Here I take up where an earlier post, Don’t Mourn (May 30), left off. In that post, I argued that the impending passage of Act 55, with its evisceration of tenure and faculty governance in the University of Wisconsin system, would give faculty and staff new grounds to organize broadly across the university. Access to the security of the tenure track has been limited over the past twenty years; growing numbers of contingent university faculty and staff work with far more limited protection. The attack on the UW system, then, creates an opportunity for tenured and tenure track faculty to work together with academic staff: to take care of each other.
In that post, I wrote: “Without tenure, all faculty become contingent laborers. Regardless of rank or tenure, we can all be laid off or terminated for ‘budgetary or programmatic’ reasons created by the Chancellor and administration. These ‘reasons’ will be determined outside of the oversight of faculty governance. We will have little power to resist these decisions. Unless we stand together.”
This post considers the question of organizing after our rights to do so have been abrogated at the state level. Where did those rights come from, historically? How might the historical origins of political power direct us to new sources of it?
Workers in Wisconsin no longer have a state-certified right to form unions and to have a say in the conditions of our labor. The loss of collective bargaining happened for public employees – teachers and city bus drivers, university professors and sanitation workers, graduate students and state park rangers– with Act 10, introduced as one of the first acts of the newly elected Governor, Scott Walker back in 2011. Subsequently, after he was re-elected in 2014, Walker introduced so-called “Right to Work” legislation, which effectively terminated collective bargaining for those working in the private sector.
UW faculty and staff in the UW system lost the right to collective bargaining in 2011, along with other public employees. In addition, faculty governance has now been eviscerated by Act 55, which effectively takes tenure and faculty governance out of state statute and places them in the hands of the Board of Regents. It renders faculty governance merely “advisory,” thereby potentially truncating our power to participate in setting the university policies that govern the conditions of our labor.
Clearly, these policies target workplace democracy. The policies that curtail collective bargaining and governance intend to silence the voices of all those who work in Wisconsin. A state without collective bargaining and faculty governance is a state in which administrators and employers reign, unchecked.
Wisconsin has a long tradition of democratic university governance and labor representation. The first civil service, public employee union formed here in 1932: the Wisconsin State Employees Union. In 1935, this union benefitted from the national Wagner Act, which certified the role of the federal government in protecting the rights of workers to organize. Landmark legislation, the Wagner Act recognized unions as partners with employers and government in maintaining safe and productive workplaces. While it excluded domestic and agricultural workers, many of whom were people of color and recent immigrants, the Wagner Act became a bulwark for the ongoing attempt to create workplace democracy.
Like collective bargaining, faculty governance has deep roots in Wisconsin. Early in the twentieth century, the University of Wisconsin received national renown for the central role played by faculty in setting academic policy. During the worst of the Great Depression, as the university contended with economic emergency, the role of faculty governance expanded. Shortly after the creation of the vast University of Wisconsin system in 1971, the state legislature passed a Merger Implementation Act (1974). Based on the evolution of faculty governance on the separate campuses that came to form the system, this law created a gold standard for the participation of faculty in university affairs.
Rights to collective bargaining and university governance evolved out of existing practices. Employees concerned about their job security in 1932 did not wait for the state or the federal government to ratify their right to organize: they formed a union. The eight-hour day and the weekend enjoyed by many American workers over the course of the twentieth century were secured by labor unions without the benefit of federally approved collective bargaining.
Similarly, by 1974, UW faculty and academic staff had been attending faculty meetings and participating in decision making on Wisconsin campuses. The Merger Implementation Act ratified the rights of faculty and staff to do what they were doing already: to participate in the decisions shaping their workplace.
Both the Wagner Act of 1935 and the Merger Implementation Act of 1974 responded to what was already happening. These important acts did not give us the right to self-governance: they recognized these rights because workers were already asserting them.
With the founding of the UWM chapter of the American Association of University Professionals, faculty, academic staff and graduate students, together, commence the work of asserting our rights, even in the difficult political climate of Wisconsin. We organize under the aegis of the well-respected national AAUP, which has so often been an arbiter of just practices in higher education.
We come together to defend and continue the proud tradition of the Wisconsin Idea: the notion that a democratically run university serves the interest of the entire state. In the UW tradition, we will strive to maintain workplace democracy at the university.