One Chapter’s Organizing Journey

National challenges promote activism.
By Judy A. Van Wyk

Like many collective bargaining chapters, the AAUP full-time faculty union at the University of Rhode Island was slow to respond to predictions about pending legal challenges to public-sector unions. By 2013, our executive board was discussing the potential effects on organizing of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, but two years later, we had barely begun to make the changes that we knew would be essential to our chapter’s survival. Fortunately, by the time the US Supreme Court issued its ruling earlier this year in Janus v. AFSCME—in a decision that overturned decades of precedent by prohibiting the collection of agency fees from individuals who are represented by unions but are not union members—the chapter had begun to make progress. Our story is not unique, but the lessons we have learned at URI might be useful to other chapters facing similar organizing challenges.


The URI AAUP chapter was formed in 1931 and negotiated its first collective bargaining agreement for full-time faculty in 1972. (Separate AAUP chapters represent part-time faculty and graduate assistants.) In 1974, we hired our first executive director and, later, an executive assistant. These two full-time staff members fulfill important roles in our chapter. The executive director serves as our chief negotiating and grievance officer, communicating with attorneys, the executive board, and the faculty at large and staying informed about state issues that pertain to unions. Our executive assistant organizes annual events, keeps records, manages member lists, communicates with members, manages financial matters, and does other administrative tasks. We are lucky to have two full-time employees, but our chapter’s reliance on staff may also contribute to member disengagement.

Our staff members are closely involved in all of the chapter’s work, but faculty engagement is essential to our effectiveness. For example, the staff members do not have the time to do the sort of grassroots organizing that builds membership, so that work falls to faculty. Most of the chapter’s work is organized through committees of members. URI AAUP has eight committees with a total of sixty-one faculty seats. As in many chapters, however, a relatively small group of people fill multiple seats. Although our chapter represents 764 faculty members (130 lecturers, 574 tenure-track and tenured faculty members, 39 clinical faculty members, and 21 research faculty members), only around thirty individuals can be reasonably considered “active” members. On average, twenty-five people attend our general membership meetings each semester, and only about 14 percent of the membership voted in our last contract election. Historically, our chapter has also had low membership, hovering around 58 percent of the bargaining unit. Until the recent Supreme Court decision, those who signed membership cards paid biweekly union dues that were approximately $2.80 higher than the “fair share” fees paid by others in the unit. For most of our members, paying the minimal extra fee was the extent of their commitment to organizing. At least it was for me during my first twelve years as a faculty member.

Call to Duty

In 2012, I supported a colleague in my department who had filed a grievance against our college dean for changing students’ grades in one of his classes. Our chapter won that grievance, and the experience opened my eyes to the important role the chapter plays in protecting academic freedom. The core issue in the case was respect for faculty expertise. Most of us go through a rigorous and competitive hiring process. Employment and review processes ensure that the university appoints competent and responsible faculty members; in turn, we are trusted to do our jobs with autonomy. Any challenge to our academic freedom undermines that trust. Supporting my friend through his grievance made me see just how fragile academic freedom is—how it can be chipped away one small piece at a time, often without most of us even realizing it. I had not taken academic freedom for granted, but I certainly had not previously understood the extent to which we have to fight for it, every one of us.

In 2013, I was asked to run for an at-large faculty seat on our executive board. I understood the request as a call to duty. After I was elected and began attending board meetings, it became apparent to me that our chapter had to act as quickly as possible to prepare for a ruling from the Supreme Court in the Friedrichs case. That case, by threatening our ability to collect agency fees from everyone in the collective bargaining unit, put the chapter’s revenue and ability to retain staff at risk. We were all in agreement that we had not only to increase membership but also to intensify involvement in our chapter, but we weren’t sure how exactly to do that. We could go from door to door on office visits, but nobody was comfortable doing that; we could hold happy hours to build camaraderie and foster engagement with the union, but that is not practical on a rural campus like ours; we could offer lunch socials, but faculty members already faced new demands on their time from increased workloads and decreases in the number of faculty hires. For two years, our board discussed these and other ideas, but pessimism prevailed. The enormity of the task at hand was overwhelming.

