I went to a meeting of the SCFA (Santa Cruz Faculty Association), the only union of tenure-track faculty in the University of California. I’ve been a dues-paying member of this union for a long time (20 years, maybe—I’d have to look at old pay stubs), but I’ve always been a bit disappointed in how toothless the union is—we’re not allowed to strike and the bargaining is limited to campus-specific items, which excludes salary and benefits. For a long time I referred to the organization as the Santa Cruz Parking Association, because about all they bargained with the university about was getting lower parking permit fees. Since I don’t drive, and UCSC already had the lowest parking fees of any of the UC campuses, I regarded this as childish whining.
Despite my dissatisfaction with SCFA as a union, I continued paying the voluntary dues. Note: HEERA in California specifically prohibits UC from having a closed shop for tenure-track faculty, though all other employees have closed-shop rules. Oops, sorry, I forgot the current euphemism: “Fair Share” rules. So the dues are voluntary and only about a quarter of the tenure-track faculty actually join the union and pay dues. (Given how toothless the union is, having a quarter of the faculty support it anyway is pretty amazing.)
I would like to belong to a faculty union that had some teeth and chose to use them to benefit faculty in a meaningful way, so I was hopeful when I heard that on the agenda for today’s meeting would be a discussion with other unions and union organizers (from AFT, CFT, and AAUP). The SCFA is officially affiliated with AAUP (since 2000, and about the only reasonable thing SCFA has done since I joined), so I was not expecting much more from AAUP. The AAUP does some useful stuff at a national level on policy issues (particularly academic freedom) and does damage control at a lot of institutions, but just about all the things they fight for are things that UC already does about as well as anywhere else (like shared governance), so there isn’t much that AAUP can say they’ll do better.
The lecturers and librarians on campus are represented quite ably by AFT, and I think that we could benefit from their example. Of course, it helps that they are a system-wide union, while UCSC is the only campus with unionized tenure-track faculty. We did hear about some successes that the lecturer’s union had over the years (some of which took three years of bargaining), but it was clear that the lecturers needed to have at least the threat of a system-wide strike to get the rabidly anti-union UC Office of the President to do sensible things that cost very little. UCOP wants desperately to have an entirely contingent labor force hired and fired on administrative whim.
UCSC may actually be the hardest campus for a union recruiting effort, despite being the most left-leaning campus—because we got a union a long time ago, but it was deliberately gutted of any power when it was created. We aren’t starting with a clean slate, but with a toothless union. Convincing faculty that if they just joined this toothless union it would magically stop being toothless is going to be very, very difficult—I doubt that even 100% faculty membership would give the SCFA much bite. We need new dentures.
The goal of the unions is to unionize the UC faculty on at least half the campuses, but from my standpoint that can only be a means, not an end. I did not get a clear picture of what this new, stronger union would do. There was a lot of posturing , but not much substance for most of the meeting. Towards the end, I raised what I considered the key problem—I can’t talk other faculty into joining the union unless I can given them a clear reason to do so. What would a union with more members do that the current toothless one does not? Nebulous statements about faculty power and a seat at the bargaining table are just noise.
The union organizers clearly recognize the problem and are looking for the motivating message. They’ll probably be visiting a lot of faculty, trying to find out what problems people are facing, looking for common problems that faculty all across the campus (indeed across all campuses) are facing. I suggested a few ideas: class size, number of TAs, lack of out-of-state tuition support for TAs, shortage of classrooms, increasing number and pay of administrative positions relative to faculty positions, decreasing clerical support, increasing emphasis on faculty getting external funding, time wasted on building fantasy empires in Silicon Valley, … .
The classroom issue may be a UCSC-only issue, since UCSC was the only campus that foolishly accepted an enormous increase in the number of students on the theory that resources would follow (thanks for nothing, MRC Greenwood). But the enormous growth in class sizes and lack of TAs is probably system-wide. On my recent trip for my son’s first college visit, I was amazed to see that the University of Colorado at Boulder has managed to keep class sizes down in a way that UC has not. I was not that impressed with some of their other choices about how to spend money (all sports, no engineering), but the class sizes did seem reasonable. In fact, the class size distribution reminded me of UCSC from 25 years ago, when things were a bit more sane in the state of California.
I don’t think that it is necessary for the motivating message to be one of personal interest to every faculty member. I know that when the TAs unionized on the UCSC campus, most of the engineering and science TAs were not the least bit interested—they didn’t see anything that the union could do for them. But when it was pointed out to them that the TAs in the humanities were not getting the same treatment that they were—indeed that the point of the unionization drive was to put the good practices of the engineering departments into the contract for all TAs—many of them joined out of a sense of justice, rather than self interest. But the justice of the requests must be clear, and it must be seen as strengthening the University of California, not weakening it.
I’m hopeful that with the union organizers concentrating on the problem, a way may be found to give the faculty a more unified voice, so that we don’t have the money men in UCOP being the only voice for the university (one that is usually at odds with the faculty, the staff, and the students). But it is going to be quite a while before I can tell any of my fellow engineering faculty that there is any point to joining the union. I think that this is the third time that the SCFA has tried to reform itself into a meaningful organization. I hope it succeeds this time, but I’m not holding my breath.