A Faculty Union at UIUC: the State of Play

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Since the first part of this article appeared in the last Public i, UIUC non-tenure track faculty have conducted a six-week card drive, turned in the requisite number of cards mid-May, and after surviving a challenge by UI administration, have been certified as a union July 8. In what follows, I pick up the story from the May/June issue.

The distinction anti-union folks make between themselves and other workers exudes more than a whiff of elitism, an attitude of “I’ve got mine, too bad for you.” “Excellence” is a term that crops up over and over, while its antithesis, “mediocrity,” is a term critics commonly hurl at unions. It is no coincidence that Jeff Brown, Nick Burbules, and Joyce Tolliver originally invited only the highest-paid and most prestigious faculty to sign their letter, “Preserving Excellence at Illinois.”

Anti-union folks go so far as to attack the very nature of unionism, namely, “fair share” union fees, and to distort how a union actually operates as “forced unionization.” “A vote to unionize our faculty would be a vote to require every faculty member in the campus bargaining unit to be represented by the union,” according to their “Preserving Excellence at Illinois.” “[F]aculty would also be required to pay union or ‘fair share’ dues whether they support unionization or not. We do not believe that faculty members should be forced to support an organization financially that they have not personally agreed to join.” This is a tissue of half-truths and misstatements wrapped in deceptive language. Yes, everyone would be represented by the union. No, faculty would not be forced to join. Yes, non-union faculty would be required to pay “fair share” fees to cover costs for negotiating a contract that benefits everyone. No, full union dues would be paid only by union faculty. All this is Union Political Economy 101.

Coming from union families, Burbules and Tolliver know full well that not paying “fair share” fees is a dagger driven into the heart of unionism, because it severely weakens, if not destroys, unions. Opposition to “fair share” fees is a hallmark of those who favor so-called “right to work,” which amounts to the “right to work for less.” In fact, the anti-union group is making exactly the same argument as conservatives like Governors Mitch Daniels and Rick Snyder who signed “right to work” statutes into law in 2012 in Indiana and Michigan, respectively. Furthermore, Burbules repeated his anti-union sentiments in an article, tellingly titled, “Over 150 professors fight forced unionization at University of Illinois,” in Campus Reform, a right-wing blog affiliated with the right-wing group, Leadership Institute. Burbules’ emailed comments to the author appeared alongside those of a spokesman for the right-wing National Right to Work Committee. Furthermore, in Harris v. Quinn (June 2014), the Supreme Court’s five male, right-wing justices agreed with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation – which is connected to the Koch brothers, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the John Birch Society, and the Walton family, among others — and outvoted the four more liberal, Democratic jurists. They argued that home-health workers in Illinois who are paid by their employers with Medicaid funds cannot be required to pay fair share union dues. A definite blow against unions, this supposedly narrow ruling came close in fact to overturning the settled legal precedent of fair share payments established decades ago in Abood (1977). Burbules and Tolliver, who have consistently argued against fair share dues payments, apparently agree here with Justices Alito, Roberts, Thomas, Scalia and Kennedy.

Rhetoric and Reality

You can be anti-union without being against paying “fair share” fees; the former does not require the latter. The difference between pro- and anti-union folks at UI could not be more stark. As self-identified progressives, how can Burbules and Tolliver take such a hardline position? After talking to both of them, it is still not clear to me. In fact, this criticism has stung, and they have undertaken damage control in an attempt to burnish their tarnished progressive credentials. “We feel no need to justify our own progressive credentials or to respond to absurd allegations that we’ve gone over to the dark side and are now lackeys of the Koch Brothers.” They adamantly reject the criticisms, yet they do not address a single one. Instead, they have doubled down.