A turning point for me came in 2015, when I attended my first AAUP/AAUP-CBC Summer Institute. There, one of my URI colleagues and I spent our evenings discussing how we could use the information that we learned in the day’s workshops to increase membership and involvement when we returned to campus. These discussions set in motion changes that eventually led our chapter to establish a committee dedicated to building membership.

In November 2016, I was elected as the chair of the new Membership Committee. At our first meeting, in spring 2017, I asked what was on the minds of members. I thought that the best way to get the attention of faculty across the campus was to speak out on the issues that most concerned them. People immediately began discussing President Trump’s travel ban, a policy that blocked people from seven countries from entering the United States. Faculty members were very concerned about their colleagues and students, particularly graduate students who were working and attending classes at URI. In that meeting, we planned a workshop to address the local ramifications of the immigration policy and to provide assistance to students and faculty who might be facing problems. We invited Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, an immigration attorney, and the state director of the American Civil Liberties Union to speak at the event.

The workshop was well attended, with faculty, staff, students, and URI administrators in the audience. Several graduate students told their harrowing stories—I recall that one student had just gotten married and had to leave his wife behind when he came to URI, where he would remain for the next five or six years while pursuing his graduate degrees. The immigration attorney set up meetings with these students to begin to address the problems. The event was a huge success: we learned about each other, helped people who had been affected by the immigration policy, and made the union more visible. We handed out our membership forms to those in attendance and spoke at the event about the importance of the union.

Stewards Council

In the meantime, our chapter had been moving forward on other fronts. I attended my second Summer Institute in 2016 and learned about stewards councils. By spring 2017, we had begun to discuss developing a stewards council and were slowly buying into the idea (which our new executive director was advocating) that we may actually have to talk to people in order to organize. Both forming a stewards council and increasing our membership would involve learning how to recruit members face to face.

We had a lot of apprehension about going door to door recruiting people to become stewards or just to join the union. What do we say? How do we answer their questions? Do we knock on the door if it is closed? We invited David Kociemba, the AAUP’s East Coast organizer, to come to our campus to conduct a training on member recruitment. Executive board and Membership Committee members as well as a few others who often served on our chapter’s committees were asked to attend. The training helped us gain confidence in our ability to do face-to-face recruiting, and I thought I would give my new skills a test run by beginning to recruit stewards on my own. If other members could see that face-to-face recruitment works, I thought, then they would be encouraged to try it, too.

In planning our stewards council, we had a lot of decisions to make: How many stewards should we have? Who would they be? What would their duties be? Should we have building representatives or try to get someone from every academic department? With doubts lingering in our minds, we set the bar low. If we found a couple of stewards, they would meet twice per semester with our executive director as their facilitator and would serve three-year terms. The primary goal of stewards would be to act as conduits of information—relaying executive board decisions and discussions to the faculty and bringing information and concerns from the faculty to the executive board.

One of the causes of member disengagement was a dearth of information. Our chapter circulated a newsletter and conducted a general membership meeting once a semester, but that was the extent of our communication with members. A stewards council would open another avenue for communication and member engagement. It was a starting place; I figured it was best to keep moving in the right direction even if we didn’t have a specific goal, and the committee agreed.

I began by identifying twelve people who had previously served on committees and might be currently available to serve as stewards. I sent them each an email thanking them for their service to the union and telling them about our plans to create a stewards council. I asked to meet with them to get their ideas about what this council should entail. (I did not mention that I would attempt to recruit them as our first union stewards, because I was afraid that they would immediately respond, “No, I do not have time.”) When I met with them, I explained our plans and listened, taking notes as they spoke. At the end of the conversation, I said something like, “You know, you would be a great steward because you’ve already been doing this for years. Would you serve as one of our first stewards?” All twelve of the people with whom I met agreed to serve as stewards.

The stewards council was launched in January 2018 and currently represents seven colleges and includes associate and full professors and lecturers. A goal for this fall is to recruit more stewards. We hope to generate long-term engagement in union organizing by encouraging faculty to become stewards early in their academic careers. We also plan to help the stewards council become independent and self-sustaining by encouraging stewards to identify their successes and areas in need of improvement, recruit new stewards, and set their own agenda.

Membership Drive

While the Membership Committee was developing the stewards council, we were also organizing our first membership drive. I was able to boast about the success that I had had recruiting stewards using the techniques we had learned through training. We developed a list of possible objections to membership that we might encounter and included sample responses to practice, which helped to build our confidence. Some examples from this list include the following:

  1. “I’m just going to focus on my own stuff—getting tenure.”

