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July 6, 1995

United Faculty responds to provost's anti-union letter

The war of words has heated up in the latest Pitt faculty unionization drive.

Provost James Maher, in a June 21 open letter to faculty, said unionization could hinder academic reforms, end the status of professors and librarians as "independent professionals within the University" and make it "highly unlikely" that Pitt will attract the best candidates for chancellor.

Maher urged faculty not to sign union authorization cards being circulated by the United Faculty of the University of Pittsburgh (UF), which in April launched the third drive since 1976 to unionize Pitt faculty.

This week, six members of the UF executive council replied to the provost's "Dear Colleague" letter to faculty with a "Dear Colleague" letter of their own. They dismissed Maher's letter as "a standard anti-union tactic" and responded point-by-point to the provost's arguments.

The UF is seeking to represent about 1,700 full-time and 600 part-time faculty, including faculty librarians, at all Pitt schools and campuses except the School of Medicine. If at least 30 percent of those 2,300 bargaining unit members sign authorization cards by April 1996, the state labor relations board will hold a secret ballot election here. The United Faculty would win the election if the group received support from more than 50 percent of voting faculty.

The first effort to unionize Pitt faculty, in 1976, fell short of a majority vote in a run-off election. The UF lost a 1991 election by a vote of 1,243-719.

In his letter, Maher emphasized that his anti-union stance "should not be taken as an attack on the members or the leaders of the United Faculty, many of whom I have known as capable colleagues for years. I do, however, want to express my concern that this University will be harmed by the distraction of another unionization effort at a time when we are finally making progress toward correcting the problems that we all have been concerned about for many years." UF leaders responded: "Far from being a 'distraction,' as the provost's letter asserts, the issue of the basic relation between the faculty and the administration and trustees is central to the future of the University." Maher continued: "In keeping with my commitment to open, shared governance, I recognize that we must increase the amount of constructive debate at all levels within the institution. However, this debate should not be focused on the divisive legal question of whether we want the United Faculty to represent all [non-medical] part- and full-time faculty and all librarians or whether, instead, faculty should be permitted to continue to function as independent professionals within the University. We need a broader debate, a debate about the goals of the University and about how we should achieve those goals during this time of regional, state-wide, and national change. This debate should be conducted within the normal academic arena and not within the context of a union election campaign." UF leaders wrote: "The claim that faculty are 'independent' professionals obscures the fact that we work within a hierarchical institutional structure in which decisions can be imposed unilaterally by those 'above' us, the administration and trustees — as the decision to drop HealthAmerica vividly demonstrated." Maher argued that "the best way to handle our community business is by making sure that the Planning and Budgeting System (PBS) develops into a truly collegial mechanism for defining the academic directions for our institution. Although that system is somewhat cumbersome (a trait common to most participatory processes) and still has not achieved its full potential, it has many attractive features and can develop into the effective instrument for decision-making that was originally intended by the Faculty Senate when they proposed the PBS." Thanks to the PBS, "financial information about the academic enterprise has never been so available to the faculty and staff as it has been during the past three years," Maher wrote.

The provost added that Interim Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and J.Wray Connolly, the new chairperson of Pitt's Board of Trustees "are both dedicated to the University and enthusiastic about its future. Let us work together to develop an understanding of how to identify and foster excellence in teaching and research within the extraordinary diversity of activities which constitute a modern University." UF leaders said the word "collegiality" can be defined two ways. "Attitudes and behavior are 'collegial' when they reflect mutual respect and good faith; whether attitudes are collegial or not depends upon the individual people involved. Structures and mechanisms, however, can be 'collegial' only when they relate [to] people who are of equal standing. Collective bargaining, with its better balance of power between faculty and administration, is more collegial in this sense than 'shared governance,' under which the administration can decide when to 'share' and when not." UF officials agreed that PBS is "very important" but argued that faculty unionization would not hinder the system. "Contractual agreements concerning salaries, benefits, and terms and conditions of employment will simply be factors to be taken into account in the planning and budgeting process, as they now are with respect to those Pitt employees already represented by their unions." Maher wrote: "The faculty have argued for years that the University must make 'hard decisions' to allocate its resources in such a way as to ensure its future quality. I have moved aggressively in the past year to begin to implement such a set of 'hard decisions' that should make each school of the Provost's area more cost effective and nationally competitive.

"If a sufficient number of faculty sign union authorization cards, we will enter into a potentially prolonged legal proceeding during which the development of new decision-making processes and the implementation of new initiatives may be inhibited and delayed. New academic initiatives of importance to the University, which might be popular with faculty, may be forbidden by law as possible attempts to influence the election. How can we proceed with the evolution of the first true bottom-up academic plan that I have seen in my 26 years at Pitt if we become locked into a union representation proceeding followed by an election campaign?" UF leaders replied: "There is absolutely no need for legal proceedings to delay either an election or progress toward a better University. When the UF has enough cards to be confident of the support of the majority of our colleagues, we'll petition for exactly the bargaining unit defined by the state labor board late in 1990. Over the preceding seven years, Pitt's administration and trustees wasted hundreds of thousands of students' and taxpayers' dollars on outside lawyers in an effort to prevent a democratic collective bargaining election. It would be unconscionable for them to squander additional scarce University resources by reopening issues resolved by the labor board at the end of that long and costly process.

Chancellor J. Dennis O'Connor told the University Times in April that the administration will not take legal action to block a faculty union election. Maher expressed concern "that the nation's best candidates for chancellor are highly unlikely to make themselves available to a university that is undergoing a unionization election. The success of the chancellor's search is of critical importance for the future of the University and must not be jeopardized." UF leaders wrote: "Any candidate worthy of becoming the next chancellor should be willing and able to deal forthrightly and 'collegially' with the faculty, not only as individuals, but also through the University Senate and through the process of collective bargaining."

— Bruce Steele

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