This is a very important page for anyone interested in finding out more about what unions are, why they help employees, and why they also help employers (yes, this is true). This information is from a collection of sources that include: The National Labor Review Board (NLRB), “Why Unions Matter” by, Michael D. Yates, the AFL-CIO, and many other sources. See footnotes at the bottom of this page.
Q) Why do unions matter?
A) First, you should know that staff unions are the norm at public universities in the United States, not the exception. Workplaces can be alienating and isolating for employees. Without a union, staff are “at will.” This means that an employee can be fired or discriminated against for any reason not protected explicitly by the law without any recourse. (What is protected by the law? Union organizing, race, sex, religion, ethnicity, national origin, age, or disability. Here in Vermont sexual orientation and gender identity are also covered.) Union membership requires an employer to demonstrate “just cause” and also gives the employee a right to appeal or file a grievance. At UVM, the budget decisions to terminate staff specifically targeted staff because UVM did not have to negotiate with a staff union to fire people.
Unions protect the benefits and salary negotiations of all members. If an employer needs to change benefits (including health care costs, annual cost of living increases, employee review procedures, time off, etc), they must negotiate with the union either within an annual contract or in addition to a pre-existing contract. Here at UVM, the United Academics have achieved great success for faculty in many areas, through the protection of their contract.
Read the AFL-CIO’s quick “Unions 101″ page.
Q) How would a staff union for the more than 1500 unrepresented staff at UVM make a difference?
A) Here at UVM the largest unrepresented group of employees are the staff (clerical and administrative). UVM staff are often treated and managed much differently depending on which division or office in which they work. Staff are evaluated through different means, given cost of living increases (or not) based on individual managers, and are employed “at will” with no means to protect themselves from termination. Budget cuts and resulting staff terminations have increased the fear and vulnerability of staff across campus. It is during these uncertain times that staff actually realize how much they are at risk.
UVM faculty experienced a dramatic increase in communication, ability to negotiate, and overall increase in respect when they unionized with United Academics. This translated into improved salary terms, health care coverage, and other benefits. UVM has been able to attract and retain high caliber professors while the faculty have united across the colleges through collective bargaining. The United Electrical Workers local (our grounds and maintenance staff) have also benefited by increasing the pay and benefits of their staff across the campus.
Q) Why is a staff union a good thing for UVM?
A) A staff union will bring UVM closer, by literally connecting staff from divisions and offices across campus. There will no longer be a separate but “equal” approach to managing staff. How a front-line staff is evaluate in one division will be the same format used in another. Equity across the board will ensure that no staff member is terminated without just cause, cut in hours or benefits without their say, or mistreated by management or the administration. A union will offer protection and a staff voice far beyond what Staff Council is able to provide. We greatly appreciate and support the years of service that Staff Council has provided all of us, but the truth is that the Staff Council is only an advisory body, and the administration rarely takes the advice of Staff Council when it comes to the most important issues, like salaries and benefits.
Q) How is a union organized?
A) A union is organized after at least 30 percent of the employees sign authorization cards saying “yes, we agree that a union should exist here.” After the cards are signed, a petition for election is filed with the state labor relations board. Next, an election asking employees if they want a union to represent them is held at the place of employment. The union must receive 50 percent plus one in order to win.
Q) What is collective bargaining, and how does it work?
A) Collective bargaining is a process by which employees come together to speak with one voice and bargain with their employer over wages, hours, and conditions of employment. It happens after employees organize a union to represent them.
Q) If the union wins who will represent me in negotiations?
A) Negotiators are chosen by the bargaining unit and, depending on how the local union’s bylaws are written, are usually elected. The bargaining team should mirror the diversity of the workplace.
Q) How are dues set?
A) Dues are set democratically by the members, and are subject to a vote. Union dues are typically about 1 percent of a worker’s gross salary.
Q) I am classified as a supervisor; am I eligible to bargain?
A) Yes. The Vermont Labor Relations Board has consistently ruled in favor of the rights of supervisors to belong to unions. A summary of viable bargaining units on the Vermont State Labor Relations Board website states:
Under the State Employees Labor Relations Act, which covers State employees, State Colleges employees and University of Vermont employees, supervisors who are not determined to be managers are entitled to collective bargaining rights as part of a separate supervisory unit. 3 V.S.A. §907. Managers are not entitled to collective bargaining rights. 3 V.S.A. §902(5). Managers are defined by 3 V.S.A. §902(18) as “an agency, department or institution head, a major program or division director, a major section chief or director of a district operation.” Similar positions in the Vermont State Colleges and the University of Vermont are excluded from collective bargaining rights. 3 V.S.A. §902(5)(D).
Q) Is it true that with a union I will lose my flexibility?
A) No. Bargaining begins from the status quo. It is up to the members of the union to decide what is and is not covered in the contract. If flexibility around work schedules, for instance, is important to union members, there would be no reason to change existing options. They could even be made more widely available. The goal of bargaining is to protect and improve work environments.
Q) My position is grant funded; can I belong to a union?
A) Yes. Throughout the nation grant funded staff bargain side by side with their non-grant funded colleagues. Close by at SUNY – Plattsburgh (AFT local 2190), grant funded staff are included with all staff in the master contract.
Q) Do we have the right to organize a union? I have been told not to talk with co-workers or union organizers about the union.
A) You have the absolute right to organize a union. The Vermont State Labor Relations Act states clearly:
Employees shall have the right to self-organization; to form, join or assist employee organizations; to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choice, and to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection, and shall also have the right to refrain from any or all such activities, except as provided in subsection (b) of this section, and to appeal grievances as provided in this chapter. (chapter 27-903)
You have the same rights to talk with your co-workers about the union as you would anything else. There is no legal way for an employer to bar you from talking about one specific topic.
Q) When can I speak about the union with co-workers and others?
A) The real question is, as a professional, do you have the flexibility to determine when you can take a short break to talk to a co-worker? If you can take a few minutes to talk about any other non-work topic, then clearly you can talk about the organizing campaign.
Q) Will a union hurt research?
A) No. In fact, experience at first-rate research institutions across the country that are unionized, such as Harvard and the University of California, demonstrate the opposite. We know that high turnover and inadequate training in some labs at UVM has compromised research. Unionized research institutions, because they are better able to maintain stable, experienced, adequately paid and well-trained staffs, promote quality research and continuing ability to attract grant funding.
Q) If funding runs out, what can a union contract do for me?
A) Many university contracts include language for grant-funded staff whose projects have been ended. At Harvard University, the Harvard Union of Technical and Clerical Workers has won a number of gains for research staff. These include:
- A joint labor-management committee that can negotiate alternative outcomes to layoff.
- If a staff member is laid off, he or she receives a 60-day notice before the layoff, at which point they get assigned a labor-management pair to help with placement.
- Laid off staff receive three months of wages and benefits from their Department while seeking re-employment.
- Laid off staff receive preference over external candidates for an open position.
- Staff have opportunities, including release time from their workday schedules, for on-going training to ensure employable skills.
- Contract provisions at Harvard apply equally to grant funded and permanent staff in all University departments.
Another example is the staff union contract at the University of Connecticut (AFT local 3695) which has strong work security protections. These are just illustrations. UVM staff, of course, would negotiate contract language that makes sense here. The UVM faculty union was able to negotiate bridge funding in their contract that allows for up to six months pay after a project ends until new funding begins. We agree with this approach and think that more should be done for staff.
Questions? Contact us via email: union[at]unitedstaff[dot]us
Yates, Michael D. Why Unions Matter (1998)
AFL-CIO (National Labor Union)