A 5-year-old labor organizing effort at the University of New Mexico culminates this week as faculty members vote on unionization.

Proponents say they want a collective bargaining agreement between university leadership and United Academics of UNM in order to push for cost-of-living raises, provide stability amid administrative turnover and improve communication.

University leaders are publicly opposing the organizing effort.

“A union will not solve any of the pressing issues that challenge UNM,” Provost James Holloway said in a campuswide email last month. “Additional processes and steps, and new bureaucracies to navigate founded on inconsistent principles and conflicting goals, will not improve our financial outlook or continue to build the University to the scholarly heights it must achieve.”

In a statement to The New Mexican Monday evening, UNM President Garnett Stokes struck a less hostile tone.

“It is important that every member of the two proposed bargaining units be fully informed and participate in the process, as they will be bound by the outcome of the election,” Stokes said. “The UNM administration will respect the decision of our faculty.”

United Academics of UNM, which is jointly affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors, proposes a bargaining unit to represent full-time faculty, which includes professors, associate professors, assistant professors, professors of practice, research professors, research associate professors, research assistant professors, research lecturers, all levels of lecturers, senior instructors and instructors. A separate bargaining unit would represent part-time faculty, which includes adjunct faculty and term teaching faculty.

UNM estimates there are 1,000 full-time and 450 part-time faculty members eligible to vote t across its five campuses — the main campus in Albuquerque and branch campuses in Gallup, Los Alamos, Taos and Los Lunas.

For the UNM Labor Management Board to certify the vote, 40 percent of eligible voters must take part, and a simple majority would be enough to win. Votes will be cast Wednesday and Thursday, and official results are expected Friday.

Jessamyn Lovell, director of the undergraduate art department at UNM’s main campus, said informal talks about the prospect of a faculty union began over tea between classes and over beers after work in fall 2014.

Lovell, who said her husband is also a faculty member, said she arrived at UNM as a part-time faculty member in 2011 and quickly noticed a difference in workplace environment compared to her last job at Diablo Valley Community College outside San Francisco, where she was a union member.

“I guess we were used to things like cost-of-living raises. When we got here and saw we didn’t have a union, we were like, ‘Bummer, how do we get these things?’ ” Lovell said. “I was appalled to learn of a colleague with a Ph.D. making $2,200 per semester at UNM-Taos. It’s not all about the pay. It’s about being respected.”

According to UNM economics professor Matías Fontenla, the faculty at about one-third of the country’s universities are unionized.

Deputy Secretary Carmen Lopez-Wilson said the New Mexico Higher Education Department has lost 30 percent of its funding over the past 10 years. Meanwhile, faculty members said, they have been left to hold universities together over that decade of instability.

John Zimmerman, a fine arts professor, said he has worked under eight different chancellors during the past 13 years at UNM-Gallup.

“There’s been a ton of upper-level management turnover in Gallup, and each time that happens, faulty and staff are left holding the bag to do their best to keep the institution afloat,” Zimmerman said. “With a union, we want a consistent presence in terms of the governance of the campus that continues when leadership turns over and can always be a voice for the faculty and student learning conditions.”

Since the beginning of this academic year, most of New Mexico’s congressional delegation — Reps. Ben Ray Luján, Xochitl Torres Small and Deb Haaland, and Sen. Martin Heinrich — as well as Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, Lt. Gov. Howie Morales and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham have all issued statements with varying degrees of support for the faculty organizing efforts, according to United Academics of UNM social media.

“I applaud the UNM faculty members who are exercising their right to organize and they should be afforded every resource to facilitate such efforts,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement.

Morales was more forceful in his support.

“Collective bargaining is the most effective way to get power for America’s workers who need it badly, including those at UNM. We need labor organizing more than ever,” Morales said in a statement. “I am confident UA-UNM will give working faculty and staff a real voice and more leverage over their working conditions, and the economic policy decisions of the university.”

Ahead of the vote, union backers were cautiously optimistic about the chance for change.

“I feel confident. I’m planning on being at our victory party,” Lovell said. “But anything can happen.”

(1) comment

Khal Spencer

I was on the faculty union (UHPA) board of directors at the Univ. of Hawai'i back in the 1990's. The union was whatever the faculty wanted to make of it since it was guided by its Board. As a member of SOEST (School of Ocean and Earth Sciences and Technology) I never got complaints that the union was infringing on academic freedom or our ability to get merit raises, which as entrepreneurs paying 80% of SOEST's bills with grant funds, we were always fighting for against an intractable UH administration.

So sure, a union is not a cure all to everything wrong with higher education in New Mexico, which like Hawai'i, is a complicated story. But as I sometimes quipped, you gotta have a pretty lousy univerity situation to get faculty, who more resemble a herd of cats, to organize. I wish them luck and I also wish that New Mexico would stop treating UNM as a semipro sports franchise that does academics as a side show. Its about time we treated education as a central theme of government rather than something existing in a vacuum, with students funded by gambling schemes.

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