Working Together

New York's United University Professions, an AAUP affiliate, bridges the divide between faculty and academic professionals.
By Tom Matthews

I recently heard a faculty member suggest that we could solve the current budget mess by getting rid of administrators. Seems like a simple solution and an easy way to save faculty jobs.

I have not heard academic professionals suggest getting rid of faculty, although our administration is in the process of eliminating departments and programs—and that does mean getting rid of professors. Faculty members were also administrators in academia until colleges and universities needed to expand services beyond the classroom and administrative functions became more specialized.

During the last twenty-five years or more, administrative jobs have increased dramatically as colleges compete for students. Who could argue that we can get by without more admissions counselors or more technology experts to make sure e-mail and computers are promptly fixed or more fundraisers in advancement to pursue needed money? We must stop pointing fingers and agree that academic professionals are a vital part of the modern university environment. The faculty needs us and we need the faculty.

The history of United University Professions (UUP) suggests that unions can tear down the walls that frequently separate the faculty and the academic professionals.

In 1967, I moved from residence-life work at the State University of New York College at Brockport to a new job as an academic professional staff member in student affairs at SUNY College at Geneseo. That same year, New York State authorized collective bargaining for public employees through the landmark Taylor Law. Until that time, I had never had any experience with or involvement in collective bargaining, but it quickly became apparent to me that all employees in the State University of New York were eventually going to be represented by an organized union. I joined a group that started organizing the professional staff—the State University Professional Association (SUPA).

Three years later, in 1970, the Public Employees Relations Board, created to oversee collective bargaining for public employees, determined that SUNY’s faculty and professional staff should be placed in the same bargaining unit and ordered a single-unit election. The Senate Professional Association (SPA), affiliated with the National Education Association, won the election. I voted for the SPA because several of its leaders had also been involved in SUPA, and they impressed me with their commitment to ensuring that the nonteaching professionals (a term I despise) would be treated fairly and respectfully in the new union. Ultimately, the SPA merged with other unions, and in 1973, UUP was born. I was an elected delegate from the Geneseo chapter at that merger meeting and added my voice to the other academic professionals who called for parity and full representation of professionals in the new union. Two days of negotiations led to the adoption of a constitution with provisions for professionals and faculty members to elect chapter vice presidents as well as member delegates to the statewide policy-making delegate assembly separately. These provisions ensured that professionals would have full representation based on the number of professional members joining the union. The new constitution also provided for two equal statewide officers, a vice president for professionals and a vice president for academics.

The new union responded to professionals a year later with a new contract provision that included permanent appointment status for professional employees. The review process for obtaining permanent appointment is somewhat akin to the typical tenure review process for faculty members.

Today I am still in awe that a fledging union struggling to build its membership base in the early 1970s without the benefit of agency fees was able to negotiate such a momentous change for professionals. This was a union that listened to its members and was responsive to professional employees. Although many professionals remained skeptical of unions, I knew the union was making a difference in our working lives. I wanted to stay involved.

UUP has bargained for several memoranda of understanding that provided for annual performance evaluations and an appeals process for negative evaluations. Another memorandum of understanding provided for a system of promotion and salary increases for professionals. One contract in the 1980s even funded a reclassification study of professional positions and provided monies to fix salary inequities.

In preparation for UUP negotiations, professionals serve on the negotiations committee that determines the priorities for bargaining. In addition, the UUP constitution was amended to ensure that academic and professional members from each chapter have the opportunity to provide direct input into negotiations through an ad hoc committee on negotiations. In both rounds of bargaining that I supervised, the committees and the negotiations team identified numerous issues and topics related to professional employees. In fact, at least one faculty member suggested that there were too many professional issues and not enough faculty concerns incorporated into our demands at the bargaining table. Perhaps the professionals’ concerns were well represented because professionals became engaged in the union and showed up at meetings to make sure their voices were heard. It is also true that literally hundreds of different professional job titles and a vast array of different work configurations and work environments exist in the university. Working as a professional staff member in a university hospital is very different from working in an admissions office or a residence hall or an academic services and advisement office. Not surprisingly, employee issues in such diverse work environments frequently become union concerns.

In UUP, faculty members and professionals have a positive relationship. Although the UUP delegate assembly schedule always provides time for separate meetings of the two divisions, the separate discussions are relatively short. Professional issues and academic issues are addressed in union committees, and the two vice presidents report at open plenary sessions. Both divisions are respectful and supportive of the academic and professional issues. I cannot recall any time in the history of the union when academic delegates and professional delegates were on opposing sides of a debate or vote. We can thank the 1967 authors of the Taylor Law and the Public Employees Relations Board for putting academics and professionals in the same bargaining unit. We also need to thank the early, visionary leaders who created the union and brought academics and professionals together as one. The name of our union best illustrates the real value in working together: United University Professions.

Tom Matthews, director of the Geneseo Opportunities for Leadership Development programs at the State University of New York College at Geneseo, has served as president of state and national associations in student affairs. He has been treasurer and vice president for professionals and chief negotiator for United University Professions.

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