Hundreds of University of New Mexico faculty are expected to vote on Wednesday, Oct. 16, and Thursday, Oct. 17, on whether to form a union. It’s the culmination of years of organizing by faculty, who say collective bargaining is the way to get fair compensation, and better working and learning conditions across the institution. But opponents argue that putting different kinds of faculty together in a union doesn’t make sense for UNM.
A couple of years ago, a pair of UNM professors came to Matias Fontenla’s sunny office in the economics department to talk to him about forming a faculty union.
“I was like 'I’m not sure, what is this?' I wasn’t clear at all,” Fontenla recalled. “So I sent them away – nicely, kindly, right – and I started doing my homework.”
At the time, Fontenla was serving on UNM’s Faculty Senate, the body that advises the administration on academic issues. So he started reading papers and calling friends at other universities with faculty unions, like the University of Oregon and Rutgers in New Jersey.
“And I came out on the other side, like, incredibly strongly supporting it,” Fontenla said, “after seeing how other Research-1 universities have unions, and they’re doing fantastic.”
Fontenla said a union would address longstanding issues at UNM: that stagnant pay and lack of support for faculty lead to understaffed departments that struggle to support students.
So he joined his colleagues and outside union staffers in flyering and door knocking for the United Academics of UNM (UA-UNM). After about two years, they’d gotten declarations of support from over half of all faculty at UNM, including the four branch campuses in Gallup, Taos, Los Alamos and Valencia County. Faculty at the UNM Health Sciences Center were excluded.
“Immediately, the university responded and hired the most infamous union-busting law firm out of Chicago – Jackson Lewis,” Fontenla said.
The university wanted faculty split into several bargaining units. The union organizers wanted everyone in the same unit. In the end, the two sides agreed to have just two: one for temporary or adjunct faculty, and one for full-time or continuing faculty.
And the makeup of that second bargaining unit – with over 1,000 full-timers – doesn’t sit well with political science professor Mala Htun.
“Unions work well when there is a clean division between owners of capital and managers on the one hand, and workers on the other,” Htun said. “But that division doesn’t exist among faculty at a research university.”
At UNM, any tenured faculty can at some point become the boss of their department or center. But many of those supervisors won’t be allowed into the proposed bargaining unit. Htun says the way that line was drawn seems arbitrary and unfair.
“It doesn’t seem right that people who are gonna be working at UNM for 10, 20, even 30 years, don’t have the right to participate simply because they may have the word ‘director’ in their title,” Htun said.
One of those directors is Greg Taylor, a distinguished professor in physics and astronomy. He runs an observatory, managing field sites and writing grants, and said he fears a union might limit his hiring flexibility for short-term employees.
“I worry about my ability to write the contracts that I need to keep my telescope operating and keep the people employed,” Taylor said.
Highly paid research faculty in STEM fields sent around an opposition letter last week. Taylor was one of a couple dozen people who signed it. They’re concerned a collective bargaining agreement could require them to teach more classes or otherwise interfere with their research.
Fontenla, in the economics department, said he finds those concerns laughable.
“We would never, in our right mind, vote that, ‘Oh we should all teach more!’ or these things that they’re fearmongering around,” Fontenla said. “Quite the contrary. We want more freedoms. We want better salaries. We want to defend faculty against an administration that – over the last eight years especially, with the previous regents – were constantly pushing and pushing and pushing us.”
Another union organizer, Jessamyn Lovell, is a senior lecturer in the Art Department. She pointed out that tenured faculty may not see a personal need for a union, but they could still stand in solidarity with other instructors who don’t earn a living wage or don’t have job security.
“When everyone’s standard of living is reasonable, we’re all floating up together,” Lovell said. “So if you feel like, as a faculty, you have enough power and privilege and don’t need any more, then that’s a really good indication that maybe sharing some of that power and privilege and redistributing can benefit everyone.”
If the bargaining units pass this week, Lovell said they’ll soon send out a survey to all union members, and get together to hammer out the details.
Eligible faculty can vote on Oct. 16 and 17 at all five UNM campuses, excluding the Health Sciences Center. UNM's positions on unionization and details about the election can be found here.
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