Organizing Cleveland State

A successful campaign from twenty years ago offers lessons for AAUP organizing today.
By Rick Perloff

Whew! It had been a trying day—a long slog of a day, and it never let up. Organizing faculty members— convincing them to get beyond their all-encompassing scholarship to support a collective political objective— was a daunting challenge. As an associate professor of political science, the president of the university’s AAUP chapter, and the driving force behind the unionization campaign at Cleveland State University, Rodger Govea knew he might fail. He shook his head, trudging from his AAUP office to his car; he had been on the front lines all day. He couldn’t even make it from his office to lunch without being swamped by colleagues. They vented criticisms of the union effort or politely but pointedly asked if a union would mean the end of collegiality between faculty members and administrators.

How could they talk about collegiality when the administration held all the cards? Didn’t they realize that behind all the nice smiles lurked a power structure that didn’t want to yield control of the purse strings?

Approaching his car, lugging a briefcase stuffed with papers, newsletters, and opinion surveys, he hit a mental snag, his mind sandbagged by opinion poll results. Three, a gentleman’s three; the number coursed through him. On a five-point scale, where a five meant strong support for a union, the faculty was stuck at a three! They were ambivalent, undecided, and susceptible to last-minute administration appeals.

The administration had gotten its way. The election would be held in two months, in early December. Two months! How could the union supporters possibly convince a majority of the faculty in that short amount of time? Hundreds of professors approached their disciplines with intellectual complexity but harbored a simple media stereotype of a union—guys in hard hats carrying lunch pails to work.

Sidebar: Advice on Organizing a Union from David Larson and Rodger Govea

What Govea did not know at the time—early October 1993—was that other surprises lurked ahead, including ones that would change the dynamics of the union campaign and his own career trajectory.

Twenty years have elapsed since CSU’s union drive. Patrick Shaw, a lawyer who served nearly two decades as an AAUP staff member and worked with Govea on the organizing drive, views it as a classic campaign. The issues that arose—salary inequities and lack of faculty involvement in democratic decision making— have also affected attitudes toward unions at other campuses.

Social science research on unionization tells us about patterns, regularities, and aggregate trends. What it does not reveal are the human aspects: the personality dynamics, emotional tipping points, and ideological passions that impel ordinarily diffident professors to take to the academic barricades, fervently attempting to persuade their colleagues to band together. This is a story of the personal, human side of a faculty union campaign. It is also the tale of the journey of one professor from youthful idealism to political leadership, culminating in what, at the twilight of his academic career, he regards as his crowning achievement. It is the story of how an urban university, dominated by the administration, became more faculty-friendly, offering insights to faculty members at other universities during a time of retrenchment and evisceration of faculty rights.

An Unlikely Cast, An Improbable Setting

Cleveland State University, an outgrowth of the Fenn College of Engineering located on the edge of downtown Cleveland, was established in 1964. It offered an opportunity for working-class students, who could not afford other state universities, to receive a college education. In the 1990s, enrollment at the commuter campus hovered around seventeen thousand. CSU boasts a nationally ranked urban affairs college and a law school that trained many of the region’s judges and political figures and one well-known broadcaster, the late journalist and lawyer Tim Russert. Cleveland State students typically pay for their own education, working long hours and in some cases raising families, too. Attending CSU took grit, all the more so because, from the 1970s through the 1990s, the inward-looking, austere architecture gave the place a fortress-like quality. On weeknights, when evening classes ended, the place looked more like a shuttered business district than a college campus. There was no quadrangle or faculty club where like-minded professors could gather and grouse. It was all buildings, streets, and cars.

Barbara Green came to Cleveland State from bucolic Wellesley College, where the faculty had a strong sense of community and a time-honored identification with the AAUP. “It was felt that this was your obligation to maintain academic freedom,” she said in a recent interview. Green taught in the political science department at Wellesley from 1958 to 1968. Her students included Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton, both of whom regarded Green as an excellent teacher.

Teaching was an important part of Green’s professional identity. When she joined the Cleveland State faculty, she experienced culture shock. “There was almost a contempt for the faculty, and it just pervaded the place,” she said. She recalled meetings in the 1970s where administrators lamented that they “have to put up with faculty and students.”

A decade later, during the 1980s, the state subsidy for Cleveland State dropped precipitously. Politically, Cleveland State seemed out of favor. Govea recalls that at the beginning of the 1991–92 academic year, the administration claimed no funds were available for salary increases. It promised a 3 percent midyear adjustment, but in the middle of the winter quarter, Govea says, the administration announced that the money was no longer available. Yet he notes that the administration quietly awarded raises to a select group of administrators and faculty members.

