Monday, November 27, 2006

News: A Year Later, University and Union Still Married

By Hannah Rappleye
      As the sky outside grew dark, Joel Schlemowitz, a long-haired, nose-ringed film professor at The New School for General Studies, sat under a framed photograph of Tiananmen Square in a small office on University Place answering phone calls from part-time faculty members.
      Schlemowitz is president of United Auto Workers Local 7902, Adjuncts Come Together (ACT-UAW), the union that represents part-time faculty at The New School and New York University. After a year of negotiation and an averted strike in late October 2005, ACT-UAW ratified their first contract with The New School. The union now represents over 4,000 faculty members at The New School and NYU.
      “This contract gives us rights we had not had before,” Schlemowitz said. The contract includes course cancellation fees, paid academic leave, multi-year contracts, baseline course loads and a specific process for filing grievances against the administration. Joining the union is not mandatory, according to one part-time professor at Lang and member of ACT-UAW. The New School has a union-shop agreement and members pay dues to the union.
      The contract was a long time coming. Part-time faculty, who make up 86% of faculty at The New School, first held union elections in 2004. But the university administration filed objections to the election, which led to delays. Finally, in September 2004, The National Labor Relations Board certified the union. Faced with the threat of a strike, the administration began negotiations later that fall.
      Despite their acrimonious history, the administration and union agree that their relationship has been mostly cordial since the tense negotiations last year. In fact, according to Lang Associate Dean Kathleen Breidenbach, the contract has been touted in the Chronicle of Higher Education as a model for other universities to follow.
      “If the faculty is well served, the students are well served,” said Eliza Nichols, Vice Provost of The New School. “There is a lot of good in this contract.”
      “Job security was really one of our most important goals and one of our most significant achievements in this contract,” Schlemowitz said. “For part-time faculty it can be the most insecure type of employment imaginable. I feel what we are doing is sort of a progressive reform of a system that has had a lot of growing disparity.”
      However congenial the relationship is now, members of the union say they must be constantly active in protecting the rights set forth in their contract.
      “The piece of paper that is the contract is just a piece of paper unless there are people behind it,” said Jan Clausen, a writing professor at Lang. Clausen was recently elected to serve as a trustee, responsible for handling the union’s financial records. “Some people don’t agree with the terms of contract but we are finding that in order to get those terms followed, we have to file a certain number of grievances,” she said.
      Common grievances include professors not receiving the class load they expected or not getting reimbursed for a dropped class. In the first step of the grievance process, a faculty member meets to discuss the problem with their department chair and a union representative, called a shop steward. If the problem cannot be resolved, the faculty member then meets with the administration.
      Nichols said that one of the administration’s main concerns during contract negotiations was how to work with a faculty represented by a third party that is not necessarily concerned with students or the quality of academic programs and curriculum.
      “The thing that was most important to the institution was maintaining our rights to manage the institution and not to give over management of an academic institution to a union,” she said.
      According to Nichols, implementing the contract has proved to be complicated because the administration could not plan for the contract until it was agreed upon.
      “We couldn’t say, ‘okay, how are we going to do this,’ until October 31 at six in the morning,” she said. “That was a year ago. That is not a lot of time.”
      Some problems that the contract has raised include setting standards for professor evaluations and determining the base loads of classes.
      Implementing the contract also leads to structural complications. Before the contract, The New School was organized on a divisional structure in terms of hiring and overseeing part-time faculty. Now divisions like Lang, which has a smaller ratio of part-time faculty and fewer students, where department chairs have less curriculum and staff to manage than other divisions, must cooperate with others as one central university. This has made the contract difficult to implement across the board.
      “We have to look at it from a unique perspective, which means that we have to put in place uniform systems that are fair and equitable across the university,” Nichols said. “That may come into conflict with local practice.”
      Officials frequently meet with the union to discuss grievances or work out structural problems. The Provost’s office put together an ACT-UAW implementation group last winter that is made up of human resources, general council and divisional representatives in order to work on implementing the contract.
      The group meets once a week and requires quick decision-making in order to “collectively come up with practices that none of us has done before but will work for all of us,” Nichols said.
      Having union representation for the part-time faculty benefits the university, according to Clausen. In the past, well-liked professors would often leave the university because there was no guarantee they would have classes the next semester or year, she said.
      “It will contribute to the continuity in the faculty,” Clausen said. “Potentially, it creates a part time faculty that is more invested in the institution.”
      The contract also forces the administration to be transparent and democratic in its dealings with the faculty, Clausen said, which allows academic freedom to flourish.
      “Knowing that you won’t be just tossed out on a whim makes people feel more free to actually advocate,” Clausen said.
      A union does, however, have the potential to cause problems, especially within a university that lacks financial resources, like The New School, according to Nichols.
      “I am not saying this is reality, but if people’s time is taken up meeting over grievances to a degree that is unreasonable, we will have to change how we staff and how we resource,” Nichols said. “And that means resources will be taken away from supporting faculty and students in other ways.”
      Students could also be adversely affected, Nichols said, if faculty are protected by the contract without being held to high academic standards. However, the contract does allow university officials the right to determine the qualifications of its faculty, she added.
      The contract expires in 2009. Until next year, the administration will not be able to determine what parts of the contract they would like to change, because creating structures to implement the contract have to come first.
      Union officers are also hesitant to say what they would like to see added to the contract because it depends on what the membership as a whole decides. Some ideas, however, are increased benefits for online faculty and greater access to health benefits.
      Now, the union is focusing its efforts on strengthening the union membership. They are organizing union events, strengthening solidarity with the NYU unit, and “developing a group of activists who have some stake in this,” Clausen said.
      “There are a lot of people that might not feel a sense of connection with the institution because they are only here a few days a week,” Clausen added. “But, it’s like any form of democracy. There is an enormous amount of work to be done.”

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