Faculty Alliance of Miami AAUP-AFT Chapter

By Kelly Hand


Faculty members at Miami University in Ohio built on the strength of their AAUP advocacy chapter to win the right to form a union. After relaunching the previously dormant chapter in 2015, Miami AAUP focused for several years on advocating for better working conditions, stronger academic freedom protections, and meaningful shared governance before announcing its unionization campaign.

A local affiliate of the AAUP and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the new union, the Faculty Alliance of Miami AAUP-AFT (FAM), comprises two collective bargaining units across the Miami University campuses in Oxford, Hamilton, Middletown, and West Chester. Its larger unit, which won a landslide union vote in May, consists of about eight hundred members, including those in tenured and tenure-track faculty positions and full-time, longer-term contract faculty who are teaching professors, clinical faculty, and lecturers. FAM’s smaller unit, which won a unanimous vote in June, includes over thirty librarians.

FAM had fought for a more inclusive single unit, but intransigence from the administration and a determination by Ohio’s State Employment Relations Board (SERB) that they didn’t form a “community of interest” made that impossible. Moreover, Ohio state law enabling collective bargaining excludes part-time faculty members. Nonetheless, FAM intends to prioritize unity across the units it represents and to work in solidarity with all Miami University faculty and staff.

We learned more about the union from FAM contract action team cochair and Miami AAUP president Cathy Wagner, FAM chair of communications Theresa Kulbaga, and Ginny Boehme, a lead librarian organizer for FAM and coleader of the negotiating team.

Before FAM’s victories, Miami University was one of only three public universities in Ohio without a faculty union. What factors motivated your pursuit of collective bargaining?

We spoke one-on-one with faculty across the university for more than two years before announcing our public campaign. We wanted to hear from our colleagues about their working conditions. They had deep concerns about threats to Miami’s core educational mission, a lack of shared governance and transparency, and routine top-down decision-making that disregarded faculty voices.

Many cited the administration’s decision in spring 2020 to not renew hundreds of faculty contracts during the height of the pandemic as a motivating factor. Nearly eight hundred of us signed a petition asking the administration to consider other options, including a temporary pay cut, that would save our colleagues’ jobs, but we never even got a response. It was a wake-up call.

Which strategies for building support for unionization proved most effective before and during the pandemic?

One-on-one conversations were definitely the heart of our effort. We were (and are) building real relationships with our colleagues, getting to know them better, hearing their concerns and hopes. Most of these conversations took place after the pandemic made face-to-face organizing temporarily impossible, so we had phone calls, Zoom conversations, and large-group informational and strategy meetings over Zoom as well. We announced our public campaign in February 2022 over Zoom in a meeting attended by hundreds of faculty and librarians.

We believe in one-on-one organizing because it builds solidarity through connection. Similarly, once it was safe to do so, we began hosting regular gatherings—card-signing parties, pizza picnics, a FAM “prom”—and organizing actions that continued to foster those connections and that solidarity.

We had a lot of student support during our campaign! Students for FAM held poster-decorating sessions, decorated the campus with FAM-supportive sidewalk art, and showed up to support us at the SERB hearings and elsewhere. Never underestimate the power and brilliance of students!

We plan to continue using these strategies to organize our visiting faculty and to build our contract campaign.

What are FAM’s key priorities for contract negotiations with the university’s administration?

Our key priorities for the faculty contract, which were identified by our members, include fairer compensation (Miami salaries are not on par with our peers), pay equity for marginalized faculty, greater transparency in how workloads are decided and valued, more budget transparency, and codified support of academic freedom and shared governance.

Our librarian members share these priorities. Even though SERB ruled that they couldn't join the same unit as full-time faculty colleagues, they are still an integral piece of our university and are seeking the same gains and protections.

How will you build unity among bargaining units and those left out by FAM’s organizational structure?

We learned a lot during our organizing campaign about the power of standing together in solidarity while the administration was trying to divide us. One of our campaign slogans while the administration was delaying and dividing was “FAM L.U.V.—Let Us Vote!” We made buttons, posters, flyers, and Zoom backgrounds decorated with Miami-red hearts expressing our love and solidarity for each other no matter what. We told our colleagues that if anyone was left out of the first bargaining unit, we would simply organize another bargaining unit and continue to work together. No one would be left behind.

When SERB ruled that our bargaining unit could not include librarians, our librarians delivered signed union authorization cards one week later. That election was just a couple of weeks after the first election, and librarians won unanimously! That sent a clear message to the administration about our solidarity and determination to work together, even if it is with separate contracts.

We are still organizing our visiting faculty, which is a much larger group. Once we do that, we will all work together under FAM to better serve our educational mission.

We wish Ohio law extended collective bargaining rights to our part-time colleagues and graduate students. Although it doesn’t, we will need to be mindful of their concerns and try to work on their behalf whenever we can.

And we have been building connections beyond Miami University, too—with other unions across the state and nation—to fight for higher education. Research shows that increased density of unionized workers in a community positively affects local wages, living standards, and democratic rights in that community.

What are the implications for state educators of legislation like Ohio Senate Bill 83, which targets higher education?

Senate Bill 117, which imposes five new centers to promote “intellectual diversity” without institutional oversight, has already passed as part of the Ohio budget bill. While SB 83 has been stalled for now, we're told it will be back in the fall, and we will continue to battle against it. SB 83 would hurt our students by interfering with their access to concepts, courses, and conversations that foster self-understanding and an understanding of the world they live and work in. It puts legislators rather than experts in their fields in charge of course content. As written in May 2023, it would explicitly censor course content, a clear threat to academic freedom. SB 83 is also an antiunion bill. The version passed by the Ohio senate would weaken unions by banning faculty strikes. The truth is, faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. Without the right to strike that other employees have, higher education workers will be more easily exploited and overworked—and less able to educate and advocate for the students we serve. That’s why the bill was opposed not only by faculty unions but also by Ohio’s trade unions and the AFL-CIO.

How has FAM worked with the Ohio AAUP conference and other groups in the state, and how do you envision the future role of such coalition-building?

We are very connected with the Ohio AAUP conference, as well as with Honesty for Higher Education, Save Ohio Higher Education, and the Ohio Student Association (among other groups). We have strategized with them around legislative attacks on higher education such as SB 83, given testimony at the State House, and supported student actions too, including a student-planned “funeral for higher education” in June.

Coalition-building is imperative for the future of higher education in Ohio and across the nation. Our concerns are not limited to our own university. We need to protect academic freedom and job security in higher education together. If there’s anything we’ve learned from our organizing effort, it’s about the power of collective action.