Published March 28, 2011
Several university faculties in Wisconsin have voted overwhelmingly to join the American Federation of Teachers, a move the union says amounts to a backlash against Gov. Scott Walker's bid to strip their collective bargaining powers.
Faculty members at five University of Wisconsin campuses have voted to join the union since they were granted collective bargaining rights in 2009. Three of those votes have come since Walker introduced a landmark budget bill that eroded the unions' bargaining powers and benefits. Though those votes were scheduled before the budget bill was introduced -- and later signed -- AFT representatives said the wide margins of victory show professors are galvanizing in opposition to it. The most recent vote last week at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls campus was 148-16.
"They feel they have the right to have a voice in the workplace and they have a right to have collective bargaining rights, and they want to pursue that," AFT spokeswoman Janet Bass said.
The vote at the River Falls campus followed others at the La Crosse and Stout campuses.
However, the faculties are voting to unionize at a time when the advantages of joining are in question. The Wisconsin law would strip their collective bargaining powers -- state AFT President Bryan Kennedy told The Chronicle of Higher Education employees would instead be allowed to negotiate, only without the clout they once were afforded. He said the union elections themselves would also have to be administered by a neutral third party in accordance with the law.
That law now is under challenge in the court system, and Madison is in a state of confusion over whether it should even be taking effect, after a state bureau published the law despite a judge's order blocking it. Typically, a law takes effect after it is published, and the state Department of Administration said over the weekend that it was moving ahead with implementation. But other officials claim the secretary of state has to act first. And the legal battle likely is far from over, as a state appeals court just kicked the challenge up to the state Supreme Court.
An AFT-Wisconsin official predicted that if the law stands, the faculties will fight in the "court of public opinion" to recover collective bargaining powers.
"It's our belief that the unions will be stronger than ever ... though they don't have the right to bargain," the official said.
A representative for Walker could not be reached for comment.
Walker is one of several midwestern Republican governors squaring off against the public-sector unions in a bid to rein in state spending, now and in the long-term. He claimed to want to curb collective bargaining rights to give officials, particularly at the local level, the flexibility to adjust benefits in the interest of a balanced-budget and the taxpayers. He also argued that collective bargaining powers almost always meant local unions would choose to allow layoffs as an alternative to changes in benefits.
Though Wisconsin Senate Democrats fled the state in protest of Walker's bill, Republicans eventually figured out a way to pass it in their absence.
The law does not strip the state's technical colleges of collective bargaining powers. Employees at those colleges have had that ability for years, and their union representation is split between the AFT and the National Education Association.
In the university system, another vote is scheduled for next week at the Stevens Point campus. The faculties at the flagship Madison and Milwaukee campuses, though, have not yet voted to unionize.