Thursday, May 20, 2010

 

Ask the Administrator: Adjusting to a Union Shop

A newish dean at a new institution writes:

Adding to the coming in from the 'outside' pressure is the fact that the faculty have a union. When a colleague tried to begin an assessment program to meet the [agency] accrediting revisions, the faculty union point man and union pooh-poohed the measure. As of now, the assessment process consists of an open-ended "how do you assess student learning" question for each faculty member. It's my new job to get things where they need to be--identify, measure, report, use, repeat.

In [previous state] we had neither a union no shared governance. How do I balance the needs of the faculty with the needs of the institution? I don't know if you care to turn this into a column, but a word from the wise would be most appreciated.



Managing in a union environment is very different from managing in a non-union environment. (I've done both.) From this side of the desk, the clear disadvantage to a union shop is that you have a structural antagonist with material incentives to make your life difficult from time to time. Even if you're doing well, union leadership has to draw the occasional blood just to keep winning elections. This means that there's a certain level of conflict that will never go away. It's the price of admission.

Depending on your particular union and contract, you may also find yourself boxed into some very weird corners by past interpretations of stray contractual clauses or past practices. You may also find, depending on the vagaries of local history and culture, that the union leadership may be disproportionately populated by the crankiest of the cranky. (I'll admit to having been pretty lucky on this count.) If the contract is particularly complicated and/or 'mature,' you may find yourself hard-pressed to dot every 'i' in every case, just because there are so many. Sometimes you'll find contractual clauses contradicting each other, which is just a huge bundle of fun.

That said, though, I actually prefer managing in a unionized setting.

For one thing, they give you an official person to talk to when you need to get the pulse of the faculty. In a non-union shop, there's always someone, somewhere, who will claim not to have been consulted. In a union shop, if you 'impact bargain' a change with the unit, you've met your obligation. If the union isn't sufficiently representative, that's the union's problem, not yours.

Union shops also tend to have much more explicit procedures for many things, which means that you don't have to invent them all. That can be a pain, but it can also insulate you from post-hoc legal challenges. Anytime you can start a discussion with "per clause such-and-such of the contract...," you're in good shape. And I've had great luck using the contract as an excuse to avoid cutting side deals. "Gee, that's a good argument, but I can't set that precedent. If you want to bring that idea to the negotiating table, of course, you're welcome to..."

I've had good luck treating the union as a sort of colleague. I assume that both sides want to do right by the students, to stay out of needless legal trouble, and to have a fair enough working environment that people spend relatively little time on internal politics and more time actually doing what they were hired to do. When the union raises a point about a workload inequity, I take it seriously and try to resolve it quickly so that we don't lose months in unproductive conflict. The union has realized that it can get much of what it wants without going ballistic, so it doesn't go ballistic as often. I consider that a win-win.

Reading the recent dust-up in blogland about spousal hiring and salary compression, I can attest that having across-the-board raises and mechanistic determinations of starting salaries actually takes a host of issues off the table. Since nobody has discretionary money for merit raises -- what's a merit raise? what's 'discretionary money'? what are these words other people use? -- there's no discrimination in their application. Women here make what men make, which may explain why the full-time faculty here is majority female. (Most of the deans are women, too, for that matter.) When everybody gets the same raise -- or everybody gets the same big fat zero that we got this year -- you don't have to deal with accusations of infernal motive. Across-the-board raises are remarkably easy to administer. They're too low for the really terrific performers, and frankly too high for some folks who do juuust enough to not get fired, but they're easy to administer. (Predictably, that pretty much destroys any connection between "performance" and "reward," which leads to other issues.) We don't even do counteroffers, so the idea that counteroffers amount to a form of sexism -- on the theory that men are less place-bound than women -- is moot here. If you want to go, go. We pay what we pay. The whole "good girls don't negotiate" thing doesn't mean much here, either, since the negotiation that really counts is collective.

(Reading the dustups in blogland, I sometimes feel like I live on Mars. I'm in a public, teaching-intensive, unionized institution in a blue state. Context matters. The kinds of shenanigans that FSP wrote about would last about ten minutes here.)

Shared governance is a separate, though related, issue. Some colleges with unionized faculties forego faculty senates (or anything similar), on the grounds that the union already represents the faculty. I'd argue that that's a mistake. A union is supposed to deal with issues around compensation, terms and conditions of employment, due process, and equity. It is not supposed to deal with curriculum. A faculty senate or a similar venue can serve as a useful venue in which to have discussions of curriculum, outcomes assessment, and other, properly academic, issues. If you have a venue like that, I'd start there; if not, I'd suggest helping to establish one. What you absolutely cannot do is tell your accrediting agency that you can't do assessment because the union won't let you. That won't fly, and the union should have nothing to do with it. It's not a collective bargaining issue. Faculty need to be central to it, but not in that venue.

In terms of making actual headway on assessment, I'd advocate a step-by-step approach. Start with some pilot programs, and trumpet their successes to the entire campus. Be sure to address the usual anxieties that assessment programs tend to raise: workload, sub rosa performance evaluation, standardization, etc. If you don't address those anxieties, they'll likely overpower you. It will be a slow process, and you'll have to settle for half a loaf more often than not, but it needs to be done.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, especially those who've managed in union shops, what would you add (or correct)?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Comments:
A unionized contract is your best friend! They are a pain to negotiate, but once that is said and done, you have something you can reference for all sorts of issues. Good luck!
 
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I think that what the new dean is facing is typical tactics of the union to minimize, as much as possible, the impact that this will bring. They're bargaining from a position of not letting cracks appear in the current contract. The new dean, not being familiar with this mode of administration, is obviously a bit at sea.

