AAUP-KSU’s Full-Time Non-Tenure-Track Collective Bargaining Unit: It’s Been 16 Years!

Chris McVay (English and Pan-African Studies)

 Back in 1991, I started a newsletter called pro-fess-ing about non-tenure-track faculty issues. I made it as entertaining and informative as possible and sent it out to all faculty and administrators at Kent State every two weeks. Basically, I was just venting. I had no idea that it would lead to my involvement in organizing a collective bargaining unit. (In 1991, I didn’t even know what a collective bargaining unit was!) Looking back, however, I am convinced that that newsletter, filled with personal anecdotes and opinions by various (and often anonymous) contributors about our impact on higher education, had primed Kent’s so-called “full-time temporary faculty” to vote to unionize and the rest of the university community to accept (and perhaps even welcome) that move. Looking back, too, I can honestly say that being involved in the creation of the first bargaining unit for full-time non-tenure-track faculty in the country was hard work, but it is an accomplishment I am very proud of. There is nothing like a collective bargaining unit to get your non-tenure-track faculty (full- or part-time) a little respect, as well as a little more money and better working conditions.

That newsletter got the attention of then AAUP-KSU President Mike Lee, who offered the use of the AAUP’s copy machine. I also started working part-time in that office and gradually came to understand what collective bargaining units are all about—in great part, thanks to the very patient Sue Averill, at that time AAUP-KSU secretary and later Executive Director. By the 1993-94 academic year, Eric Heller, who taught math at the Trumbull Campus, and I decided we wanted to try to organize. I started discussing the possibility in pro-fess-ing, and Eric and I were also lobbying various tenure-track faculty “hotshots”. We were constantly on the phone and making visits, but it paid off: In the spring of 1995, the AAUP-KSU Chapter’s council voted unanimously to support our efforts. This meant a lot: Besides being a morale-booster, we had, on a more practical level, use of their lawyer and their office and the equipment and supplies in it. It was also through this local chapter of the AAUP that we were put in touch with the National AAUP and its professional organizers.

Once we had the support of our local tenure-trackers (at least, a good number of them) and the AAUP (local, state and national), we used them! We pumped them for everything they knew! We called them with the silliest of questions! And we listened to what they told us! But we always kept in mind that they do not know everything! Especially about us! Educational associations are used to dealing with tenure-track faculty. We were a different breed of cat, and they were (and many are today) still coming to terms with that. Case in point: During our card-signing campaign, we had a heck of a time getting just 30% of the eligible faculty members to sign cards stating that they wanted to be represented by the AAUP; the local chapter and the “experts” at the AAUP national office were certain we’d lose the election to create a bargaining unit, because “you need 50% of the cards signed to win an election”; I was just as certain that non-tenure-trackers were simply too scared to sign those cards but that they would vote for representation (which 80% of those who voted, did do).

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Before we began a card-signing campaign (and with constant guidance from Sue Averill), we called the State Employment Relations Board (SERB), and learned a lot—certainly more than I for one wanted to know—about how the rules work in Ohio. Knowing correct procedure was vital. I think I started out with the assumption that the people at SERB saw it as their duty to be an obstacle to people like us, but I was wrong! They were there to help! I found a guy who was very patient and explained things very clearly. And I called him fairly regularly, just to make sure we were doing things correctly. For example, we made up our own cards for our faculty to sign requesting an election for a collective bargaining unit, and this guy told me exactly what the cards should say.

The actual card-signing campaign was actually getting our non-tenure-track faculty to sign two cards: one requesting that the state conduct an election to determine whether these faculty wanted a collective bargaining unit in which they would be represented by AAUP, and a second card stating that the faculty member would be willing to become a dues-paying member of that organization. The really hard part was, of course, actually getting out there and talking to eligible card-signers. We had 160 names of faculty who were classified as so-called “full-time temporary” faculty spread out over eight campuses, and there were two of us who were really, really committed. I did the behind-the-scenes work: newsletters, mailings, calling SERB, etc., while my colleague, Eric, spent the spring and summer of 1995 visiting almost every person on our list, some of them two or three times. He was remarkable. Once we had our measly 30% (the minimum required by SERB), we sent them by certified mail to that office, which in turn notified our administration and set up an election date in the fall of 1995.

