Why Faculty Like Me Support Unions

I joined the United Faculty of Florida my first semester at USF, in 1996. I joined because I wish there had been a graduate-student union at the University of Pennsylvania, where graduate assistants in some colleges were paid well below poverty rates and yet were told that if they were given any assistance, they could not take on any other jobs. Never mind that being a graduate assistant came with no health insurance and the reality that a graduate student who is sick is going to be unlikely to finish a degree. 

So when I arrived on a campus with a union that reached out to me, the choice was easy. 

Then, as I was preparing my tenure application in the fall of 2001, all hell broke loose at the University of South Florida — an associate professor in computer science and engineering had the stupidity to go on the Bill O'Reilly show on Fox News, where he was labeled a terrorist. At first, the administration put Sami Al-Arian in an administrative-leave status, and then in an unannounced (and thus illegally-called) emergency meeting in December 2001 of the brand-new Board of Trustees for the university, the administration put on a show trial and the trustees called for Al-Arian's head (or at least his job) for the crime of being controversial. (That's right–it wasn't until months later that anyone in a leadership position said publicly that the reason why they wanted to fire Al-Arian was because they thought he raised funds for terrorists. At first it was all a heckler's veto.) 

A number of faculty were very concerned about this — the American Association of University Professors started an investigation in the spring based on contacts from USF faculty, the faculty senate at USF called an emergency meeting in early January 2002, and members from the USF chapter of the United Faculty of Florida began emailing each other over winter break to put together fliers and other material to send out to the bargaining unit at the beginning of the spring semester. Through the period from December 2001 through early 2003 when Al-Arian was arrested, the statewide leadership of the United Faculty of Florida and our national affiliates came through with flying colors in terms of support. We brought in several nationally-known speakers on academic freedom (Ellen Schrecker and Robert O'Neil) and when our chapter funds were getting low, we were helped out by the local and affiliates. AFT President Sandra Feldman wrote a firm letter to the university president supporting the chapter's position on academic freedom. 

That unified position was repeated in 2005, except it was to address a statewide threat when a bill filed by then-and-again Rep. Dennis Baxley would have given students the right to sue faculty if they disagreed with what was taught in class. In a year when university and college administrators said nothing about the bill, it was the United Faculty of Florida and the Florida Conference of the American Association of University Professors — and our state affiliate's government relations staff — who started the public opposition to the bill. Together with newspaper editorial boards and the state's students, we pushed back successfully until the state senate dropped the bill entirely.

A few years ago, when it was clear that the most vulnerable part of public education was higher education, the Florida Education Association leadership (which is almost entirely from K-12) agreed to change its position on several items, including the budget, to protect higher education. When tenured faculty were given layoff notices at all of the large public universities except USF, FEA agreed to hire outside lawyers to conduct several arbitration hearings and in the biggest cases at UF and USF, we won handily in significant part due to that assistance. 

I have seen the direct benefits of solidarity in support of my values as well as my pocketbook, and I have never regretted paying one cent of my union dues. I have stood with K-12 teachers, other public employees, and private union activists, and I will continue to do so.