Public labor unions may not have much power in Wisconsin these days, but a local at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been trying to flex its muscles recently.
United Faculty and Academic Staff (UFAS) circulated the resolution of no confidence in UW System leaders that was overwhelmingly endorsed by the campus faculty senate earlier this month, setting off a series of union-led actions across the state.
Chad Alan Goldberg, the UW-Madison sociology professor who drafted the resolution and helped marshal forces in support, is president of UFAS, Local 223 of the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin.
“The features of this university that have done so much to motivate me are now under attack,” Goldberg wrote in an op-ed piece explaining the genesis of the no confidence vote. “Worst of all, UW System President Ray Cross and the Board of Regents — the people who should the university’s biggest advocates — have been complicit in these attacks.”
The continued quality of the university is important to all residents of the state, Goldberg said. “We are standing in for them because they deserve better.”
After Madison's vote on May 2, shared governance organizations at River Falls, La Crosse, Green Bay, Stout, Parkside and UW Colleges quickly passed similar statements, as did a unanimous meeting of the full UW-Milwaukee faculty.
The no-confidence votes, which call on UW System leaders to renew their commitment to the mission of the university, are symbolic. Yet the votes have drawn cautions from legislators and others, including UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, that they don’t set a good tone for future budget discussions with the Legislature.
But UFAS leaders say the votes, and the media attention they received, were important because they got people talking. And they hope the attention convinces more faculty and academic staff to join the union.
The no-confidence statements “took conversations faculty, staff and students have been having about the future of public education in Wisconsin and brought them to a larger audience,” said Jason Lee, academic staff in the UW-Madison School of Education and secretary of UFAS, at a recent social gathering of the union’s members.
“The votes are a way to start engaging in a difficult environment,” Lee said. “We need to have a conversation about how we got to where we are and responses that are public, political, and student and worker focused.”
Beyond fostering public discourse on public higher education, UFAS leaders say the energy around the no confidence votes translates into increased membership, which has hovered around 100 for years, they say.
UFAS has been around since 1930, but collective bargaining among UW faculty and professional staff was prohibited by law except for a brief period at the end of Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration.
And there was no great enthusiasm to sign up for collective bargaining when it became possible in 2009.
“Historically at UW-Madison there has been some sentiment that is not friendly to union activity amongst academic staff," said Aaron Crandall, an academic staff member at the School of Medicine and Public Health and vice president of UFAS.
“Because we’ve had shared governance, I think there’s been this notion that we didn’t need a union,” Crandall said.
The Academic Staff Assembly at UW-Madison, a shared governance body, in 2007 opposed Doyle’s budget bill proposal to grant faculty and staff collective bargaining powers because of dissatisfaction with the conditions of implementation.
In 2010, the Academic Staff Assembly opposed efforts by several unions affiliated with AFT to reclassify staff positions at other campuses in order to include them in bargaining units, saying that step would deny staff the freedom to choose whether to join a union. The staff reclassifications became tied up on legal proceedings.
Faculty at UW-Madison showed little interest then in organizing to exercise collective bargaining. However, faculty at UW-Green Bay, UW-Eau Claire, UW-La Crosse, UW-River Falls, UW-Stevens Point, UW-Stout and UW-Superior voted in favor of collective bargaining representation. Gov. Scott Walker eliminated UW faculty and staff’s power to collectively bargain in his 2011-2012 biennial budget bill.
The erosion of the protections of tenure and shared governance protections under Walker’s 2015-2017 budget bill may make union membership more appealing on campus, members say.
In addition, the $250 million cut in state funding to the UW System in the budget brought belt-tightening that is thinning the ranks of faculty and staff through attrition and could bring layoffs this coming year.
“With the changes to tenure, it’s going to erode the overall climate of working at the university. We have to be cognizant of that,” said Crandall.
What can UFAS offer?
“We can bring up issues on a collective front and confront administrators together instead of individual by individual,” he said.
With changes in tenure that give administrators more latitude to lay off faculty and the relegation of faculty and staff to an advisory role in university governance, speaking out seems perilous to some, Lee said.
“But at some point, it’s riskier not to speak out. If we don’t fight now, who will?” he asked.
Theresa Duello, an associate professor at the School of Medicine and Public Health and UFAS grievance chair, said that there could not be a better time to join the union.
“My pitch is ‘now more than ever,’” Duello said.
A lack of collective bargaining powers doesn’t mean that UFAS members can’t work on pay issues, do salary equity studies or educate the public, she said. Right now, UFAS is detailing the impact of budget cuts.
“We need to be positioned and out ahead of it,” Duello said.
Kim Kohlhaas, AFT-Wisconsin president, said UW-Madison’s no-confidence resolution turned into a movement. She recalled watching progress of the resolution before the Faculty Senate on Twitter and “within 48 hours, nine campuses were considering the same action."
“It’s been very energizing to see workers stand together and say: ‘We’re going to defend our workplace,'” Kohlhaas said. In addition to nine UW institutions that immediately considered resolutions, several campuses are planning to take up the issue this fall, she said.
“Several campuses are looking at doing community events prior to a vote because they want to have conversations with their communities about it,” Kohlhaas said.
She said AFT-Wisconsin has affiliate units at nine campuses: UW-Madison, Milwaukee, Green Bay, Eau Clair, Stevens Point, La Cross, River Falls, Stout, Superior and Platteville.
“I think there is a big difference between the number of people who currently are members and the number of people willing to stand together on campus," Kohlhaas said.