Hoping to evoke the true meaning behind the holiday, organizers trying to unionize part-time faculty at the University of Cincinnati have set a Labor Day deadline for its board of trustees to recognize them as a bargaining unit.
If the trustees don't act by Sept. 4, union organizers plan on making the effort more personal by launching boycotts of the trustees' employers.
The nine-member board, which serves as the university's governing body and sets policy, has steadfastly refused to respond to the unionization attempt by the Adjunct Faculty Association (AFA). By ignoring the effort, UC is violating a basic tenet of an almost 60-year-old treaty that established international standards for human rights, according to union organizer Howard Konicov.
A former adjunct math instructor at UC, Konicov cites Article 23, Section 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Part of the treaty's section on workers' rights says, "Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of (their) interests."
The treaty, adopted by the United Nations shortly after its founding, was designed to affirm the rights that should be guaranteed to all people. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt referred to the treaty as "a Magna Carta for all mankind."
Majority doesn't rule
The AFA waited two years for action by the trustees, during a transitional period when some trustees were replaced, to no avail, Konicov says. Although some current and former trustees have met individually with the AFA and expressed sympathy for its concerns, the talks haven't sparked action.
Referring to UC's president, Konicov says, "We're no longer willing to let the board of trustees hide behind Nancy Zimpher's skirt. They need to address the issue. Some members of the board have avoided this like the plague.
"It's the process of separating the good apples from the bad and hold the bad accountable."
The unionization effort began about six years ago, after some part-time instructors complained of low pay and exploitative working conditions. While part-time faculty and graduate assistants teach about half the undergraduate classes at UC, they aren't given the proper resources to do their jobs well, Konicov says. Some part-time faculty don't have office space where they can prepare for classes and allow students to get help outside the classroom; others have small offices but no telephones.
Adjunct faculty teach about 30 percent of undergraduate classes, and graduate assistants teach another 15 to 20 percent, according to statistics from the Ohio Board of Regents.
UC isn't legally required to recognize the adjunct faculty's union. Although Ohio law provides collective bargaining rights to full-time faculty, it specifically excludes part-time faculty from the provision.
Still, the AFA has followed the organizing process outlined in state law for other groups seeking to unionize, Konicov says. The process is designed to ensure union representation is wanted by a majority of the people who would be affected.
In conjunction with the powerful Ohio Federation of Teachers, Konicov and others conducted a card-signing campaign a few years ago to gauge interest in unionizing. Of the roughly 1,400 part-time faculty at UC at the time, more than 800 signed the cards — well above a majority.
Also, more than 400 part-time faculty members showed up to deliver the declaration about the unionization attempt to UC's president in late 2003. Campus administrators were informed of the campaign's results in June 2004, but Konicov concedes little has happened since.
"Workers have the right to self-representation," Konicov says. "Whether UC is consistent with Ohio law really doesn't address the issue. The university loses a lot by not embracing core democratic principles in this situation. Universities are engines of growth in a democracy. When universities deny basic rights, it has a corrosive effect on the institution and in society."
Greg Hand, UC's spokesman, doubts that the AFA still actually represents the interests of most part-time faculty, if it ever did.
In recent years, the university has added an adjunct representative to the faculty senate, Hand says. Further, it has created the adjunct faculty forum, which serves as an advisory group to the provost's office. Among its accomplishments, the forum has helped to streamline the promotional system for part-time faculty.
"None of those organizations are associated with Mr. Konicov or (the AFA)," Hand says. "Various groups have communicated to the trustees from time to time."
National experts on union organizing efforts have said challenging the credibility of organizers and whether they truly represent the will of workers is a common anti-union tactic. Regardless, Hand says methods already exist to hear concerns and grievances from UC's part-time faculty.
"The adjunct faculty play an important role at the university," he says. "Through conversations with adjunct faculty, steps have been taken to give them greater input on university issues."
UC's part-time faculty is among the best paid in the region, Hand says. Many who teach part-time at UC also are full-time instructors elsewhere and use the position to supplement their income, he says.
Konicov counters that the disparities between pay for full- and part-time instructors are too great. UC's average salary for an adjunct professor ranges from $12,700 to $16,700, while full-time faculty average $47,698 to $64,473.
A boycott is a reasonable next step to pressure the university in changing its stance, Konicov says.
"The University of Cincinnati's willingness to ignore the complete set of human rights standards established after World War II is a national embarrassment," he says.
The governor appoints members to the UC Board of Trustees, and it currently includes several influential businesspeople.
Board chairman is Jeff Wyler, who owns several automobile dealerships. The other trustees are Margaret Buchanan, publisher of The Cincinnati Enquirer; C. Francis Barrett, a partner in downtown's Barrett & Weber law firm; Dr. Anant Bhati, obstetrician; Phil Cox, president of the Cox Financial Group; Gary Heiman, Jewish Hospital's board chair; Sandra Heimann, American Financial Group vice president; Tom Humes, a developer active with the regional Port Authority; and Buck Niehoff, attorney and Republican Party fund-raiser.
Only Buchanan and, arguably, Wyler are involved with ventures regularly used by the general public. Because the vast majority of people, however, are unlikely to need the help of a specialized law firm or hire a developer to build a project, it's unclear what the proposed boycott hopes to achieve, other than raise the unionization issue's visibility.
"If you play chess, this is like the end game," Konicov says. "Over time, I think the boycott will be enough of a statement." ©