SIUE examines approach to unionization

By Kelsey Landis, The Telegraph, Alton, Ill.

Seasoned union specialists from Carbondale brought words of wisdom – and caution – to faculty at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville during an informational meeting between the two groups Wednesday.

Representatives from sister universities – professors, a union leader and a bargaining specialist – shared notes about the unionization process, which at SIUE involves about 400 tenured and tenure-track teachers. Though the two schools share leadership under President Randy Dunn, their union histories differ significantly.

Carbondale faculty made a failed attempt at unionization in 1988 under similar budgetary conditions the Edwardsville faculty faces today, but the effort was pushed back by administration. In 1996, Carbondale faculty succeeded in unionizing, but the process was poisoned by failed relations between teachers and administration.


Dr. Morteza Daneshdoost, the SIUC Faculty Association’s leader and retired professor, described an “us versus them” mentality between faculty and administration on the Carbondale campus. Mass layoffs preceding unionization in the 1990s, an unstable financial situation, and a slurry of chancellors and administrators coming and going lead to the less-than-perfect relationship that exists today, Daneshdoost said.

A toxic relationship with administration is something Edwardsville’s faculty hope to avoid, said SIUE Faculty Association campaign co-chair Linda Markowitz.

“The nature of unions isn’t to be adversarial. It’s to collaborate,” Markowitz said. “I think partly by the nature of having a union, in terms of collaboration, the administration will lose a little control, but it won’t make things worse. It won’t make things adversarial. It will just bring another player to the table. I think that’s important for administrators and faculty to understand. We want to work together. This is the future of SIUE.”

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Unlike the issues Carbondale faculty faced in their bid to unionize, Edwardsville faculty and administration both face the same, looming threat – the state’s nine-month-old budget impasse.

“Our argument right now is not with the current administration. There are some differences, obviously, but with the state and the kind of crisis it’s in now with the budget being held hostage, we think it’s very important as a faculty that we have a legally constituted, binding role to play in the future of SIUE,” said Charles Berger, campaign co-chair and English professor.

While a statement issued by SIUE’s administration, headed by Interim Chancellor Steve Hansen, earlier this month was not exactly supportive, it wasn’t negative, either, Berger said.


“We share the faculty’s concern with the state of Illinois. With our history of shared governance at SIUE, we believe that one unified voice will be more effective in positively influencing state legislators in support of higher education,” said Doug McIlhagga, executive director of University Marketing and Communications, on behalf of the institution.

The administration did not reply to requests for comment Wednesday by deadline.

The administration’s actions, however, are not the actions of an administration hoping to quell efforts at unionization, said Dr. Bret Seferian, a bargaining and grievance specialist for the Illinois Education Association.

“I know what it looks like when the administration is attacking you, and that’s not happening here,” Seferian said.

Tenured and tenure track faculty at Edwardsville are already organized informally under a faculty association, but hope to unionize with the help of the Illinois Education Association and the National Education Association (IEA-NEA). Non-tenure track faculty and staff are already unionized at SIUE.

The faculty group has functioned in relation to the IEA-NEA since 2000, but has not had the ability to ability to bargain collectively, and their collaborative suggestions to the university are only “advisory.”

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Unionizing would give faculty the means to bargain collectively, which means their say in determining salaries, benefits, working conditions and programmatic decisions would be legally and contractually binding.

If they succeed in organizing, the union’s first order of business will be to survey its membership to see what faculty are concerned about.

“Personally I think it will be really exciting to bring the faculty together as a union and have this really open discussion in which we are talking to each other with no fear that we have to please administrators,” Berger said. “Let’s really find out what the faculty wants and needs.”

One of those issues will likely be a student-to-faculty ratio.

“Sometimes people who are not teachers who feel it’s no big deal to add x-number of students, but the teachers who are actually working in the classrooms know that that’s not the case. And that issue has many different ramifications in many different departments,” Berger said.

The union would likely start formalizing and legalizing board policies early on, if it succeeds in organizing, so they could be enforced, Daneshdoost said.

If a majority of faculty sign on, the union could be formed by fall, according to the Illinois Education Association.

Berger says with a new chancellor coming in the next months and with the ongoing budget crisis, it’s the right time to organize.

“We’re at a good juncture.”


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