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UMSL Faculty Pushes to Unionize on Campus

The fall 2016 semester is just beginning, and we are celebrating the Labor Day Holiday. Students are likely focused on getting their textbooks and nailing down their financial aid; however, many students may not be aware of another aspect of our campus that is likely to impact the learning experiences they will have at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. All classes of faculty—adjunct instructors, non-tenure track professors, and tenure-track/tenured professors—are fighting to exercise their right to unionize. We want a union because through years of budget crises and state-level funding cuts, the percentage of your tuition dollars that goes to the professors you interact with daily has been decreasing.

  • Adjunct instructors are not paid a living wage. In the college of Arts and Science, they earn between $3000-$3300 per class per semester that they teach, and they have no guarantee that their contract will be renewed the next semester. They often must teach courses at multiple universities to cobble together an income. This limits the time they can devote to your course and to you as an individual. They are the most exploited class of faculty in academia and adjuncts at other local universities (e.g., Washington University, St. Louis University, St. Charles Community College, St. Louis Community College) have already voted to unionize.
  • Non-tenure track (NTT) faculty will never be given the protection of tenure, an important feature of many full time faculty members’ contracts, which protects their right to pursue rigorous research free from the constraints of university politics.  Many NTT faculty members are also denied sufficient resources to conduct academic research. NTT faculty are paid considerably less than tenure-track faculty and must teach additional courses despite often having equivalent qualifications. Their contracts are yearly, and they can be let go at any time without just cause. Their precarity affects whether the courses you need in order to complete your degree will be available in future semesters.
  • Tenure track faculty suffer from severe salary compression, which essentially punishes them for staying at the institution—they go without a raise or cost-of-living adjustment every year that they could have gotten it if they went to another university. The mean assistant professor salary at UMSL is nearly $7000 lower than the national average for four-year state universities (The Chronicle of Higher Education 2014 figures), and faculty in the social sciences and humanities are paid considerably less than even the campus average. Being a professor is no longer an upper middle class profession; however, our chancellor earned $319,802 last year–more than five times the average salary of an assistant professor and almost eight times higher than the average NTT.
  • We have had a hiring freeze for two years, so positions that were previously unfilled have remained empty, and faculty who are leaving for better paying positions are not being replaced. This limits student course options and increases the service responsibilities of those faculty who stay, limiting the attention they can devote to students’ needs.
  • UMSL suffers from minimal shared governance between the administration and faculty. All personnel issues (e.g., pay, benefits, working conditions) are forbidden from being discussed by members at Faculty Senate. Students and non-member attendees cannot even speak at meetings of committees of the Faculty Senate. This was most stark at the budget committee meeting last spring where over 100 employees and students attended but were not allowed to comment on the proposed budget cuts, which were made without our input.

This is not just about salary. This is about the fact that our working conditions and hence the educational culture of our institution are not under our control. Part of the budget alignment last school year included increasing faculty teaching loads without increasing compensation or implementing a mechanism to fight that increased workload. Benefits such as health insurance at retirement were cut. Human resources has been mostly outsourced to the UM system from the UMSL campus.

Unionization is about representation and equity. As a member of a larger university system, UMSL is at the bottom of the totem pole. UMSL receives the least funding per student, yet has the poorest student body with the greatest need and is the most ethnically diverse campus. We consistently have the smallest representation on system-wide committees, though we have the same size student body as the University of Missouri-Kansas City and more students than the Missouri University of Science and Technology. This is about fighting the already vast amounts of inequality on and off our campus.

What we want

We want faculty to hold a vote to unionize—a right enshrined in US law. Missouri law requires the administration of the University of Missouri system to determine and implement the details of our election process. We hope that they will give us a quick and fair process that follows the National Labor Review Board’s guidelines:

  • The right to file for election when 30 percent of eligible employees sign a union card declaring their support
  • An election administered by a neutral third party
  • Voting via mail-in election ballots

We have yet to receive word from the UM system regarding which process they would support. In fact, the only response we have received has been two letters from Interim Provost Christopher Spilling asking faculty to “take all factors into consideration when thinking of [their] own future and that of the institution” with regards to unionizing. The tone of this statement was taken by many as threatening. It is illegal to fire employees for attempting to unionize, but employees without stable contracts do not need to be fired in order to lose their jobs. Their contracts are simply not renewed. But we will not be intimidated.

We teach because we are passionate about generating knowledge and helping our students achieve their goals by becoming more engaged members of their communities. Our passion is being exploited though. We are being paid less, our benefits are dwindling, our working conditions are degrading, and we are being told to accept all of this because we ‘love what we do.’ We think that if students knew what the UM system expected out of their faculty, they would be outraged. We hope you will support us in demanding an election process from the UM system, so that we can hold a vote on forming a union. This could include writing to the system administration, holding solidarity rallies, or merely telling your faculty you stand with them. We are celebrating a holiday that honors the history of the Labor Movement in our country and internationally, and yet our rights to unionize are being dismissed. We hope you will stand with us to build a better community at UMSL.

Originally published in The Current.

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