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United Academics of the University of Oregon

By Kelly Hand

United Academics members gathering in person before the COVID-19 pandemic and online during the pandemic.The University of Oregon faculty first filed a petition to form a faculty union affiliated with the AAUP in 1974, following a similar petition involving the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) a month earlier. Although that initial effort stalled, more than thirty years later, faculty members concerned about the erosion of shared governance and low salaries relative to peers at similar institutions began to convene meetings about unionization in 2007, and a long organizing campaign, led jointly by the AAUP and the AFT, resulted in the certification of United Academics as a union in 2012. The union ratified its first collective bargaining agreement in 2013 and has made important gains over the course of three contracts in improving compensation and benefits, the university’s policies on academic freedom, and governance and grievance processes.

With its third contract set to expire in June 2020, the chapter had already begun a dynamic and well-planned campaign to support bargaining for a new contract when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the campus. The union signed a memorandum of agreement with the administration to extend the contract for an additional year, thereby postponing the bargaining process. Subsequently, the administration’s proposed cost-saving reductions in FTE status for non-tenure-track faculty, who risk losing their eligibility for benefits if they teach less than half time, made separate negotiations necessary. The complex logistical and financial challenges of the pandemic have compelled United Academics to adapt nimbly and to engage members throughout the summer in advocating for the best interests of faculty and students.

We learned more about the chapter from executive council president Chris Sinclair, secretary and communications officer Eleanor Wakefield, and chair of the Organizing and Membership Committee and Contract Action Team (OMCAT) Tina Boscha.

What were your priorities for your postponed contract campaign? Do you expect those priorities to change when you resume bargaining?

Besides ensuring competitive compensation and benefits for our members, our primary goal in bargaining was to revamp our contract system for career faculty, so that promoted faculty could have the expectation of continued employment and much longer notices in the event of layoff. We also proposed creating a “teaching professor” category to award tenure to career instructors following an extensive review of their pedagogy and curriculum. Even before the COVID-19 crisis we recognized the increasing pressure that family life is placing on academics, and we put forth proposals that were supportive of faculty members who have caregiving obligations, including improvements to the current parental leave policy. This is only a sample; we put twenty-seven articles on the table before bargaining was canceled in March. We know the post-pandemic financial landscape will be different from what it was when we established our platform, but we hope we can still make progress on most of these issues.

What methods have you found most effective for mobilizing a large membership, and how has the pandemic altered your approach?

Before COVID-19 we used the old-fashioned method of hitting the pavement to mobilize membership. We had OMCAT, the organizing and membership team, visiting offices around campus and talking to members. We put together a pre-bargaining campaign last year to talk with members about their needs and experiences at work. We have four caucuses (focusing on working families, faculty of color, LGBTQ issues, and veterans) that met quarterly to socialize, build community, and discuss issues. We tried to vary our meeting times to make it easier for faculty with caregiving responsibilities to attend. 

Our operations have gone completely online. We quickly got the officers and staff onto Slack, a messaging platform, and set up daily lunch meetings on Zoom. These initial actions, designed for triage in an uncertain environment, developed into vibrant communications channels (now expanded beyond just the officers). We set up twice-weekly “Lunch with Your Local” Zoom sessions where UA members can come and talk with faculty colleagues over lunch. We also have a weekly virtual happy hour. We had two extremely well-attended town halls where we took questions from members about how the administration and the union were navigating unprecedented challenges. Likewise, our representative assemblies have been better attended in the “Zoomiverse” than they were in person. We also communicate by email more frequently with membership than we did before COVID-19. Finally, we are bargaining this summer over pay cuts and career faculty FTE restoration, so that members have the ability to join the online meeting and see our team in action. The ability for faculty to easily see us fighting for them has energized and expanded our membership. 

Are there lessons you have learned from organizing during a pandemic that might lead to longer-term changes in how you engage members and conduct chapter business?

We will undoubtedly move to a hybrid or online meeting model for most larger meetings. The ability for faculty to participate almost effortlessly in meetings and conversations has been a boon for the union, and we want that to persist. We are likely moving soon to a new office space—once physical space is necessary and valuable again—and we will invest in the technology necessary to make that space effective for hybrid in-person and online collaboration. We have found that options for remote meeting attendance, more communications channels (especially informal ones), and willingness to try new approaches have fostered a community of union engagement that we are excited to combine (eventually!) with our previously successful in-person efforts.

How have this summer’s racial justice protests influenced the union and its agenda for the future? 

The UO Black Student Collective issued demands to the campus in the immediate aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. The leadership of United Academics, in addition to issuing a statement (which is an important public signal), scheduled a meeting with the provost to talk about implementation of those demands. We are following up to ensure that the administration takes action on the demands. We are also working with student groups to organize around making the campus and the city of Eugene more welcoming for people of color. Our board includes members who are deeply committed to justice and activism; their work on those fronts has helped us to identify ways we can best use our voice and power on campus to serve our students, our members, and the community at large.

What are the current and most urgent priorities for United Academics as the fall semester approaches?

Since we are currently bargaining over potential salary cuts and restoration of FTE for career faculty, we are still committed to establishing some expectation of continued employment. We are also keeping an eye on the university’s plan to reopen at the end of September. So far, the plan is woefully short on details, and we expect that we will need to bargain over provisions that affect the health and safety of our members. Finally, we are concerned about the November election: if Joe Biden doesn’t win in November, higher education in the United States will be in real peril. COVID-19 has exposed massive structural problems within higher education, but four more years of an actively hostile administration would mean disaster for our profession (and for our country).

 

Does your chapter have a story to share? Write to academe@aaup.org to be considered for a chapter profile in Academe.

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