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UWS faculty first to vote on union

MADISON - When they vote next week, faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Superior will be the first in the state to decide if they want union representation.

MADISON - When they vote next week, faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Superior will be the first in the state to decide if they want union representation.

Since 75 percent of the approximately 100 faculty members have already signed cards indicating interest in a having a union election, prospects appear likely there will be American Federal of Teacher local on campus soon.

"I haven't met anyone opposed to this," said Marshall Johnson, a sociology professor and an organizing force behind the May 13-14 union election. "All those I've been working with are eager to get some representation."

Johnson has been at UWS 16 years and can remember a colleague saying that collective bargaining was "inappropriate for a dignified profession like ours." Johnson doesn't agree, and although trying to organize faculty can be similar to "herding cats," he has been impressed with the cohesiveness shown in this effort.

After 40 years of lobbying state law was changed last July to allow the approximately 19,700 faculty and academic staff at the UW Systems' universities, colleges and extensions to collectively bargain for wages and benefits.

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If a majority of faculty vote for a union then compensation is likely to be a major issue when the union and administration meet at the collective bargaining table to negotiate a contract, said Johnson.

Compensation is likely to be a major issue during negotiations and Johnson looks to use collective bargaining not to increase pay but blunt some of the impact of the furlough policies imposed on state employees.

"We've had no voice in furlough policies, which amounts to a 3 percent pay cut. Unionized employees can bargain over this and with the current economic conditions we're much better off if we have a collective voice," he said.

Faculty has also been interested in holding the line on paying an increasing share of more expensive health insurance, he said.

The state law doesn't give faculty the right to strike nor will they bargain over academic standards, course content, or other curriculum matters. Those are issues of academic freedom and professional responsibility, which are subject to study and agreement with campus administration.

"We already have many committees reviewing those issues, maybe too many committees. I think collective bargaining will help separate the compensation and work rule issues from how educational programs are delivered, and I think it will improve the efficiencies here," he said.

The students and public also have a stake in the collective bargaining process, said Johnson. The goal is to improve academics and the educational environment for everyone in the campus community and that means keeping quality educators here, he said.

Chancellor Julius Erlenbach was unavailable for comment Thursday but UW System spokesman David Giroux said the UW is officially neutral on faculty unionization.

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"We recognize this is their right granted by the Legislature, and we won't promote or interfere with the process," he said.

Asked how he expects contract negotiations to be conducted if faculties unionize, Giroux responded, "it's too soon to tell."

Whatever the process, other UW campuses will be watching as the precedent will be set in UWS contract negotiations, said Johnson. UW-Eau Claire faculty will vote May 18-19, the only other campus to hold a union election.

If the UWS faculty votes for AFT representation, then Johnson will encourage the campus' academic staff to also unionize. The same issues are common to both groups and adding another 100 or more staff to the bargaining unit would give the combined group more negotiating leverage, he said.

While the academic staff wasn't ready to go ahead with an election, the faculty wanted to hold one before the semester ends next week, Johnson said.

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