Washington College’s faculty members continues to strive for unionization

By Grace Apostol

News Co-Editor

Discussions regarding a faculty union at Washington College are nothing new. Following several years of conversations, votes, and deliberations, the American Association of University Professors WC chapter formally entered a hearing with the College and is now awaiting decisions on the future of potential unionization of the faculty.

According to an article written by Kelly Hand, the College established their own chapter of the AAUP in 1949. The chapter laid “dormant” until faculty members aided in the organization of the branch due to a “financial crisis” at the College during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Associate Professor of History at the College and the Secretary-Treasurer for WC’s AAUP chapter, Dr. Clayton Black, sat on the Budget Task Force from Fall 2019 into Spring 2020.

“It was clear that the College was headed into financial straits,” he said. “So we needed to come up with ideas how we might economize, or how we might cut some of our expenditures.”

The faculty that sat on this force included Frank J. Creegan, Professor of Green Chemistry and Associate Dean of Faculty Dr. Anne Marteel-Parrish, The Young Ja Lim Professor of Economics Dr. Robert Lynch, and Associate Professor of Philosophy Dr. Jennifer Benson.

Also on the committee were four faculty members: Vice President for Planning and Policy and Chief of Staff Dr. Vic Sensenig, former Director of Human Resources Carolyn Burton, Executive Director of Institutional Giving and Stewardship Joe Holt, and Associate Vice President for Finance and Administration Laura Johnson.

The “Budget Task Force” worked together to find “options” to relieve the financial stress of WC.

According to Dr. Black, the report held many items that committee members did not necessarily agree with but were possibilities for the College to look at.

“Our responsibility was to prepare a list of options for the College to face,” Dr. Black said. “Anything was on the table.”

On April 24, 2020, the members of this team met with the “Budget Oversight” Committee of the Board of Visitors and Governors to share their report findings.

After the meeting between the two committees, those on the faculty side of the task force felt that the BVG was looking into decisions that did not help the College in its financial distress.

“It seemed to us that the choices that they did want to make were drastic and potentially very harmful to the College,” Dr. Black said. “In fact, the faculty members of the Budget Task Force wrote a letter saying, in effect, that we think this is bad for the College.”

The Spring 2020 Semester held several other significant decisions made by the BVG, including the academic year ending in the firing of 14.3 Full Time Equivalent faculty members, a figure that included tenured, visiting, and adjunct professors whose classes did not equate to full time.

These decisions spilled into the Summer of 2020, with emails sent out to the College faculty about decisions to deplete aid in retirement plans, certain stipends, and healthcare advantages.

Chair of Anthropology & Archaeology and WC at-large member of the AAUP Chapter Dr. Emily Steinmetz described these messages to the faculty as “doom email after doom email.”

According to Assistant Professor and Chair of Communication and Media Studies and WC at-large untenured member of the AAUP Chapter Dr. Meghan Grosse, the WC faculty passed a resolution on May 27, 2020 to explore the potential of unionizing as a group, and thus formed the Union Working Group, which first met June 5, 2020. An AAUP Advocacy Chapter at the College was formed on June 29 and became recognized by AAUP National on Aug. 20.

Within the fall semester of 2020, on Oct. 13, the WC faculty asked the College for “voluntary recognition” as a union. According to the executive members of the AAUP-WC chapter, if the request were to be accepted, the faculty would not have to go through a hearing with the National Labor Relations Board. WC, however, denied the request.

“We tried to have a dialogue actually about it and weren’t really invited to have a dialogue about it,” Dr. Steinmetz said regarding the decision to deny the group’s request.

Because of this denial, the chapter would have to petition the NLRB for unionization and go through a fact-finding hearing to aid in determining the outcome of unionizing for the faculty of WC.

The group decided to wait to petition the organization until May 15, 2023 and then revoked it on June 9, 2023, a day before the initial hearing due to unforeseen circumstances.

“We were fully committed to going forward with the hearing,” Dr. Steinmetz said. “Our attorney learned something from [the College’s] attorneys the afternoon before the hearing that he felt was critical

information that he hadn’t had before, and needed time to prepare for that.” This information is unknown at this time.

Once more, the chapter of AAUP-WC submitted a petition to the NLRB on July 24, 2023, with another request for recognition to the College to cement the importance of unionizing to the National board submitted on July 27.

After years of deliberation and planning, both parties’ hearings occurred from Aug. 22 through Aug. 24.

Standing now, both sides’ lawyers will submit briefs to the NLRB, with all involved waiting for a decision from them to come potentially up to nine months, according to Dr. Sensenig.

Many of the faculty members pushed for unionization at WC due to the idea of “shared governance” needing to be implemented.

“We wanted all the parties to have a say in how to thus manage the College, and that was basically out the window,” Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies and AAUP-WC Vice President Martín Ponti said.

On the staff side of WC, some feel that regardless of the “model” the College had, the students’ education is a high priority.

“Our top priority is providing students with an excellent, transformative college experience and equipping faculty and staff with what they need to support our students and each other,” Dr. Sensenig said. “No matter what governance model we have, union or not, that’s going to be what we do. Washington College’s faculty and staff are as great as you will find anywhere. Our current shared governance framework can continue to be strengthened and is a tremendous resource in achieving our mission.”

On the faculty side, Dr. Steinmetz said that none of this has to do with one person, but institutions as a whole.

“This is not about individuals, this is about systems and institutional arrangements,” she said.

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