Debate is heating up at the University of Washington over whether the faculty should form a union.
Triggered by cuts to higher education and the growing use of short-term instructors to teach classes, an increasing number of the nation’s university professors and instructors have organized unions in recent years.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that the union movement has come to the University of Washington, where a group of professors is attempting to organize under Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 925.
It’s likely to be a long, tough fight for both sides.
In recent weeks, more than 150 UW professors — including some distinguished names in research and computer science — have signed their names to a website discouraging colleagues from joining the union effort.
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“Discussions are getting hot and heavy, let’s put it that way,” said Aaron Katz, a principal lecturer in the departments of Health Services and Global Health, who supports the union drive.
If SEIU were to successfully organize the UW faculty, it would be a national coup for a union better known for representing health-care workers.
State law requires that all faculty be represented by a single union. If the effort is successful, about 5,500 to 6,000 faculty members — from part-time lecturers to tenured professors — at all three campuses (Seattle, Bothell, Tacoma) would belong to one union.
SEIU is running a similar campaign at the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus. Here in Seattle, SEIU also has been embroiled in a legal fight with Seattle University over an effort to organize that school’s adjuncts.
Nationally, adjuncts have unionized at private Northeast colleges, and the entire University of Oregon faculty formed a union in 2012.
But UW chemistry professor Paul Hopkins, an opponent, said there are no other universities of the UW’s caliber where tenure-track professors are unionized. “You need a very strong argument to become unionized when there’s no precedent for it,” he said.
Hopkins and computer-science professor Ed Lazowska penned an argument against unionizing that’s been endorsed by more than 150 professors on a website, UW Excellence.
Lazowska said UW faculty members have a huge degree of autonomy and self-governance, and the administration is largely homegrown. “On balance, this simply doesn’t seem to be an environment where the possible benefits of unionization outweigh the likely drawbacks,” he said in an email.
Hopkins said he wanted to make it clear that they respect the role labor unions have played in protecting people who don’t have a voice. But most faculty at the UW “have a very, very strong voice,” he said.
Union proponents argue that this is exactly the problem — that their voice has been eroded in recent years. They are concerned that the university is increasingly being run like a corporation.
The UW is run on a principle known as “shared governance” — the idea that both faculty and administration share in the running of the university, and collaborate on long-range planning, budget preparation and decisions about who should be promoted and receive tenure.
Katz and Gina Neff, an associate professor in the Department of Communication, both say they believe faculty voices have been ignored on some key issues, including salaries. A union would put the force of law behind agreements made between faculty and administrators, Katz said.
Neff said many part-time faculty members believe the governance structure is failing them.
“They feel unable to communicate issues to colleagues,” she said. “They have a lack of job security. Some really feel a financial pinch, living in the fastest-growing area in the country and having stagnant wages that are a fraction of what their colleagues down the hall are getting.”
Proponents have created a website as well, UW Faculty Forward, presenting their arguments in favor of unionizing.
UW faculty members have received raises of 4 percent in 2013, 4 percent in 2014 and 3 percent this year. Before that, during the recession, salaries were frozen for four years.
Salaries can vary widely at the UW.
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the average full professor at the UW made $120,555 a year in 2013-14. The average lecturer — who typically works on a year-to-year contract — made $58,779.
Newly appointed President Ana Mari Cauce has said that raising salaries is one of her priorities.
Because Cauce has a reputation as a collaborative leader, Hopkins said, the faculty ought to give her a chance to fix the university’s issues.
While Katz and Neff both say they’re both pleased Cauce got the job, Katz noted that she’s “not going to be here forever.”
The UW’s Board of Regents — whose members largely come from the corporate world — have tried to run the UW like a company, Katz maintains.
“Ana Mari’s appointment doesn’t change the overall governance structure … we should never put all of our faith in one person,” he said.
Nationally, there’s been a big surge in the number of faculty seeking to unionize, said William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, City University of New York.
All told, about a quarter of faculty members nationwide belong to a union, the center estimated in a 2012 report.
In recent years, as part of a national campaign, SEIU has successfully organized adjuncts — lecturers who work on short-term contracts, usually for lesser pay and benefits — at prestigious private universities around the country, including Georgetown, American, Tufts, Northeastern and Washington University in St. Louis, Herbert said.
To form a union, at least 30 percent of the eligible UW faculty must sign union-membership cards. If that threshold is met, SEIU would then petition the Washington Public Employment Relations Commission to hold an election. A majority of those who vote would have to say yes to a new union.
SEIU officials won’t say how many membership cards they’ve collected so far.
Although the debate on campus is heating up, Katz characterized the discussions as respectful. “It’s a very thoughtful community, we like to debate, we don’t follow the leader easily,” he said.
Still, he doesn’t think it’s going to be easy to form a union.
“I think, in my honest assessment, it’s a heavy lift,” he said.