Speaking as someone who's worked in a unionized environment since I was a grad student, it is what it is. The union will be more interested in seeing that these changes aren't being used to run around the CA. Some union reps might seem obstructionist, but, I agree with Dean Dad that, knowing this, unionized negotiations can really stand you and the faculty in good stead.
 
I thought I'd explode when I read Dean Dad's comment that "union leadership has to draw the occasional blood just to keep winning elections." That's simply not true--at least where I work and where I've been union president or grievance chair or negotiating team member or two of these or all three for over 20 years.

I'm proud to say that our union has drawn plenty of blood, bucketsful, even--but only when administration (usually an egomaniacal college President) has gotten 'way out of line.

But I calmed down after I read the rest of DD's post: "I actually prefer managing in a unionized setting" and "I've had good luck treating the union as a sort of colleague."

These comments are dead on. Union members "want to do right by the students, to stay out of needless legal trouble, and to have a fair . . . working environment." We come closest to these goals when management and the union work together. In my experience, the union figured this out a long time ago. It's management that needs training and reminding.

DD is also right on about shared governance (NOT a union issue) and the need for a strong Academic Senate, especially to deal with assessment of of student learning.

At my CA campus, we're struggling with assessing student learning, which has been imposed on us by the accreditation process.
Developing and figuring out a way to measure Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) is a matter for the Academic Senate.

The problem I'm anticipating is that SLOs are going to become a workload issue--which IS a union matter. If faculty members have to fill out some kind of yet-to-be-developed rubric for each and every one of our individual students to assess their learning (and I'll pause inside these parentheses to say that I think this is, given the number of independent variables in any human behavior, simply impossible), then we're talking about five classes of anywhere from 30 to 45 students times two semesters or three quarters plus summer sessions in every academic year.

How we will fit these umpteen hours of extra work into our contractually-agreed-upon workloads remains to be seen.

--Philip
 
Please forgive me, this is totally off topic, but I really need some advice:

I have recently been offered a tenure track job at a community college (orally), and I am in the process of starting the employment paperwork although I have not received an official letter yet. However, I recently found out that they are still conducting interviews (particularly with a colleague). Is my job in jeopardy? Are they opening another position? I'm really confused. I've called once for indirect confirmation that I've been hired and I believe I'm not mistaken. Any insight would be really helpful.
 
If you don't have a signed offer letter, you don't have a job. Get that offer signed ASAP.
 
To the last Anon, what Ivory said, and also keep a copy of every shred of documentation (including notes from phone calls) that might be legally valuable.

But I will also observe that I have seen extra positions appear when circumstances (a sudden additional retirement or death with a multitude of suitable candidates) change at the last minute.
 
I'd be tempted to point out that your main interest is to avoid having to put into effect the firing process in the contract if the college loses its accreditation in a few years. There is a real challenge in meeting what looks like a massively onerous additional mandate, union or no union, when Assessment first walks in the door. (Pause while I perform mandatory ablutions for having said the A word.)

I'd love to hear what DD has to say about it, but maybe his CC isn't where we are in the cycle so it isn't on his radar yet.

My guess is that the ultimate answer is to find out how companies managed to avoid going out of business while implementing ISO9001 and model our solution on theirs. Some may seek the accreditation equivalent of the Least Publishable Unit, but I think the key is to turn what we are already doing into what they have vaguely articulated [the agency] wants to see from us.
 
i'm a little late with this post, but i have to say that i guess unions are different in higher-ed than public school.

my wife is a teacher, and she is always struggling with the union (she is a non-union teacher). she had a team-member (phrase used for "coworker" or "another teacher") [sporadically] call in sick for 60% of the days in a semester, and the students and other teachers suffered intensely. the students got behind in their work, and the teachers had to use their plan periods to cover her class. but the union defended her and threatened the school, so she kept her job. she was eventually moved to another school because that was the only option.

there was another instance in which a teacher harassed another teacher because of her height (in front of the students) by holding a folder up in the air and making the short teacher jump to reach it. the union defended the tall one, and made threats if she faced repercussions.

the principals try to enforce business casual dress-codes, but union members don't adhere (because it's not in their union contract). this has actually led to a fairly big downturn in union membership at my wife's school, with only about 1/3 or so teachers being union members (all of the old ones).
 
The Assessment pony is coming down the track but DD is right. The first thing to do is enlist the help of the faculty senate. The second thing to do is find some faculty who are invested in improving their teaching and really want to know if their students are improving over the course of the semester.

Third, be flexible about what you mean by assessment. Some SLOs are amenable to quantitative assessment, some aren't. If you want to have faculty buy into assessment, you have to ask them what methods would be the most appropriate for their discipline.

Finally, be patient. This is going to take a long time. If you try to force it, or use a one size fits all approach, its going to take longer.
 
I teach at a high school, and I'm glad we're unionized.

Sick leave is covered by the contract, as is the hiring of supply teachers to cover absent teachers when we are sick. Missing 60% of the semester sounds excessive, and if the contract is properly worded that will require medical verification.

There is no dress code, which is handy for those of us who wear shorts (because our classrooms are over 110°) or jeans (because we must crawl on a floor that is covered with dust and food droppings to plug in equipment).

Harassment issues (and the folder incident sounds like one) are dealt with by administration. The union will get involved to the extent of ensuring that the procedures are consistently followed and the accused is given a fair hearing, but they will not mindlessly protect people who shouldn't be teaching.
 
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