Blogs > Cliopatria > Hawai'i Strike Report: Thoughts on Unions and Institutions at an Impasse

Feb 26, 2004 9:33 am

Hawai'i Strike Report: Thoughts on Unions and Institutions at an Impasse

Thanks to the Invisible Adjunct, I ran across this article from Academe on unionization in higher education. The author, Daniel Julius, is quite bold in his predictions, but there's no question that unionization must effect changes in institutional practices. At the very least, as he suggests,"traditional" practices that are vague about whether participants in these institutions are working for themselves (research, athletics), for students (teaching, RA, tutors), or for the institution (committees, student supervision, teaching) and the blending of compensation and community status, will need to be clarified. Liability law alone demands clarification of the position of RAs in the university community/hierarchy.

I am one of the first to defend tradition and vagueness: our culture's drive to quantify and classify everything passed into pathology ages ago. But there's an element of"speed-up" in academia today: administrations and super-administrative bodies (boards, regents, state legislatures) are asking more of faculty -- technologically, pedagogically, productively, collegially -- and returning less, or at least no more than before. The use of contingent labor (and the not-so-subtle rises in tenure standards which result in higher untenured turnover, an as-yet unacknowledged form of contingent labor) is a part of that process, too, in ways both obvious and complex (and if you're not sure what I mean, you're not reading Invisible Adjunct).

This is not an abstract subject to me this week: the University of Hawai'i Professional Assembly (UHPA) is about to declare an impasse in negotiations with the state of Hawai'i. Actually, we've been in limbo for over half a year now: we ratified our current contract without an agreement on salary, so that our health benefits wouldn't get held up, but the grace period we agreed to for continued negotiation has passed without any movement, on either side. The state is offering a two year contract with no raise this year (which is what we've had for the last six months anyway) and a piddling 2% for next year; the union is asking for 5% this year (retroactivity negotiable) and 7% next year. The union position is based on the University administration's stated goals of raising our salary to, then beyond, the median for our"peer institutions"; the state position is based on a blanket refusal to consider raises (except for a few that they did raise) under" current fiscal conditions" (translation:"we don't want to have to work too hard at that messy budget stuff"). Irony Alert: UHPA endorsed the election campaign of the current Republican governor, after polling membership.

My feelings on the matter are decidedly mixed. I don't feel that most faculty here are paid particularly well, based on the work they do (our class sizes here at UH-Hilo have been creeping up for years as enrollments outstrip faculty hires; all the lower-division and most of the upper-division courses taught in history are at or near full enrollment; full and associate professors are grossly underpaid relative to peer institutions) and the value of the education provided to the state (not to mention the cost of living). The strike is a blunt instrument in education, a Weapon of Mass Negotiation, which affects the strikers and (mostly) innocent students much more than it affects the employer. Given that the only issue on the table is money, it's a little hard to justify drastic disruption of educational life, but money certainly is important, both practically and symbolically. No raise at all, when cost of living continues to rise, is essentially a pay cut, and it's hard to stomach, particularly when administrative salaries continue to rise and new administrative positions are being created, all on the backs of faculty accomplishments. Makes you wonder whether their committment to us is anything like our committment to them.

So there'll be meetings, including one on Wednesday to discuss whether the union should file"intent to strike" notification with the appropriate authorities. There's a few more steps after that: union board decides strike is a good idea; union membership authorizes strike including specific start date; strike actually begins. At any moment along the way, of course, negotiations might get serious. But there's a huge gap to bridge, and neither side seems inclined to split the difference.

I will post updates here, starting with the meeting Wednesday. My question, going into the meeting, is"are we being reasonable, in our negotiating position or our expectations?" I don't know if I'll bother asking it out loud, because the official answer will be a reiteration of our negotiating points, but it's what I'm listening for.

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More Comments:

Jonathan Dresner - 2/13/2004

You certainly won't get an argument from me about the state playing strategic games with and against the unions.

And I can't argue against your experience. But the contract renewal forms, as currently written, make clear (and appropriate) distinctions between the expectations for Instructional, Library and Specialist (is that what you mean by "clerical faculty"?) employees. Now it may be that the UHPA contract itself is flawed, or that the committees reviewing the applications aren't handling them properly. That's entirely possible. Or the situation may have changed enough between your time and mine that it isn't quite so bad anymore.

Joel Bradshaw - 2/12/2004

Librarians and ed support personnel who are represented by UHPA (not HGEA) are indeed evaluated by faculty metrics spelled out in the UHPA contract. I know because I applied for promotion as a "clerical faculty" publications specialist, and I know librarians and ed. specialists who have done the same, as well as others for whom it would be a lost cause because their work is not measurable by faculty metrics. In my case, I was able to make a decent case under research and service, but had little or nothing to show under teaching.

Furthermore, there has been a long-term tendency over the years for the UH to redefine HGEA ed. spec. and pub. spec. positions (which are tenured after 3 years of probation, with no application process required) as vacancies arise into nontenurable "clerical faculty" position represented by UHPA (which as you know is far smaller and weaker than HGEA). The UHPA pay scales are higher for similar duties (as pub. specs, say), but the job security is of course more limited.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/12/2004

While I agree that the problem of limited resource allocation can be difficult, a few of the issues you raise aren't really relevant. Librarians and other educational support personel aren't evaluated under the same rubrics as faculty. Yes, the committees that review them are usually made up, at some level, of tenured faculty, but that's true for us untenured faculty as well (though I agree that this traditional practice does raise the question of institutional agency).

And I assure you, there is no discussion of job action (as far as I've been involved anyway) which does not address the issue of effect on students. Actually, that was what ended the strike last time, I just learned (I'm new here): one day before the administration would have had to declare a "lost semester" and REFUND TUITION, a settlement was reached. Not a great settlement, but somehow they found room to compromise, not when student learning was at stake, but when faced with the actual loss of revenue.

Joel Bradshaw - 2/12/2004

Don't all public employee union members have to ask themselves whom they are striking against: their public employers or the taxpaying public they ostensibly serve? Failure to address that question last fall seems to have left the Honolulu bus drivers with fewer friends than they once had. (I've stopped buying the monthly bus pass that I've been buying for decades.) Not many public employees can legitimately ask themselves, as professors might, whether they work mostly for themselves (although I've known a few--not many--public employees who do seem to have answered that question in the affirmative).

There's also the question of the growing numbers of UHPA members who are performing clerical support functions for faculty (education specialists, publications specialists, etc.) and who have trouble meeting contractual faculty promotion criteria under the categories of teaching and research. Many are also hired by faculty committees on year-to-year, nontenurable contracts. Their employers are, in effect, the senior members of their own union, the tenured teaching and research faculty. They, and the other Invisible Adjuncts, are the ones whose positions will be cut to pay the raises for the tenured faculty.

In any case, I suspect the outcome will be that the State finally concedes to a slightly higher increase in salaries, and then provides a budget that forces the university to cut some positions to pay the raises for the rest. That certainly seems to be how they handled the HGEA (staff) raises last year.

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