Diana Orendi, who specialized in the study of German literature, had just joined the modern languages department when the secret raises were purportedly awarded. Orendi is petite but was a Brobdingnagian presence. “She could have won any election in the university,” Green recalls. Orendi was a passionate supporter of faculty unions, having grown up in Germany, where all universities have long been unionized. She says she pushed unionization with other AAUP members but faced resistance. So she took the idea directly to Govea, the AAUP chapter president.

At this time, the administration, seeking to drive down the part-time teaching budget, ordered faculty members to teach a third course one semester without pay. Govea says the president “sent out a memo that said, ‘You’re all getting an extra course, and if you don’t teach one, you’ll be subject to dismissal.’”

This infuriated Govea. “You’re going to fire tenured faculty?” he said. “I think there was something really interesting at that moment that did make me think about unionization. Because everybody sort of wondered out loud, ‘Can he do that? Can he fire tenured faculty?’ And the answer was, ‘We don’t know. We don’t know. This university has always honored the tradition of tenure, but what if they didn’t? What’s our recourse?’”

Govea had joined the Cleveland State faculty in 1978. A Falstaffian character with a beard and bravado, he had a contagious laugh and a devilish sense of humor. He harnessed his humor and robust personality in the classroom (he was a favorite among students) and in passionate conversations about politics with colleagues across campus.

He had a long history of political involvement. Growing up in California in the 1960s, Govea had found himself attracted by the magnet of political change. “My parents were both Republicans. My dad went to his grave a Republican. He was just rock-ribbed and antiunion, unbelievably antiunion. And so that was what I was given.” Dissatisfied with the politics of his parents and tantalized by the promises of the ambient politics of the 1960s, he organized a political protest in high school and helped plan anti–Vietnam War demonstrations as an undergraduate at the University of California, Davis.

Like many others of his generation, Govea was moved by the injustices of the war in Vietnam. But at Davis, he was motivated as much by methodology as by ideology. “It was a failure of a decent strategy in the antiwar movement that frustrated the hell out of me,” he says. It was a lesson that he would not forget: the leader of a social movement can be motivated by great ideals, but unless the leader executes the ideals properly, the movement will fail.

Taking note of his size (Govea is stocky, with big shoulders and muscular arms), protest leaders made him an enforcer, deputizing him to monitor antiwar marches. Govea’s job was to control the crowd, in particular to make sure some of the more emotionally unstable demonstrators didn’t cause a ruckus. Playing this role also left an imprint, teaching him that a movement could be torn asunder by forces from within, by volatile individuals willing to put their own immediate interests ahead of the larger mission.

In 1992, all this was behind him. As he observed the administration’s actions, capped off by the decision to order faculty members to teach an additional course without pay, Govea concluded that the faculty had no alternative: it needed to unionize. The CSU-AAUP chapter voted to launch a faculty union.

Two steps are typically necessary for a faculty to form a collective bargaining unit. First, at least 30 percent of professors must sign cards indicating that they designate the union as the representative for collective bargaining. Once the State Employment Relations Board (SERB) has certified the cards, an election is held. If a majority vote in favor, a union can be formed.

In spring 1993, Govea and his colleagues knocked on faculty doors, trying to arrive during office hours, holding cards for faculty members to sign. Usually, Govea made the trip. He was accompanied by another AAUP leader, like Orendi or David Larson, a bespectacled, baby-faced English professor who edited the AAUP newsletter.

Larson was initially reluctant to join the campaign. “I’m not a salesman,” he said. “I’m not talented at that. I tend to be what I call a realist and other people call a pessimist. It’s not really in my nature to think, ‘Oh, goody, we can do this.’ I see all the problems rather than the possibilities.” Yet Larson was intensely committed to the union cause. “I myself came from an old working-class leftist family. My great-grandfather was part of the Progressive Party. My grandfather was a farmer labor organizer in Minnesota,” he explained.

It looked to be a long shot. Even though signing a card in effect signified support only for a subsequent election, many professors were reluctant to sign.

A number of factors underlay the ambivalence. Some believed that a union could destroy faculty-administration collegiality. Others were Enlightenment liberals, individualists in the Lockean mode who distrusted collective movements or wanted to be left alone to pursue their scholarship.

AAUP leaders emphasized that collective bargaining could give faculty members more freedom to pursue their scholarly agendas by ensuring that academic rights were protected. Little by little, union supporters made inroads.

Ultimately, the card campaign garnered support from 55 percent of the faculty. Shaw, the former AAUP staffer, says that the AAUP would have preferred 60 percent, but it decided that the 55 percent figure was high enough to permit a formal faculty vote.