Burbules, Tolliver and others are, without question, utterly sincere in the positions they take. Certainly, they have the best interests of the institution at heart. It’s just that others with the same intentions disagree on what those best interests are. For Burbules and Tolliver, their positions flow from their experience piloting the Academic Senate, commonly referred to as the faculty Senate, between the Scylla of administration misdeeds and the Charybdis of unionizing efforts. So it comes as no surprise that their zealous opposition to a union manifests itself in the tone and rhetorical strategies they employ. Let me say clearly that neither side is as pure as driven snow. Regrettably, both sides have engaged in name-calling; hopefully, this, and more generally, the overheated rhetoric will be dialed back. Indeed, there are signs that this is happening. CFA no longer responds to every No Faculty Union claim, and Burbules and Tolliver have toned down at least one post from the original. Yet more than pro-union folks, what is striking about union opponents is the extent to which they employ the full panoply of rhetorical strategies to make their case including unsubstantiated assertions, hearsay and circumstantial evidence, making it personal, specious arguments, “chicken and egg,” moving the goalposts, “he said/she said,” tendentious arguments, and pulling a Karl Rove.

Unsubstantiated assertions. The best example is the point-by-point rebuttal to Prof. Burbules’s commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education by the AAUP’s Ernst Benjamin, on facing pages.

Hearsay and circumstantial evidence. “I have heard people tell me that they would leave if the campus unionized.”

Making it personal. “Those of you in the [Academic] Senate have seen this shift of rhetoric from union advocates serving in this body. A tone of suspicion, hostility, and even disrespect has been on frequent display in their comments toward campus and university administrators. Look: when you treat people like adversaries they react like adversaries. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Specious arguments. “The University of Illinois at Chicago formed a faculty union in 2012. Since that time, the UIC union has been unable to negotiate a salary increase.” Yes, because UIC administration refused to implement the previously-determined campus salary increase during union negotiations, an increase since put into effect. Actually, this is a case of “blaming the victim,” a favorite conservative ploy, as when Paul Ryan blames the unemployed for being unemployed.

Chicken and egg.” “The Chicago campus of the UI was on strike recently for two days [February 18-19, 2014]. Reports reach us that the atmosphere of collegiality is gone from that campus. That strike is a damaging and indelible embarrassment…” Did unionization lead to the disappearance of collegiality, or did the disappearance of collegiality lead to unionization?

Moving the goalposts. “At a time of diminishing state revenues, the problem is not ‘bosses’ who refuse to pay workers more, but the budgetary constraints imposed on the university by the state of Illinois.” This is true as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough, because the key question is how resources that reach the campus are distributed, an issue pointedly not addressed.

“He said/she said.” Exhibit A. CFA organizers talking to faculty one on one “… clearly believe it is to their advantage to adopt a process in which they control the parameters of the conversation, where they control what information and arguments you hear, and where they can selectively present their version of the facts without debate…” Exhibit B. “If a majority of all faculty, not just College of Engineering faculty, sign cards to unionize, a union will be created and all faculty will be represented and charged union dues, even if they do not wish to be members.” (College of Engineering Executive Committee to College of Engineering faculty, February 24, 2014). Who is intimidating whom?

Tendentious arguments. “We now have a perfect petri dish up at UIC to see what life with a faculty union looks like…[The February 2014 strike] harms students, stokes anger, and alienates parents, taxpayers, and supporters of the university all across the state.” To claim that a union at Urbana would be exactly like the one at Chicago is to argue by implication, and to conclude too much from too little.

Pulling a Karl Rove. “The purpose of this blog [No Faculty Union] is to deconstruct the rhetoric and strategies of faculty union advocates at the University of Illinois. A consequential decision like this [whether or not to form a union] must be based on facts, not spin.” Given their own rhetorical strategies, this statement is a classic example of Karl Rove’s tactic, “accuse the opposition of doing precisely what you’re doing,” which is doubly ironic since Prof. Burbules on his other blog, Progressive Blog Digest, does a masterful job of documenting this Rovian strategy.

