy,” he said. But what hap­pens then? Peo­ple will say, If the legal frame­work won’t let me do this, the hell with the legal framework.’”

As fac­ul­ty unions ramp up their mil­i­tan­cy — and look to expand — de Leon empha­sizes the impor­tance of field-test­ing new strate­gies. If you keep going to the well, they’re going to cot­ton on and fig­ure out some­thing to beat you,” he says.

Rel­a­tive to their boss­es and tenured col­leagues, con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty are younger, more diverse, and more often women: the front­line work­ers of high­er edu­ca­tion. For de Leon and oth­ers, union fights like those at Iowa or Ford­ham are about the strate­gies that new unions and young work­ers are using to revi­tal­ize labor — strate­gies that, so far, are net­ting wins.

Cor­rec­tion: A pre­vi­ous ver­sion of this arti­cle misiden­ti­fied Iowa’s con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty as mem­bers of SEIU Local 199. Although Local 199 orga­nizes work­ers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa, it is not legal­ly affil­i­at­ed with non-tenure-track fac­ul­ty there.

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