Plymouth State University AAUP

By Kelly Hand

The Plymouth State University AAUP (PSU-AAUP) is a collective bargaining chapter representing 167 tenured and tenure-track faculty members at this regional public uni­versity in New Hampshire. Faculty members voted to form a collective bargaining chapter affiliated with the AAUP in April 2016, at a time when the university was restruc­turing in response to an ongoing financial crisis.

The chapter ratified its first contract in June 2018, winning improvements in compensation and professional development along with important provisions regard­ing faculty workloads. The contract also guarantees no retrenchment for the life of the three-year agreement, an especially valuable provision during the university’s restructuring, which involves a shift from depart­ments to larger, cross-disciplinary administrative structures. The nego­tiating team, with the support of member activists, even won shared governance language in the con­tract, making PSU-AAUP the only union in the state’s public higher education system to have secured such language.

We learned more about PSU-AAUP from president Jeremiah Duncan, past-president Elliott Gruner, chief negotiator Scott Coykendall, and other members of the executive committee.

How did PSU-AAUP work to persuade tenured and tenure-track faculty of the need for faculty advocacy and collective bargain­ing on campus?

The move to unionize was a years-long effort. A couple of years after an initial failed effort to organize under a different national labor organization, a small group of faculty—including some who had been members of the campus AAUP advocacy chapter—formed an organizing committee. They reached out to the national AAUP and surveyed PSU faculty about their concerns. Three issues rose to the top: an erosion of faculty gover­nance, burdensome and unequal workloads, and a need for transpar­ency of the administration. Driving these concerns were a number of confusing top-down initiatives from the administration. In short, hard work and organization on our part, along with opaque decision-making on the administration’s part, led a significant majority of our tenured and tenure-track colleagues to vote to unionize under the AAUP.

To what extent did the uncer­tainty surrounding the university’s financial challenges and proposed restructuring process influence bar­gaining and the resulting contract?

While we did not organize directly in opposition to the changes, many of us felt that having a union would provide stability in a period of upheaval. By the time of our contract negotiations, the transfor­mation had begun in earnest. We knew that departments would be dissolved and the programs within them would become part of a small number of clusters, but we did not have clear answers to questions about how programs would be administered, how the responsibili­ties of department chairs would be reassigned, and what the promo­tion and tenure process would look like without departments.

The uncertainty of the tran­sition posed challenges in the contract bargaining process. For example, faculty contracts often delineate the supervisory role of department chairs and set forth a promotion and tenure process that includes an initial, department-level review, but departments and chairs were going away. Bargain­ing thus forced a discussion and decision-making process with the administration that would not have happened otherwise. Our nego­tiating team understood that our contract ought to provide concrete answers to questions and establish necessary processes while also being flexible enough to allow the university’s administrative struc­tures to change. It could be argued that the bargaining process and subsequent contract provided a path for those changes to occur.

What are the current challenges for the chapter now that you have a ratified contract?

Following ratification, we have had two priorities: implementing the contract and organizing our local chapter, including dues col­lection. Both of these have faced challenges.

Enacting our contract is an ongoing process, involving edu­cating both our members and the administration on the spe­cific provisions of our collective bargaining agreement. Indeed, the challenge of holding the admin­istration accountable became apparent almost before the ink on the contract was dry, when one of our bargaining-unit members was pilloried in the press for a character testimony letter he wrote for a for­mer student on trial in a criminal matter. Through a process that, in the opinion of the chapter leader­ship, ignored both his academic

freedom and his Weingarten rights, this faculty member was sanctioned and required to undergo Title IX training before the union was able to intervene. This occurred over the summer break, and our contract was so new that we had not even established our grievance commit­tee. Had the events occurred a few months later, the outcome would have been different. We learned valuable lessons about communi­cating with our members, having an emergency plan for communication among union officers, and being vigilant in upholding our contract.

In the switch from advocacy chapter to a union collecting local dues, we needed to get new signa­ture cards from all our members and essentially start a new mem­bership drive. Returning to our previous membership level has taken longer than anticipated and is an ongoing effort.

How can you build on the chap­ter’s successes and strengthen your bargaining position in the years leading up to the next round of contract negotiations in 2021?

Our contract went into effect on July 1, 2018, and as we have begun to implement it, we have already identified a few areas that will need work the next time around. We had a wonderful group of about thirty faculty members, organized into five different research groups, who developed initial language for the contract. We plan to reconvene these groups in the near future to review the contract and identify issues to bring to the next round of bargaining.

It was clear that a strong, uni­fied faculty voice allowed us to win many needed concessions in the first round of bargaining. Obvi­ously, rebuilding and expanding our membership will be key to future bargaining efforts as well.

The extent to which we suc­cessfully implement this contract will set up our position for the next bargaining round. We must fully educate our members about their rights under the contract so that we all can collectively hold the administration accountable. If a union member stands up every time a member of the administration overlooks an aspect of our contract and says, “Hey! Don’t forget about article X in our CBA!” then we will sit down at the bargaining table in 2021 in a position of great strength.

Partly as a result of New Hamp­shire’s laws regarding collective bargaining, PSU has a separate collective bargaining unit repre­senting part-time non-tenure-track faculty and a growing number of full-time non-tenure-track contract faculty who do not belong to any bargaining unit. How can your chapter and other chapters over­come the increasing segmentation of the faculty?

Simply put, by working together and supporting both our union­ized and nonunionized colleagues whenever we can. For those groups that are not organized, we would encourage any steps they take toward unionization. We would assist them in whatever ways we could, regardless of which union they choose to represent them.

In some ways, having separate unions may be beneficial, as it allows us to be more nimble and ensures that we can focus on our unique needs. The trick is to make sure we support and strengthen one another. We have established a great relationship with the union of the part-time faculty (known as “teaching lecturers” here) and have issued joint statements with them.

Although it might be easy for a union to be self-protective, we are firmly committed to working with, promoting, and helping all other groups of faculty and staff on campus. For example, the univer­sity’s transition to administrative clusters has brought an enormous amount of distressing and disrup­tive change for staff colleagues. We have used our position of strength to advocate on their behalf, including through the initiation of a petition against a particularly egregious change last year.

We have also recently caucused with other public faculty unions throughout New Hampshire, and the 2018 AAUP Summer Institute in Durham provided the impetus for our groups to discuss officially forming the New Hampshire Public Faculty Coalition. The coali­tion announced its mission—to uphold and ensure fundamental professional values and standards for higher education—in a press release sent to media outlets throughout the state after our meeting in January. Faculty mem­bers throughout New Hampshire share many of the same concerns and face many of the same chal­lenges—it only makes sense for us to unite. Our burgeoning unity also helps us to sustain and expand active membership: colleagues love the idea of widening the circle.

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