Letters to the EditorOpinion

Letter: University administrator's actions violate democratic ideas

Apparently, at the University, democracy is an idea that’s good enough to teach students, but not to live by.

Over the past six months, faculty at the University have been intensely debating the question of whether to form a union. There are plenty of reasons to organize — ongoing cuts to faculty health insurance, overcrowded classrooms and many other cuts to core missions while choosing to invest heavily in athletics and growth in administration. There has been plenty of debate of the pros and cons of faculty unionization. After extensive debate, last term a majority of both tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty formally voted to unionize together.

When the union drive was announced in January, the University stated that its leaders “support the right of workers to organize and have maintained neutrality on the issue of a faculty union.” But now that faculty have actually spoken, administrators decided they don’t want to honor the results of the vote after all.

Last week, the University revealed the hiring of two anti-union law firms, including a San Francisco firm that runs seminars promising to help managers keep their workplace “union-free.” Although fancy out-of-state lawyers may cook up sophisticated arguments for why faculty in particular shouldn’t be allowed a union, the truth is that this firm is devoted to denying union rights for all types of employees. In California, the firm is currently engaged in a fight to deny union rights to dining hall workers at Pomona College.@@http://www.pomona.edu/@@

With the help of these lawyers, University administrators are using scarce University resources in order to pursue extensive legal obstacles to the faculty union. Suddenly, the vote doesn’t matter, democracy doesn’t matter, the will of faculty doesn’t matter — apparently the only thing that matters is that administrators don’t want to have to negotiate with their faculty.

When questioned about the shift away from a neutral position, Interim University President Robert Berdahl@@http://www.oregonlive.com/education/index.ssf/2012/03/[email protected]@ surprised faculty representatives by asserting that he never said he was neutral, even though a spokesman from his office had said last term the administration was neutral.

University faculty have a legal right to a union. Oregon law is clear on this. Similar faculty unions to the one proposed by University faculty already exist at Portland State University, Eastern Oregon University and Western Oregon University. The long list of objections to a faculty union raised by University administrators makes clear the administration is not simply objecting to some aspect of the proposed union; instead the administration is opposing faculty unionization generally.

Although the proposed University union includes nearly 2,000 faculty, the University administrators have objected to all but approximately 200 faculty being in the proposed union. This is not reasonable. Historically, Oregon’s Employee Relations Board@@http://www.oregon.gov/ERB/[email protected]@ has generally preferred broader and more inclusive unions, such as the ones at PSU, Western and Eastern Oregon Universities — all of which include tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty together. The union that University faculty have proposed and voted for follows these models, so it is in keeping with Oregon law and precedent.

Opposing employee unionization is anti-democratic behavior, and is offensive in any industry. In a university setting, it takes an additional toll — it threatens to undermine the same values the University stands for. The University, as I understand it, strives to model civic life by being an open and democratic institution. This was why the administration at first said it would remain neutral to unionization and allow the faculty to decide democratically whether or not it wanted a union.

Now, after the vote, these principles are suddenly not important. Whatever students may major in, this year the University administrators are providing them an education in cynicism. No longer is the University a civic model; instead the administration’s behavior says to all of us, “You know all those things students are taught about philosophy and democracy, Plato and Jefferson? Those are just for inside the classroom! When you step outside into the real world, it’s dog-eat-dog and might-makes-right.” Democracy is only important as long as the faculty does not try to vote for something of which the administration does not approve.

Faculty are not asking administrators to agree to any particular proposals at this point. All we’re asking is for them to operate in good faith and not try to block faculty unionization generally. The administration could simply choose right now to honor the outcome of the democratic faculty vote, as did the administration at PSU 30 years ago. Instead of hiring two law firms to oppose faculty unionization, the University administration could choose to negotiate with faculty based on mutual respect, and to act in ways that preserve rather than to undermine the bonds of community.

Jane Cramer
University associate professor @@http://uoregon.edu/findpeople/person/Jane*[email protected]@

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