The AAUP’s lawyer had to get together with the university lawyers to determine who was eligible to vote in the election and be a member of the new bargaining unit. We made a serious error here by not insisting that one of us be present for this discussion. We left it up to the executive officer and the lawyer, neither of whom really understood the various ways “full-time temps” were classified on the different campuses and in all the departments and schools; thus, the administration managed to whittle our potential unit down from 160 to 120 souls, and several of those who became ineligible had been strong supporters. I am still sorry about this. My other regret is that we could not save Eric Heller’s job.

During the months between the close of our card-signing campaign and the election, there was a barrage of anti-union propaganda from Kent State’s administration. They started out fairly gentlemanly but had removed their gloves by the last few weeks. While I put out letter after letter refuting the administration’s propaganda, Eric continued visiting faculty and making phone calls urging them to vote for representation. And even after the votes were in and we had won, the administration challenged the results on the basis of three technicalities, which were bogus and we knew it, but we had to wait until SERB had a hearing and declared them bogus before our bargaining unit was certified in February of 1996.

Whew! Our first bargaining unit president was Kathy Wolf (math), and our first chief negotiator was Jeanine Bernstein (nursing). I was a member of the bargaining team that summer, and we spent a lot of hours arguing with each other and hammering out our first agreement with the administration. It was hard, tedious work (and I didn’t ever want to do that again!). We were pleasantly surprised, however, by how well the administration, and specifically their chief negotiator Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs Jim Louis, treated us. I am not suggesting that they gave us everything we wanted, but they did treat us respectfully, and we have managed to maintain a civil relationship since then.

When we went into negotiations, my yearly salary was about $22,000. When we had finished at the end of that summer, I was making $27,000, and I, of course, was not alone. All of us NTTs have gotten yearly raises ever since (I am up to $52,000 as of Fall 2009), which did not happen regularly before our bargaining unit existed. We have some job security (it is not tenure, but it is better than nothing), a grievance procedure, some input in governance, benefits, and, perhaps most important, more respect than we ever had before. And nobody calls us “temps” anymore.

I do not mean to suggest that since our certification, our collective life at the university has been an easy downhill coast. It took us until the spring of 2002 to hammer out an understanding with tenure-track bargaining unit about how we would relate to each other (if at all!), and it was more than a year after that before we agreed on a constitution for the NTT unit. Some of our tenure-track AAUP colleagues were quite skeptical about sharing chapter governance with us, but it has worked out just fine.

I also do not mean to suggest that I did any of this single-handedly. I will always be mindful that I owe much gratitude to Valory Liebelt (who originally came up with the newsletter idea but then disappeared into the corporate world), to Eric Heller (wherever he may be), to Sue Averill (the AAUP-KSU Executive Director at the time) for her advice, encouragement, hand-holding and friendship, to Kathy Wolf (who challenged my thinking more than she ever knew), to Sandy Eaglen (who actually seemed to enjoy the tedious work involved in negotiations and grievances), to Mary Lee Sandusky (who from the beginning tirelessly kept a record of all our thinking and progress), to all the tenure-track unit presidents who have supported us (sometimes, I suspect, at great risk to their sanity), to all the tenure-track faculty who have supported us (when many of their colleagues would not), to Tracy Laux (the current NTT president, who “rescued” me from that office when I was finally burnt out and who has been so wonderfully pro-active), to Marsha Keith (who helped us all keep an eye on what’s really important and maintain a healthy sense of humor through the years), and to Coleen (Casey) Taylor and Shannon Mangrum (for all they do now and will do for us in the future).