And so, the main campaign was on.

Campaigning in Earnest

Was it going well? Govea couldn’t tell. When they were polled, faculty members hovered around a three on that five-point attitude scale. The organizers couldn’t poll much; they had only $151 in the coffers for materials, and they had just the skeleton of a committed cadre. The group—Larson; Orendi; a tall, reflective chemistry professor, Thomas Flechtner; and Shaw (who flew in each week)— devoted long days to meeting with CSU professors, listening to objections, gently dispelling myths, and outlining reasons why collective bargaining served faculty members’ interests.

The AAUP brand helped. “I’m very happy you’re going AAUP. If you were something else, we couldn’t be on,” colleagues told Govea.

Govea exploited social science concepts, like the venerable two-step flow, the notion that key communication is received by opinion leaders, who then persuasively convey it to the bulk of the population. He would reveal important tidbits to professors who sat at the “power lunch table” in the university’s cafeteria, figuring they would tell colleagues. He leaked stories to student editors at the college newspaper, The Cauldron. Larson, for his part, filled the AAUP newsletter with data-based stories about salary inequities, documenting that CSU faculty members lagged behind colleagues at comparable universities with collective bargaining.

At one point, a couple of longtime AAUP members almost derailed the movement when they published their own newsletter. “They made all sorts of claims about the administration that were at best half-true or wild distortions,” Larson says. After reading the dissidents’ newsletter, one colleague told Larson, “Well, Dave, if you guys are going to put stuff like this out, I’m not at all sure I can support you, because this isn’t true.”

For Govea, the problem called to mind the lesson he had acquired from his anti–Vietnam War protest experience: you could not let extreme members of a political movement perform actions that would undermine the collective mission of the group. The AAUP chapter’s executive committee acted swiftly. It issued a disclaimer, branding the article as unauthorized and improper. “I think it probably saved the campaign,” Larson said.

The administration engineered a strategy toward the end of the campaign that proved to be a momentum changer. They announced, Larson explains, that they were giving a 3 percent pay raise to administrators and staff—to everybody but the faculty. The administration argued that it could not give a salary increase to faculty members because the AAUP would hit CSU with an unfair labor practice charge if it did. The claim was ludicrous. And, as Larson points out, “they knew nothing about academia. The notion was that faculty would want the raise so badly they would give up the union drive.”

So, he says, “We put out a newsletter. It said, ‘Please give the faculty their 3 percent raise. We promise we will not file an unfair labor practice. We are all in favor of the faculty getting a 3 percent raise.’ That was the turning point. That’s when we knew we had a chance because that was the most foolish political move they could have made, trying to threaten faculty members with not giving them an immediate 3 percent raise. I mean, come on!”

Larson believed the administration’s move turned the tide. It convinced a number of moderates that the administration was not to be trusted. Larson also thought that the drip-drip communications from AAUP opinion leaders succeeded in persuading faculty members that “having an AAUP collective bargaining contract would not turn them into factory workers and would not compromise their rights to participate in faculty governance.”

Govea was sure they were going to lose; there was so little vocal support among the faculty. The election took place on two days—December 2 and 3, 1993. Snow was on the ground as Govea, Larson, Orendi, and other executive committee members busied themselves with normal faculty duties. But this was all background. The real drama was happening at the polls.

A SERB employee had come up from Columbus to count the votes. He, Govea, the university vice provost, and a lawyer from the law firm representing the administration sat in a small room in the library. The SERB representative methodologically separated “yes” and “no” votes into two piles. Govea stared as the piles grew. There was no doubting it. The “yes” pile was much larger than the “no” pile. He said nothing, but his heart skipped a beat. Maybe two. “Oh, my God, we’ve won,” he thought. More than a year of nonstop work on the campaign, ruminating and thinking constantly, knocking on doors, arguing, thwarting attacks, strategizing, hoping, and dreaming but also worrying, despairing, and planning, always planning—it had come to this.

They had won. CSU would have a union. The faculty would have a voice. When the SERB representative announced the results—a decisive five-to-three margin—Govea started to cry. He cried a lot that night in the small room in the library. “Son of a gun, you did it,” he thought to himself. “Thank you so much, guys. You did it.”

The Leader Retires

Govea recently announced his decision to retire from Cleveland State. Twenty years had elapsed since he and his colleagues launched a quixotic quest—a card campaign to gain support for collective bargaining. Thanks to the union, faculty members have legal protections they did not have in 1993 and mechanisms to file grievances against administrative decisions they regard as capricious.