Given their considerably greater rhetorical flourishes than documented reasons and substantive arguments, the anti-union position seems to boil down to “we don’t want a union, because we don’t want a union.” Such rhetorical strategies suggest that concerns are rooted in deeper-seated issues of status anxiety. Presumably, union opponents perceive blue collar and low white collar workers as lower, as lesser, than their own more elevated, “professional” status, which does allow them to manage certain aspects of their work. But managing certain tasks — organizing classes and teaching students – differs from the kind of management that professional administrators perform all the time. “I fully appreciate the good the unions have done for unskilled laborers and for skilled tradespeople,” writes engineering Prof. Richard Blahut. “However,…a faculty… is not the blue-collar class for which unions were created.” Status anxiety historically occurs when lower level white collar workers are fearful of skidding down out of the middle class into the working class. Fear of such downward leveling is clearly expressed by those who link “mediocrity” with unions. Furthermore, prestigious, highly-paid faculty, who interact at close quarters with administrators may be seen as akin to de facto foremen — more than a worker, less than a boss. As such, they inhabit a liminal, in-between state. It is admittedly snarky, but for a staunchly anti-union administration, the tireless efforts of faculty like Burbules and Tolliver is a gift that keeps on giving.

Deeper Differences

Changes on both sides have occurred over time. Anti-union folks now pointedly oppose a tenure-stream union, but not explicitly a non-tenure-track (NTT) one. “BECAUSE [caps in original] we are progressive academics from the working class… we oppose unionization for UIUC tenure-track faculty members,” write Burbules and Tolliver. “This doesn’t mean that there aren’t serious problems and inequities to work on, especially for our non-tenure-track colleagues.” But as occurred earlier during the Chief Illiniwek debate, we are now at the point where both sides have dug in their heels and are largely talking past one another. Viewed in a longer perspective, however, a faculty union likely “would not be as bad as union opponents fear, and not as good as union proponents hope,” as one faculty member remarked. While a NTT union would be a progressive step forward, it will not solve all NTT issues. While a tenure-stream union would redistribute power somewhat between faculty and administrators, it is no panacea for stemming corporatization. A faculty union would be reformist. It would not alter the fundamental distribution of power in the academy, any more than a union alters the fundamental nature of capitalism.

At the end of the day, there exists a significant philosophical difference between the two sides. The anti-union argument amounts to sauve qui peut, every person for him/herself, each individual taking their chances in the academic marketplace. This is an agonistic, one-on-one contest with clear winners (so-called academic “stars”) and losers; it is a zero-sum game. Eliminating “fair share” union fees benefits the employer, and stockholders, at the expense of employees. The right-wing says that if you are in the minority in a workplace, the majority of whom voted to unionize, you should not have to pay fees. Unionists counter that in a democracy majority rule carries the day, that a democratically-elected union works for everyone, and, therefore, it is undemocratic and unfair for a minority not to pay their fair share. The pro-union vision is a collective one, rooted in solidarity, we’re all in it together. Granted, there are rights in conflict here. The minority right to not pay “fair share” fees is trumped by the majority vote to form a union mandating such payments. So, too, for example, the minority right of business owners to not serve gays and lesbians, or provide contraceptive health coverage for their employees is, or ought to be, trumped by everyone’s right to equal access under the law.

Union supporters stress majority over minority rights. In responding to the anti-union “Preserving Excellence at Illinois” letter, historian Jim Barrett points out, satirically that “Many of the letter’s objections are… to the whole notion of majority rule. It’s true that majority rule applies here [in a vote to unionize] — as it does in state, local and federal elections. That’s a corner we turned a couple of centuries back and most Americans still support the principle.” History professor Mark Steinberg sums it up best. “For me, a faculty union is about democracy (real participatory power for everyone involved in the life of this university and its educational mission, which is itself essential to a democratic society), justice (for each individual regardless of background and rank), and unity (remembering that I am here not only for myself).”

(This is part two of a two part article.)


David Prochaska taught colonialism and visual culture in the UI history department before retiring.


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