Wisconsin Professors Plan to Forge Ahead With Union Elections and Tough Negotiations

March 11, 2011

[Updated 5:20 p.m.]

The Wisconsin chapter of the American Federation of Teachers will proceed with planned union elections on four University of Wisconsin campuses, despite the state's adoption of a law this week denying collective-bargaining rights to the university system's faculty and academic staff members and curtailing the bargaining rights and benefits of many other public employees.

The measure, signed into law on Friday morning by Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, does not preclude University of Wisconsin faculty and staff members from continuing to seek representation through campus unions, said Bryan L. Kennedy, president of both the AFT-Wisconsin and the Association of University of Wisconsin Professionals, a nonbargaining statewide union of public-college employees. What will change under the new law, Mr. Kennedy said in an interview, is that, rather than engaging in collective bargaining, the campus unions will negotiate with administrators through a process known as "meet and confer," which gives union representatives less clout but nonetheless enables them to advocate on behalf of their members' interests.

Meet-and-confer negotiation—used by faculty representatives at private colleges and in public-school systems in right-to-work states—"does not have a whole lot of teeth," Mr. Kennedy acknowledged. Under it, membership in unions is strictly voluntary, and management retains the right to unilaterally make decisions regarding the terms and conditions of employment. But it at least gives workers the right to organize and make recommendations regarding those terms and conditions, and their recommendations can carry considerable weight where a majority of employees are union members, Mr. Kennedy argued.

Although the new law strips faculty unions in the system of collective-bargaining rights, "it is not going to stop them from being the majority voice" of the faculty on those campuses, Mr. Kennedy said.

Lawrence N. Gold, director of higher education for the AFT, declined on Friday to comment on specifics of the Wisconsin state affiliate's plans, but said, "obviously, we are going to be studying the law and seeing all of the possibilities we have."

Neutral Party Needed

AFT-Wisconsin will move ahead with plans to hold faculty votes on unionizing at the university system's River Falls and Stevens Point campuses this month and at its Green Bay campus in May, and to hold its first union election for the academic staff at the system's Superior campus in April, Mr. Kennedy said. Because the new law ends the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission's involvement in such elections, the AFT will need to turn to some neutral party, such as the American Arbitration Association or the League of Women Voters, to oversee the elections and count ballots, he said.

The University of Wisconsin system's faculty and academic staff had not been allowed to bargain collectively before the state's passage of a 2009 law giving them that right. In the wake of that measure's passage, faculty members voted to unionize at the system's campuses at Eau Claire and Superior last May, at La Crosse last month, and at Stout on Wednesday. None of the four fledgling faculty unions has been around long enough to have negotiated a collective-bargaining agreement.

The new law's ban on collective bargaining covers only the university system's faculty and academic staff, and does not apply to employees of the state's 16 technical colleges, half of which have unions affiliated with the AFT and half of which have unions affiliated with the National Education Association. The new law, however, does require the longstanding unions at those colleges to hold recertification votes every year, and says they may collectively bargain only on base wages, and cannot negotiate pay raises beyond any growth in in the Consumer Price Index without the approval of voters.

Also on Friday, Madison Area Technical College's Board of Trustees voted to reject a tentative agreement with its part-time faculty members' union negotiated 10 months ago. Jon E. Anderson, a lawyer for the college, said board members had cited the new law governing state employees, as well as planned cuts in the state's budget, in concluding that too much had changed in recent months to stick with the agreement, which the board had been prepared to ratify last June but the union did not ratify until last Saturday.

Mr. Anderson added, however, that the board remained determined to make its part-time faculty members an offer that would leave it competitive in the market for them. "The bottom line is that employers are still going to need employees," he said.

Kevin Gibbons, co-president of the Teaching Assistants' Association, which represents about 2,800 teaching assistants and project assistants at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said on Friday he was confident his union fell outside the new law's ban on collective bargaining by the university system's faculty and academic staff. But, he said, his union faces the same restrictions of bargaining rights that are being imposed on many other public-employee unions in the state.

"We are in a rough spot," Mr. Gibbons said. The new law, he argued, "has multiple provisions that are designed to crush unions."