This is a post of my own thoughts and do not represent the views of the organizing committee, UTSF, MEA, or NEA.
Who am I?
I’ve been an organizer for our recently launched Union of Tenure Stream Faculty at Michigan State University for the last two years. I’m a faculty member in the Physics and Astronomy and Computational Mathematics, Science, and Engineering departments. I have worked at Michigan State for ten years. I’ve worked for the better part of two decades to improve the experiences and educational outcomes for students in STEM (both in physics and computing); I’ve done this work at MSU for a decade.
I have received accolades for this work from Michigan State through the 2018 Presidential Teaching Award as well as being named the Lappan Phillips Professor of Physics Education. I’ve earned national recognition for this work through the 2023 Excellence in Physics Education Award from the American Physical Society (APS). I was also recently elected Fellow of the APS – an honor reserved for 2% of the membership. I don’t state these things to boast. I state them because they are the results of my personal journey through public higher education, and represent the commitment I hold to publicly funded higher education and the students that we serve.
I work at MSU because it is a public university. I am a first generation college student who is only working at MSU because of the public education that I received. I grew up in Deep South Texas in a family that was only one generation away from subsistence farming. My family left the farm for opportunity. They found it working as grocery clerks, bakers, and landscapers. But the work was hard, exploitative, and often unfair.
Why I support our union
I believe in the mission of MSU and I believe in the mission of public higher education. Unionization allows me to codify both those beliefs into action. If I believe in our mission, and my colleagues do as well, why are we not collectively trying to push that mission forward? Why are we not collectively trying to make MSU a better place for our students, our colleagues, and our community? Why are we not collectively trying to make public higher education a better place for our students, our colleagues, and our community?
In asking those questions, I know that my colleagues are trying to do those things. But we are doing them in isolation. We are not organized. We are not talking with each other. We are not speaking with a single collective and strong voice to our administrators about the things that matter to us, the things that are making our jobs arduous and taxing, the things that are making student life difficult, or the decisions that are being made without our input. Not to mention the recent board shenanigans that have been happening.
It is time to reclaim our voice. The faculty, staff, and students are MSU. We are MSU. We do the research, we are doing the teaching and learning, we are keeping the lights on and the bathrooms clean, we are making sure the paperwork is properly filed, we are making sure that people get paid, and we are ensuring that our campus is safe.
Here’s a few of the reasons that I support our union, but they are all rooted in the same idea.
We need to be more than advisory
- I believe in the mission of MSU and public higher education. Our union allows us to collectively push that mission forward. It also gives us a voice in shaping that mission, those priorities, and those goals. It puts on the same level as the administrators. We need to be more than advisory.
- Michigan State administration has shown itself incapable of planning for more than one year at a time. This is no way to run a university. We receive resources for teaching and learning based on decades old estimates, while the university continues to grow, to build more buildings, and to hire more administrators. Our students suffer. We cannot continue to operate this way. We need to be able to plan for the future. We need to be more than advisory.
- Michigan State administration has shown itself incapable of making decisions that are in the best interest of the university. The recent board shenanigans are a prime example of this. We need to be able to hold our administrators accountable for their actions. We need to be able to hold our administrators accountable for their decisions. We need to be more than advisory.
- Non-unionized workers on our campus are being exploited. We have no recourse for changes to our contracts, benefits, or salaries. We have no recourse for changes to our working conditions. We have no recourse for changes to our teaching loads. We have no recourse for changes to our research loads. We have no recourse for changes to our service loads. We are simply asked to do more with less. We need to be more than advisory.
Myths about higher education unions
I have had the opportunity to talk with many of my colleagues about our union. I have heard some of the same myths about unions in higher education that stifle our ability to advocate for ourselves. I want to address a few of them here.
What problem is a union solving?
I started to articulate that above, but this question is a classic example of the false dilemma. It assumes that there is only one problem that a union can solve. And it presumes that we cannot agree on that one problem. This misinformation is meant to divide us against each other and it is not representative of the vast majority of successful contracts (e.g., Rutgers, SUNY Stony Brook, and UMass Amherst) A union can solve lots of problems, but people need to bring them to the table.
Unions are for blue collar workers, not white collar workers.
While it is true that the history of unionization is with factory and other blue collar workers, unions are for all workers. University faculty are not used to thinking of themselves as labor, until their employer cuts salaries and benefits without their input. We have still not been made whole. Moreover, this myth presents a false dichotomy. Unions are for all workers.
Unions will result in lower wages as we have to pay union dues and normalize salaries.
This is categorically false. The data show that unionized faculty have higher salaries than non-unionized faculty. Recent labor contracts in academia also demonstrate this; the rising tide lifts all boats (e.g., Grad students at UC, Faculty at Rutgers). How that happens and how it is distributed is part of the labor contract itself. These typically include both cost of living and merit increase pools, which the contract specifies follow the recommendations of the chair/dean as we have always done. Unions result in higher wages.
Unions make you pay dues. That’s your money. What is it even going to?
This is a problematic point because it demonstrates that we don’t understand how unions work. Unions are democratically run organizations. We elect our leaders. We elect our representatives. There are transparent proceses for how dues are spent. We have a say in how dues are spent. Moreover, those dues are typically capped and publicly known (e.g., MEA posts their dues here). In addition, the budgets of the union can be reviewed and discussed by any member of the union. Unions are democratic and transparent organizations.
Unions will keep us from being able to compete for talent.
This is a ludicrous argument. Wages are higher on unionized campuses; labor agreements are clearer; and the benefits are better – please look at the contracts. Our STEM colleagues are paid more than our humanities colleagues. That is both a labor issue and a market issue. The union will help solve the labor issue by typically putting in a floor for salaries as well as clear pots of money for raises that are both cost-of-living adjustments and merit-based. The market forces that will attract talent remain, chairs and deans still can work to attract and reward talented faculty. Unions do not keep us from being able to compete for talent.
Unions protect bad workers.
They do not. A union is not a shield for bad behavior, it is a way to ensure due process and protect worker’s rights. It is a way to ensure that we are treated fairly. It is a way to ensure that we are treated equitably. It is a way to ensure that we are treated with respect. Instead, clear arbitration processes are negotiated and the union provides representation for the faculty member through that process. Unions do not protect bad workers.
I can negotiate my own contract.
That is what we have done for years. I was hired at the same time as a colleague in another field in physics. I was paid $10k less than that person and didn’t know. The chair who hired me told me there was no room to move my starting salary up. I found out later that my colleague negotiated their salary up by $10k. I was never given that opportunity. That chair has left immediately after my hire, and the new chair realized the inequity in my first annual evaluation. Only through that chair’s work would I have earned a fair wage, but I was also out 10k for that first year. This practice privileges white and male faculty who hold the privilege to push back on these issues. Unions ensure that we are treated equitably.
What is stopping you from joining us?
Our union will be formed, of that I am certain. But, we need everyone to participate. Your views cannot be represented if we don’t hear them. I don’t know a damn thing about export controls, patents, international visitors, copyright issues, …
We need people that do and want to shape policy for the collective us. We need your expertise. We need your problems. We want to have a union for all of us and we are only as strong as our numbers and diversity.
Once we begin contract negotiations, we will start to see the benefits. Here’s nice summary of the benefits of unionization from the AAUP.
There’s a few things that I can guarantee if we form a union:
- You will pay no dues until we have a contract that is ratified by the majority of our members.
- Nothing will change until we have a contract that is ratified by the majority of our members.
- MSU will continue to make all the decision without our input until we win a contract that is ratified by the majority of our members.
We need you to join us.
Sign a union card if you haven’t already.
In solidarity. ✊🏽
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