SENATE MATTERS: Union’s impact unknown, but shared governance still important


The Senate Matters column frequently provides a forum for highlighting initiatives and policies that may be operating behind the scenes but remain important to our community. This column is different, though.

Rather, the focus of this column is the biggest news coming out of the University this week: The overwhelming vote of eligible faculty members and researchers to join the United Steelworkers’ Academic Workers Association.

Since the vote was announced, the executive committee of the University Senate has seen much discussion turn to what the union will mean for the University Senate and the concept of shared governance. And the answer is we just don’t know yet. For now, here’s what we do know, and what issues we will be watching closely as the process continues:

First, the vote marked the end of one long process and the beginning of still another long process. The eligible faculty have indicated they want a union, but not yet how that union will look. In the near term, little will change day-to-day due to the vote. The union will need to select leaders, and then those leaders will need to take part in negotiating a contract. Union organizers made a number of promises, but we should not expect those promises to be met anytime soon. Reaching a collective bargaining agreement will take time, perhaps years.

Second, all the members of the bargaining unit are eligible for University Senate membership, but not all University Senate members are members of the bargaining unit. Students, staff, department chairs, program directors, faculty members in the School of Medicine, and others will not be included in the new union but remain members of the University Senate. We greatly esteem and remain committed to the University Senate’s role in bringing together ALL members of the University community in service to the concept of shared governance. We believe strongly that the faculty union can coexist with this broader concept of shared governance, and we remain committed to supporting that concept as this process continues.

And third, the legal obligations of a contractual faculty relationship will of course place limitations on the principle of shared governance. The size and nature of those limitations are not yet known, however, because we do not yet know the nature of the contract. We believe that issues related to academic freedom, research autonomy, and other concerns specific to the university setting are best left to the shared governance process. We will be watching closely to see how the eventual union contract addresses these concerns and will be advocating for the maintenance of the University Senate and the concept of shared governance.

One thing is certain, though: The message from the faculty within the bargaining unit is clear. This was not a close vote. We hope the decisiveness of the win will bring this chapter to a close. We look forward to working with the union and the administration to help write this newest chapter.

Robin Kear is president of Senate Council and a liaison librarian in Research and Educational Support. Kris Kanthak is vice president of the Senate and a political science professor.