Partial Victory for Maryland Instructors Comes at Cost of Division Within Labor

March 15, 2012

The University System of Maryland's graduate assistants and adjunct faculty members have taken a significant step toward unionizing, but some complain that the gain came through a closed negotiation process in which they were denied a voice or any hope of winning collective-bargaining rights under state law in the current year.

Under a deal struck last week between university-system lobbyists and Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, the system agreed to establish a "meet and confer" process under which organizations of adjunct faculty members or graduate-student employees can seek the representation of some third party, such as a union, in taking their concerns to university administrators.

Following the system's agreement to the meet-and-confer process, Democratic state lawmakers abandoned a bill that would have given adjuncts, graduate-student employees, and tenured and tenure-track faculty members far more power, by allowing them to collectively bargain their contracts.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat, withdrew the Senate version of the bill, which he had sponsored, before hearings could be held on it. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Advocates for the system's academic employees on Wednesday generally agreed that the university's adoption of the meet-and-confer process was about the best outcome they could have hoped for this year, especially considering that the collective-bargaining legislation was seen as having little chance of passage (similar measures have failed in the past).

Nevertheless, some had hoped for a sustained legislative debate on collective bargaining, and are frustrated that Governor O'Malley appears to have struck the deal without consulting any university-employee representatives and instead talked only with organizers for the American Federation of Teachers of Maryland.

'Surprised at This Turn of Events'

Anna L. Bedford, president of the Graduate Student Government at the University of Maryland at College Park, accused the AFT of having deliberately left representatives of graduate-student employees out of the loop in negotiating its own deal with Governor O'Malley.

"We were disappointed that we were spoken for," Ms. Bedford said on Wednesday. Noting that she is happy that graduate-student employees have gained meet-and-confer powers, she said, "I really object to the process more than the end results."

Matthew M. Palus, a lecturer in anthropology on the College Park campus who had been scheduled to testify in the Senate before Senator Raskin withdrew his bill, said he trusts the AFT representatives who consulted with the governor but feels that someone "explicitly representing the needs and desires of adjuncts" should have been involved in the negotiations.

"Just about everyone involved was surprised at this turn of events," he said. "I was looking forward to talking to some senators about my experience as an adjunct in the University of Maryland."

Todd Reynolds, a field representative for the AFT of Maryland who has been trying to organize public-university employees, said the union did not suggest the meet-and-confer compromise to Governor O'Malley. Instead, Mr. Reynolds said, the governor told the union he planned to accept such a deal, and "we did not have a lot of leeway," given the collective-bargaining measure's small prospects of passing.

Patrick J. Hogan, who helped negotiate the compromise as the university system's vice chancellor for government relations, said the system opposed the collective-bargaining bill. That's because it saw tenured and tenure-track faculy as represented by their faculty senates, and adjunct faculty members as too diverse in their work arrangements to be easily covered by collectively bargained contracts.

Mr. Hogan said the system does not view graduate-student assistants as employees who should be allowed to collectively bargain because their work arrangements are "not an employer-employee relationship" but instead are "part of their educational experience and activities."

Establishing a meet-and-confer procedures, by contrast, "was appropriate and a positive enhancement to our shared-governance process," he said.