UEA members at the University of Minnesota Duluth and Crookston have been working without a contract since June, and the union says the institutions are dragging their feet on negotiations for a new one.
The membership met recently, said Elizabethada Wright, a professor in the writing department at UMD and also UEA president, and is determining next steps.“We have offered to make a neutral presentation of the proposed contract to membership, and we thought that was done,” she said. The institutions decided to take the response under advisement and get back to the union, but Wright said the mediator has told the union that there has been no response.
All this comes on the heels of the university system asking the union in April to put off negotiations until the old one expired in June. “The whole thing has been like this — delay, delay, delay,” Wright said.
The union represents members who are known as “term faculty” — faculty members who don’t have tenure and aren’t on a tenure track, but teach under contract. The last contract lasted three years; the university system is pushing for one on the next contract. At issue are birth leave for nonbirth parents and consistency for term faculty.
From the beginning, Wright said, the union was willing to take a pay cut as well because of the challenges the institution is facing because of the pandemic, but they wanted to negotiate it rather than having it imposed. “They offered a letter of understanding that we would agree, but the terms were far worse than they gave the rest of the system, even though they had said there would be ‘system-wide cuts,’” Wright said. “They did not meet with us again until August, when things were delayed again, so we shouldn’t have to get a retroactive cut.”
Also at issue is a clause that says contracts can be revoked at any point because of enrollment numbers or other factors. “It’s problematic,” Wright said. “Term faculty went through the entire summer not knowing whether they’d be employed despite having that contract. When you have a contract, you finish in May and have a term contract saying you’ll be back the next semester.”
But that can cause confusion when it comes to health insurance. Wright said she’s working a case where a term faculty member chose not to renew, and expected to have to pay COBRA charges for July and August. But the university came back and said they owed for June as well. “It’s these real problems that exist throughout the system, exacerbated by this contract,” Wright said.
Wright stressed that the members are willing to do their share as the pandemic goes on, and that the issues go beyond a contract. “Universities are increasingly getting rid of tenure/tenure track professors and relying on term faculty. And when people are having to plan classes, order textbooks and schedule classes but still don’t have a contract, it’s absurd.”
Unlike in many college towns, term faculty jobs in Duluth can be considered a living wage and have good benefits, thanks to the union, Wright said. But this recent round of negotiations shows how union members must always stay vigilant.
“We’re on hold now as we have been for so much of this process, because the university needs to respond,” Wright said.