04/16/2009

All Montana University Faculty Are Now Unionized

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The last holdout for faculty unionization in the state of Montana has come under the labor umbrella. Full-time faculty and adjunct faculty at Montana State University-Bozeman voted in two units for representation by the Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers.

With 85 percent of the units voting, the vote was close for the full-timers-168 to 156. The adjuncts voted 101 to 51 in favor of unionization.

The Associated Faculty of MSU comprises a unit of 385 full-time, tenured and tenure-track faculty, and another unit of 180 adjunct faculty.

The vote was the third in as many decades, and this time proved the charm. "We have a lot of independent people here, so it was really hard work" organizing for the election, says Sandy Osborne, a professor of health and human development. She has been teaching at MSU for 22 years and remembers the 1989 union campaign that was unsuccessful.

"This time, it was about faculty having one-on-one conversations," she says. "We did a lot of listening and heard a lot of concerns."

"The main thing is to have a voice in the decision-making," says Jim Robison-Cox, associate professor of statistics in the Mathematical Science Department. "The administration brings things to the faculty senate, but it's more like, 'Here's what we're going to do.' We have input, but it's not formative."

One concern, says Osborne, is that, with little participation by the adjuncts in governance, the faculty senate "does not represent all faculty."

Adjuncts teach 45 percent of the courses at MSU, says Karen Leech, a 37-year veteran adjunct associate professor of music. Those who teach a 0.5 load receive benefits, but they lack certainty. "Nothing is written down," Leech explains. Workloads across departments are different, as are salaries and decisions about raises. "Adjuncts don't know from semester to semester what rules apply to them. I'm looking forward to a union that can say, 'What is the policy?' and 'Can we be fair across the university?'"

Robison-Cox welcomes the opportunity to work with both units in addressing common issues, like governance and academic freedom. "In talking with unionized faculty around the state, we saw that union representation ensures that faculty can work with administration-backed by a legally enforceable contract that guarantees the rights of both parties," adds Osborne. "It makes us legal equals with administration. We decided that forming a union would help us do a better job of providing for our students and attracting highly qualified professors to MSU."

"We look forward to representing all faculty at MSU-Bozeman, regardless of how they voted," says MEA-MFT president Eric Feaver, who also is an AFT vice president.

The MEA-MFT is the state's largest labor union, representing 17,500 members. That membership includes faculty at every university and community college in the state, as well as teachers, school staff, public employees and healthcare professionals.

April 16, 2009