Faculty: Loss of union may signal national trend

David Hutter

Eight months after the National Labor Relations Board accepted Quinnipiac University President John Lahey’s request to decertify the Quinnipiac University Faculty Federation, professors regret the decision and fear it may start a trend among private universities.

Sean Duffy, associate professor of political science and a member of the decertified faculty union, regards the university’s act of dissolving the union as being consistent with a broader, national trend.

“The union movement in general in this country is fighting an uphill battle,” Duffy said. “It means that national unions everywhere are going to fight and contest every effort to roll back and decertify these unions.”

The National American Federation of Teachers Union, under which the Quinnipiac University Faculty Federation operated, has to some degree adopted the cause of the formerly unionized Quinnipiac teachers, Duffy said. Likewise, the national union has repeatedly denounced the decision of the administrators at Quinnipiac to decertify the faculty union, which had represented faculty members at the university since 1975.

At a convention in Boston in July, American Federation of Teachers representatives criticized the Quinnipiac administration’s decision to nullify the teachers’ union by calling it “a shameful attack on the rights of faculty,” according to published reports. Additionally, the Working Families Network, a subsidiary of the AFL-CIO labor union, has set up a Web-based petition protesting the Quinnipiac administrators’ break-up of the faculty union at www.shameonquinnipiac.org. There, the organization has written a letter to Lahey that it hopes “Quinnipiac University students, prospective students, alumna or alumnus, a parent, a professor, or anyone else who cares about the integrity of higher education” will sign and e-mail to Lahey.

John Morgan, associate vice president for public relations, declined to comment on the administration’s thoughts regarding the petition.

In a speech to professors and administrators in Alumni Hall on Jan. 31, Lahey said he sought to dissolve the union in order to make Quinnipiac more competitive with other private universities. The decision coincided with the university’s formal announcement of the start of its five-year, $100-million strategic plan.

Nationally, fewer than six percent of private colleges and universities have labor unions, according to the City University of New York’s National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions.

The National Labor Relations Board based its decision to dissolve the Quinnipiac teachers’ union on a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in 1980 regarding a dispute between teachers and administrators at Yeshiva University, a private institution in New York City. The national court ruled that Yeshiva professors were “managerial employees” and therefore were prohibited from unionizing. The court’s decision in the Yeshiva case paved the way for numerous other private institutions to dissolve faculty unions.

At Quinnipiac, about 240 of the university’s 280 faculty members belong to the faculty federation. The union technically still exists, though it is powerless for all intents and purposes, Duffy said. Among the union’s principle purposes were to negotiate teachers’ salaries and contracts with administrators.

The only condition under which Quinnipiac administrators would be forced to recognize the faculty federation, Duffy said, would be in the event of a coordinated, large-scale strike by professors. But such an event is very unlikely to occur, he said.

“This is what the strike has been used for throughout history,” Duffy said. But American college professors very rarely go on strike because they are much more concerned about teaching their students than being represented by local faculty unions, he said.

“Quinnipiac professors, and nearly all professors by nature of their profession, are more committed to their students . than they are to larger, abstract issues like faculty organizations,” Duffy said.

Neil Nelan, a professor of mathematics and a former officer of the faculty federation, is also paying close attention to the pressure the American Federation of Teachers is applying on Quinnipiac administrators. He rejects the notion that the existence of the faculty federation would have obstructed the university’s push to become a more selective institution.

“Given the 30-year history of the union, it is my opinion that it was never a factor in preventing the growth of the university,” Nelan said. “As a faculty member, I’d like to be able to do my job of teaching students and not have to negotiate for my wages.”

Describing the relations between the faculty federation and the administration as “collegial,” Nelan laments the fact that professors are no longer protected by a union. Similarly, he is ambivalent as to whether the national union’s pressuring the administration will yield any real change.

“If someone thinks they’ve been wronged by the university, their only option now is to get an outside lawyer and sue,” Nelan said.