University of Connecticut AAUP Chapter

By Kelly Hand

UConn-AAUP is a collective bargaining chapter that has represented teaching and research faculty at Connecticut’s public flagship campus since 1976. The bargaining unit has more than 2,300 members. The agreement negotiated by the chapter on July 1, 2007, was renegotiated in 2009 and again in 2011, and the five-year agreement was then extended to June 30, 2017. Contract negotiations have always coincided with serious state budget crisis; in the most recent negotiations, Governor Dannel Malloy and the state legislature sought significant concessions from state employee unions on pension contributions and health-care benefits for employees and retirees.

In the two years leading up to contract negotiations, UConn-AAUP strategically shifted from a service-based, staff-led model to a member-driven model with an emphasis on internal organizing. The new Representatives Assembly brings together representatives from each department, giving members a voice and a way to remain informed about and involved in union activities and decision making. The chapter has mobilized faculty through its legislative liaison program and lobbying days to inform legislators about what faculty do and why higher education matters to the state. The chapter has expanded, reinvigorated, and created union committees on adjunct faculty, political action, gender and pay equity, online teaching and compensation, and other issues. UConn-AAUP joined forces with faculty members in the Connecticut State University AAUP chapter, members of the Congress of Connecticut Community Colleges (a bargaining unit represented by the Service Employees International Union), and graduate students on campuses across the state and with other state employee unions to educate legislators on the importance of higher education as a public good.

Ultimately, state labor leaders approved an agreement that included $1.5 billion in concessions through furloughs, salary increase freezes, and modest increases to health-care and retirement contributions. In exchange, employees will receive salary increases in the later years of the contract and, most important, an extension of the pension and health-care agreement until 2027. Given that many of Connecticut’s Republican legislators had proposed legislation that directly attacked public-sector collective bargaining, it was imperative to extend the rights to bargain collectively over pension and health care.

Through a successful get-out-the-vote campaign involving the Representatives Assembly and other key actors, the chapter overwhelmingly voted to approve the concessions agreement and the local collective bargaining agreement that had taken nearly two years to negotiate. Voter turnout was among the highest in chapter history. After member lobbying and outreach, the Connecticut legislature approved the agreements. That vote was the last step in an arduous negotiation process that demonstrated the potential of collective action to balance the needs of students and faculty in the public higher education system with those of the state.

We spoke with Diana I. Rios, an associate professor of communication and faculty member in El Instituto, who served as UConn-AAUP president from 2014 to 2017.

What was the impetus for shifting to a member-driven model of organizing, and how have you succeeded in engaging members?

We live in the “land of steady habits,” but as the number of high-level administrators has grown, decision making has become more top-down and the university has grown out of touch with the rights of a diverse faculty that includes individuals in tenured and tenure-track as well as non-tenure-track and research positions. A noteworthy phenomenon has been the increasing reliance on expendable labor pools for cost savings. The union has been successful in diversifying its membership and creating multiple modes for communicating with them (face to face and through e-mail, newsletters, and social media). Our chapter is the most active it has ever been, and this activism is necessary given state conditions, the national climate, and public attitudes toward higher education.

How has the introduction of the Representatives Assembly transformed decision-making processes for the chapter, and how do you envision its role beyond the contract-negotiation phase?

The assembly is one component of the newer, larger framework for connecting with faculty and bringing in a multitude of diverse faculty voices and opinions. Through the assembly, members from across the university weigh in on issues that affect their workplace and careers. The assembly is valuable beyond the contract-negotiation phase, because information dissemination and feedback are vital.

What kind of response have you gotten from individual legislators to your legislative liaison program and lobbying days? How will such efforts yield benefits in the future?

Continuous efforts should better sensitize legislators to the realities of workers in higher education. Politicians of all stripes need to be informed about the latest issues that affect the abilities of teachers and scholars to do their jobs. For example, newer politicians in Hartford are in a learning phase and may not know that adjunct faculty teach at multiple campuses to carve out a living. Legislators may also not know that the granting of tenure is not automatic and that only a segment of the faculty is even eligible for tenure. All politicians must be reminded about the different missions of the colleges and universities in the state. Lobbying is a way to do that.

How has coalition building across the state strengthened your position for contract negotiations?

Certain issues are addressed through the coalition of state employees, including health and retirement. Our coalition is called the State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition, or SEBAC. There is more power and leverage in state-level collective bargaining in a coalition with many thousands of members than there would be in a smaller group; our coalition includes faculty and staff from public colleges and universities, health-care workers, and law-enforcement officers. Forming strong connections with other unions, and meeting regularly during off years, allows union leaders to see a larger picture for labor in the state. Cohesiveness and trust are cultivated over time and help in the negotiating years. Coalition chapters represent people from many professions. What we have in common is that we are all workers and desire to be treated fairly in our workplaces. Information about problems and solutions from other chapters and unions can lead to new ways of tackling local chapter issues.

Your union includes about six hundred adjunct faculty members. What are you doing to improve their working conditions and engage them actively in the union?

The Executive Committee of the chapter includes adjunct and other non-tenure-track faculty. This means that contingent labor has a voice in the chapter leadership. Contingent faculty are also on the Representatives Assembly. They have been members of committees that work on particular articles and sections of the contract, and certainly they have a keen interest in articles of the contract that affect their working conditions. They are integral to our chapter’s Committee on Women in the Academic Profession. The adjunct faculty caucus is one body that specifically addresses the challenges facing contingent labor.

Your chapter has sponsored events to highlight issues affecting students, including undocumented status and student loan debt. How have these events complemented your internal organizing efforts and helped you to build alliances on campus and beyond?

Student debt is affecting working families across the board and inhibits the ability of young people to establish themselves securely in their own homes, families, and professions. Faculty care about the future generations of teachers, scholars, and professionals in Connecticut, because we want an excellent workforce to remain in the state and help the state advance. These future leaders are paying off debt incurred by student loans and may be undocumented, having come to the United States as children. Including issues in our agenda that affect graduate students, undergraduates, and potential college students allows us to see higher education in its complexity. Our chapter has included students in campus actions and lobbying. This broader inclusion allows us to understand each other’s realities better and to cultivate a stronger front.

With a political climate that is unfavorable for public higher education on the federal level and in many states, how can the national AAUP most effectively support chapters at public institutions?

The AAUP’s national leaders and the staff from the national office have provided guidance and inspiration to us and to many other chapters. Feedback, clarification, and advice are only a phone call away. At national meetings and Connecticut state conference gatherings, legal counsel, organizers, and AAUP and AAUP-CBC leaders have shared knowledge, resources, and insights. Financial workshops on campus, guest speakers on academic freedom, and legal case summaries have been valuable in strengthening the faculty’s knowledge—and this knowledge translates to enhanced ability to defend academic rights. The national office needs to continue what it is doing. It provides national cohesion. It connects us all through e-mails, articles, briefs and updates, and more.

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

Photo by Elizabeth Newberg, CSU-AAUP Communications Associate: UConn-AAUP, GEU-AAUP, and CSU-AAUP members at a rally to protect academic freedom

 

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