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An Unsuccessful Organizing Campaign

A postmortem of a failed organizing campaign.
By Sally Angel

"What happened? You had 67 percent of the eligible faculty sign cards, but you lost the election by a huge margin!”

In response to clear faculty interest, three of my colleagues and I led a card campaign in late spring 2012. Within a month, two-thirds of the faculty at Rhodes State College (or RSC, formerly Lima Technical College), a community college in northwest Ohio that is co-located with an Ohio State University regional campus, had signed cards indicating support for a union-authorization vote. But when the actual vote was counted at the State Employee Relations Board in Columbus, the results were the opposite of what we expected: by a two-to-one margin, the faculty voted to reject unionization. There are no easy answers as to why this occurred, but there is a very clear lesson to be learned: fear can be more powerful than truth.

On three different occasions over the course of twenty years, the faculty had faced adverse circumstances that led to exploring unionization. This was the pattern we observed: the administration would engage in bad behavior (subverting faculty governance, ignoring faculty criticisms of administrative policies and procedures, promoting favoritism rather than fairness and equity), the faculty would appoint a study committee, and then the faculty would back off. “Let’s just wait—things will get better,” people said. That is why it was somewhat surprising that the faculty went a step further in 2012, when it authorized a committee to select a union and start the process of certification.

So what could have been done differently, and would it have made any difference?

One factor contributing to the defeat of the union was the nature of the group we were trying to organize. A colleague emphasized the challenge of organizing faculty whose professional lives were dedicated to the principle that administration and faculty should work collegially for the common goal of educating their students. Some faculty did not want to be perceived as not being team players—they valued collegiality and felt that they would be abandoning their mission if they fought the administration. This belief persisted despite the fact that we had over the past five years gone from being a collegial group to one divided by fear and uncertainty precipitated by the administration.

Another factor was the pool from which the faculty was drawn: Rhodes State began as a technical college, so a large percentage of the faculty was drawn from a business environment. Hiring faculty with pragmatic experience in business became one of our school’s strengths—hands-on experience combined with academic training. But the attitudes of some faculty mirrored that of the local political culture, which was anti union. Among the concerns they raised were a perceived loss of local control, high union dues that would go to support illegal activities, lavish parties funded by the union treasury, monies being funneled into PACs, faculty strikes, and loss of personal initiative—and this list would go on and on. For many faculty, the mere mention of any of these concerns set off alarm bells, and rational discussion could not penetrate the clamor.

Nonetheless, there were some legitimate fears. In the process of renegotiating contracts, it was argued, some might lose their jobs because they did not meet the credentialing requirements. Some might have a lower salary or heavier teaching load because the contract would address parity issues. And the adminis- tration could make faculty lives even more miserable. Thus, some felt that they should just wait and see if the administration would moderate its behavior. Some hoped they would be able to last until retirement; others figured they would bear it until they could find a different job. We found ourselves repeating a pattern that had begun years earlier.

In particular, the fear of retribution was well founded. No one was safe. If the chairs and deans did not comply, the union supporters’ jobs might be at risk. Seeing this, some faculty built barricades to protect themselves from the administration, choosing to hunker down and not get involved. They found it safer if they did not draw attention to themselves, and more than one person told us, “Better the devil that you know than the devil you don’t know.” This was a remarkable position, given that prior to the balloting, the administration had commanded the chairs and deans to serve as its puppets, voicing only the official view.

But, then, reality was never an obstacle to forces trying to kill the union. For instance, the college spent tens of thousands of dollars to bring in legal counsel to mobilize its anti-union crusade, while surrogates for the administration accused the union organizers of bringing in outsiders. Never mind that the four of us who led the campus bid for union representation had been present on campus longer than most administrators and staff.

If ever there was a group that needed union organization, it was our faculty. But these were the same people who would vote resoundingly to take whatever the administration decided to give them rather than stand up and be a collective force to empower the teaching faculty. For them it was easier to back down than to stand up and fight.

What should we have done differently?