I caught up with Govea several months after our initial conversation. Sitting in his office on a Friday afternoon, surrounded by books about revolution, the politics of rebellion, and Cuba, he reflected on the union’s successes and the challenges it currently faces. He groused about the most recent three-year contract, worried that the union had considerably weakened faculty redress for workload grievances. The administration, concerned about the lack of faculty research productivity, had pushed for more control over faculty workload. Union negotiators acquiesced, giving the administration more oversight over workload than it had in the past.

Although initially angry, Govea softened his tone when he reflected on the political pressures that the current union president, F. Jeff Karem, faced. Ohio’s Republican-dominated legislature had passed a controversial bill, SB 5, that severely limited collective bargaining by public-sector employees. Union leaders were concerned that if faculty-administration negotiations dragged on with no contractual agreement and SB 5 became law, CSU faculty could end up with no contract whatsoever. As a result, they compromised. In a bittersweet irony, Ohio voters overwhelmingly voted to repeal SB 5 in a November 2011 referendum.

Although the union dodged this bullet, it is likely to face continued pressure from a state government that is hostile to public-sector unions and strapped for money. The CSU union is facing an array of statewide problems that differ considerably from those that consumed CSU faculty organizers twenty years ago.

What’s more, relations between the union and administration have frayed. The two groups had worked amicably on a variety of issues in recent years, observed Gregory M. Sadlek, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences and a former faculty union leader himself. But over the past twelve months, the groups have diverged.

The administration, arguing that a number of CSU faculty members published at a lower rate than professors at comparable institutions, took steps to assign less productive faculty members a higher teaching load. From the administration perspective, this represented a fair-minded way to deal with faculty members who opted to spend less time on research and scholarship. The union’s gripe, Karem stressed, was not with the principle of assigning varied workloads based on degree of scholarly productivity. Instead, he said, “the problem is that last year there was a real lack of dialogue to produce clear and legible standards. The changes in policy were introduced very abruptly and in most cases without substantial dialogue with the faculty and without any dialogue with the union.” Govea goes further, lamenting that the union is in a weaker position to challenge workload assignments than in the past, as a result of having ceded considerable control to the administration in the recent contract. As he sat in his CSU office on a Friday afternoon, Govea reflected thoughtfully on the challenges and pressures the union presently faces. He took a philosophical turn, displaying a nuance that might have eluded him during his young antiwar protest days. “I have to be content with the fact that I had a lot to do with bringing the process here, and where the process takes us is something out of my control,” he said.

Looking back, he felt proud of what he and his colleagues had done to improve faculty members’ day-to-day lives. “There were morally indefensible inequities in faculty salaries, and we did a great deal to correct that,” he said. The union established grievance procedures, he noted. Most of all, Govea stressed, Cleveland State has a strong statement on the locus of tenure: “It’s a clause in the contract that says tenure is granted by the university—that you don’t have tenure in the political science department. You have tenure in the university. Thus, if the political science department disappears, you still have tenure. The protection of tenure is vital to any university and to the academic community.”

It was a good place to stop, and I got up to leave, glancing at Govea. He had done a lot—formed a union out of nothing, led an unlikely movement at a commuter campus that transformed faculty governance, and, through the force of his personality, gave faculty members an institutional voice in decisions that affected their academic lives. He was older now, the laugh a little less contagious, his movements slower and more ambling. But he had not lost an iota of his passion for political change. As I watched him push his chair closer to his computer, his long arms stretching across the small keyboard, his eyes staring straight ahead, I felt a bittersweet twinge. Govea would be leaving Cleveland State soon, and his outsized presence and irrepressible energy would be missed. But he had bequeathed to the faculty a gift—a vital union championing faculty interests. It was up to the faculty to sustain it.


Rick Perloff, a professor of communication at Cleveland State University, has authored scholarly books on persuasion and political communication and writes feature stories for newspapers. His e-mail address is [email protected].

Advice on Organizing a Union

Find out what the issues are on campus with the faculty and how much dissatisfaction there is with the situation on campus, and then come up with a plan in which you explain how unionization would address those issues. Have a tightly knit group that will work together and use common sense. —David Larson

First and most important, keep your eye on the big picture. A lot of people have a lot of complaints and grievances, and you cannot concern yourself with that stuff. It has to be the larger issues, and that’s where you have to focus all of your attention—on the larger issues. Be ready to be flexible with whatever it is you’re fighting for. Understand that what you’re fighting for is faculty sentiment, and you don’t know what that is. It’s something for you to discover. The building of a consensus is a matter of finding the consensus. You have to listen to everybody and you have to build a consensus based on what your colleagues tell you. Find the areas of agreement. Find the consensus. Don’t create it and don’t preach it. Find it, identify it, and articulate it. —Rodger Govea