“I agree, it is important to focus on tenure at this time. Do you know we have negotiated the tenure and promotion process to make sure you are treated fairly? Do you know that the union will fight on your behalf if the promotion and tenure procedures are not followed? Become a member now. You can continue to focus on getting tenure and we will have your back.”

  1. “I’ve never needed anything from the union.”

“I guess you mean you’ve never needed protection from disciplinary procedures. That is only a small fraction of what we do. You have needed the union, but you might not know why. You have needed a fair review and promotion process. You have needed health insurance. You have needed paid sick leave. You have needed fair review processes. You have needed raises. You need paid time off when a loved one dies. Every person who works needs a union in order to have a say in the workplace.”

  1. “The union protects the wrong people.”

“The union does not protect ‘people,’ it protects the collective bargaining agreement. The faculty and the Rhode Island Board of Education have mutually agreed on how faculty are treated during review, promotion, and tenure processes and disciplinary proceedings. Our job is to enforce the contract and make sure the agreed-upon procedures are followed in every instance. We have a legal obligation and duty to represent every faculty member fairly.”

We held our first membership drive during the week prior to final exams in fall 2017. Volunteers from the executive board, the Membership Committee, and the stewards council planned to spread out on campus in five teams of two to talk with faculty about the importance of union membership. We put together packets of information to hand out, along with some buttons and ink pens bearing the AAUP logo.

We were surprised by the success of the first membership drive. In the following weeks, we received several new membership cards and many reenlistments. The reenlistment forms were a crucial part of our preparations for the Janus ruling: the goal was to have a signature for each of our members as proof of their membership. (Some of our faculty had filled out cards decades earlier, but those physical records were gone.)

We learned a lot from what did and didn’t work in our first membership drive. We were surprised to learn how much our colleagues appreciated our listening to what they had to say. In preparation for our second membership drive, I asked each of the ten people who had participated in the first drive to select someone new as a partner for the next drive. We also recruited participants from all of our members rather than only the leadership bodies. Eight teams participated in the second membership drive, and again, membership increased. In just two attempts and with only a few participants, we had added almost one hundred new members!

Looking Ahead

At the start of August 2018, when this article was written, our membership was at 66 percent. It is always lowest in August, after retirees have been removed from the roster and before we have had the opportunity to meet with new hires. So, 66 percent will likely be our lowest level of membership this year. These figures reflect a steady increase in membership rates from the recent average of 58 percent. We will be working on ways to increase participation in the membership drives this year. Suggestions include holding a participant raffle for an AAUP sweatshirt and bringing office plants to new hires.

A fellow member of our chapter recently asked me if the membership drives are “worth it.” When I gave him a puzzled expression, he said, “How much of an increase in membership makes it all worthwhile?” I held up two fingers, indicating a two-inch measurement. He said, “What’s that?” Widening the gap between my fingers, I said, “Well, it’s less than this much.” Then, creating a one-inch distance between my fingers, I said, “And it’s more than this much.” Steps in the right direction do not have to be huge, and yes, we are making slow progress, but it is progress, and that is what matters. Besides, we cannot begin to measure the positive impact we have already had simply by talking with faculty members and listening to their concerns.

I continue to chair our Membership Committee and am now serving on the executive board as vice president. I have learned a few crucial lessons during my past few years as an active member of the AAUP:

  1. You have to talk with people face to face—and listen to them face to face.
  2. Don’t let others tell you “no” when you know the right answer is “yes.”
  3. Focus on moving in the right direction instead of toward an overly specific goal.
  4. Build everything so that it can stand without you—be ready to pass the torch without putting out the flame.

Although our chapter-building and organizing efforts began relatively recently, I hope that our experience is helpful to other chapters. Organizing looks different now, and it carries greater significance than it did before the Janus decision, but the principles are the same as they always have been. We must help people to understand what we are all fighting for and give them the tools to do so. And we must help them to realize that their active participation matters and give them a voice. It is our union, and we have to get involved to improve our working conditions, and ultimately our lives.

Judy A. Van Wyk is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Rhode Island, where, she teaches courses in sociology and criminology and conducts multidisciplinary research on the effects of family violence on delinquent juveniles.