  • We should have come in armed with data. Having specific points to illustrate potential contract issues would have helped faculty understand contract negotiations and reduced their fears.
  • We should have been more aggressive in attacking the administration and forcing it to respond to our claims.
  • We should have had a different way to disseminate information. Faculty got tired of all the e-mail messages, and everyone except the die-hard opposition eventually stopped reading anything from either side.
  • We should have held events and invited faculty, even if they were not going to attend. Our colleagues had told us they were afraid to be seen with us, so we did not invite any visits from our AAUP organizers. Curiously, the faculty also insisted they did not want outside interference even though they were strangely tolerant of the administration’s use of outsiders. In retrospect, we were wrong to let the administration’s use of outsiders go unchallenged. Why were the administration’s outsiders better than those the union invited to campus?
  • We also should have gone public--some non-RSC friends offered to leak the issue to the local newspaper. We should have agreed.

What did we do right? The core organizing committee conducted the card-signing campaign and election with integrity, honesty, and a genuine goodwill for the whole college, administration included. We met the vitriol without resorting to rants, and we countered the persistent distortions as best as we could. But false claims, mixed with rational and irrational fears, created a toxic environment in which rational discourse could not exist, ultimately fragmenting the faculty. As the cartoonist Walt Kelly, author of Pogo, said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Even so, we cannot remain disheartened by our colleagues’ lack of resolve. But next time we must be prepared to address and overcome their fears before we set out on this path.

Sally Angel holds a PhD in medieval English language and literature from Ohio University and has been teaching at Lima Technical College/Rhodes State College since 1989. Her experience on various local and state educational committees demonstrates a commitment to her discipline, and her role in the unionization effort shows her commitment to faculty.

Postscript by Martin Kich

As the primary outside adviser to this organizing effort, I would like to add a postscript indicating what I could have done differently and to elaborate on several factors that Sally touches upon but that I think deserve added emphasis.

First, I believe that her great personal credibility, as well as that of the other core organizers, led to their getting the cards signed as quickly as they did, without any strong-arming. But minimizing what the AAUP represents and what it has to offer as a large national organization, which was done to offset the assertions that outsiders were leading the campaign, meant that when the administration pushed back hard against unionization, a lot of the Rhodes faculty saw a choice between being blacklisted by the administration or possibly losing their jobs and disappointing colleagues they respected. I should have argued much more forcefully than I did for the necessity of getting faculty to feel connected to something bigger. In that way, the administration’s “outsider” argument might have been turned around as an advantage: making the case not that outsiders were trying to impose anything on the Rhodes faculty but that the Rhodes faculty had the resources to support whatever they might choose to do. I should have argued very forcefully for, rather than just repeatedly suggesting, bringing AAUP leaders to Rhodes to make the case for organizing in a variety of ways.

In addition, I should have pushed much harder for the development of a website and provided resources to help the core organizers with that, because it would have mitigated the issue with the deluge of e-mails immediately before the election. Faculty could have gotten into the habit of seeking out, at times of their own choosing, regularly updated information on the organizing effort and might even have felt some additional sense of empowerment simply from doing that.

Lastly, although the Ohio conference is a strong one and has experience in organizing new collective bargaining chapters, we did not have much experience organizing a faculty whose members all hold contingent appointments. I underestimated the ease with which the Rhodes administration could play on faculty members’ insecurity without worrying about any backlash, which almost certainly would have occurred among largely tenured faculty: that is, at some point, faculty with job protections resent an attempt to intimidate them more than they are cowed by it.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, the Rhodes faculty who had been most opposed to unionization clearly felt that they had won decisively. Of course, the question was what, exactly, they had “won.” The administration was almost universally regarded as heavy-handed and focused on the wrong priorities, so much so that those deficiencies were not at issue in the organizing campaign. The rejection of unionization truly meant that what its opponents had “won” was the renewed empowerment of an administration that was already giving little more than lip service to shared governance.

Beyond taking the lessons of this failed campaign to heart, I came away with a sense of deep respect for Sally and the other core organizers, who had every right to feel deeply betrayed by their colleagues who had willingly signed authorization cards and then equally willingly allowed themselves to be intimidated into voting against unionization. But regardless of what Sally and the other core organizers were feeling, they responded to the loss with such great composure and dignity that I suspect their response made at least some of their colleagues feel even more ashamed.

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