College faculty unions encourage better communication between administration and faculty

By Alaina Perdon

Elm Staff Writer

On Oct. 13, a Chestertown Spy article announced the faculty of Washington College had submitted a petition for voluntary union recognition to College Administration and the Board of Visitors and Governors. The WC chapter of the American Association of University Professors’ push for unionization is being supported by a majority of both tenured and contingent faculty.

“The College’s financial issues are very real,” President of AAUP-WC and Associate Professor of Music Dr. Kenneth Schweitzer said in The Elm in an Oct. 21 article. “Unionization will not make these issues go away. But they can ensure that the faculty have an actual say in addressing those issues by guaranteeing faculty a seat at the table and by creating transparency between the Board, the Administration, and faculty.”

The AAUP refers to itself as the “primary defender of academic freedom in American higher education.” According to the organization’s website, it was formed in 1915 by Johns Hopkins University philosopher Arthur O. Lovejoy and Columbia University economist Edwin R. A. Seligman, both of whom were also essential in crafting the AAUP’s founding document, The 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure.

The document defines academic freedom for an educator as “freedom of inquiry and research; freedom of teaching within the university or college; and freedom of extramural utterance and action.” The first legal cases of the AAUP dealt with protecting “the right of university teachers to express their opinions freely outside the university or to engage in political activities in their capacity as citizens.”

In modern times, the primary concerns of college faculty unions include upholding job security and protecting salary and tenure.

In a statement to Kent County News, AAUP-WC cites three main goals of unionizing, “stability in fulfilling the College’s educational mission; financial transparency and accountability; and equitable and humane compensation and working conditions.”

Belonging to a recognized union organization affords workers legal protections and support while advocating for their rights. Perhaps most importantly, the existence of a union provides a clear and enforceable set of workplace standards. 

Dr. Schweitzer explained that unionization places faculty in a “significantly stronger position to create change,” as the College’s administration will be “legally bound to negotiate employee contracts for all individuals under the union’s bargaining unit.”

Union literature outlines specific criteria that must be met by employers, including workplace safety measures, tenure qualifications, and freedom of extramural activity. Ensuring these rights in the microcosm of the work environment often leads to positive social change in the broader community.  

“Some research has shown that one of the most important things that unions can do is provide more structured and explicit criteria for tenure and promotion,” Dr. Timothy Reese Cain, assistant professor at the College of Education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said. “And, as we noted, some might join for broader social and societal reasons. We might think of social movement unionism, through which unions focus not just on the local work issues but on bigger issues affecting society.”

The Center for American Progress asserts that the competitive wages advocated for by unions drive productivity and innovation in the workplace. Moreover, giving a voice to workers in the workspace and in politics upholds democracy and fosters political participation.

Critics of labor unions cite the exclusive nature of the organizations as a negative presence in the workplace. It is oftentimes complicated when a portion of employees form a union, but others do not. Unions award particular benefits to their members, meaning employees at the same workplace may be treated differently if some choose not to unionize.

Unions place heavy significance on seniority as a means of rewarding loyalty and promoting career growth. Unfortunately, this may also mean limited opportunities for non-union workers to climb the ranks or make it difficult for employers to dismiss poorly performing employees if they have invested significant time in the company. 

Despite disparities that arise under certain circumstances, the intentions of unions are benevolent, and workers seeking unionization should be granted the right to defend their liberties. In a time of uncertainty for the College, the AAUP-WC has the potential to incite change that will benefit all members of the community.

“There is a lot of misinformation around unions — the biggest myth is that they divide workplaces,” said AAUP-WC Vice President and Associate Professor of Sociology and Black Studies and Department Chair of Sociology Dr. Rachel Durso in a statement to Chestertown Spy. “This is untrue. Unions provide critical, long-term structures to ensure all voices are heard and all members of our community are valued equally. Faculty know that; we’re confident College administration will understand that the overwhelming majority of faculty support a mandate to work together for the good of the future for our College.”

Above, a list of Washington College faculty in 1927. Featured photo, The Washington College faculty of 1927 photographed on the steps of William Smith Hall. Photos Courtesy of Pegasus.

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