The Union Advantage in Challenging Times

A letter to ISU Tenure-line Faculty from Illinois Education
Association-NEA Higher Education contact Larry Frank

I am Larry Frank, IEA’s statewide Higher Education contact. I also work with longtime IEA Organizer David Vitoff, whom some of you already know.

Foremost in the minds of many in this more than distressed economy and financial chaos in Springfield is job security and fair treatment. How will you be affected during a time when so many decisions on how to run the University are out of your control? Even those of you who have earned the privileges of tenure wonder where those protections end in times of financial exigency. Employers can move too quickly – even irresponsibly – to implement what a recent administrative memo terms as “efficiencies.”

Any university can seek to implement layoffs and unpaid furloughs due to financial exigency. The question is whether those affected have any recourse. Such a situation, based on rash assumptions and reckless decision-making, occurred on the SIU Carbondale campus years ago before there was a faculty union. Attractive early retirement was offered (to some), but the result was mostly anxiety, disenfranchisement, dislocation, and even lawsuits. The anticipated crisis never materialized. Will it happen again? Could it happen again?

The enactment of the 1983 Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act (IELRA) established and protects the right of public university faculty to unionize, and also requires good faith bargaining on both sides of the negotiations table. With a union in place, faculty can question why layoffs are allegedly needed and/or bargain over the impact of such action. Administrative decisions can be questioned and “inefficiencies” can be publicly identified all the way up the line. Despite economic uncertainties, represented groups can bargain absolute protections. For example, tenured or tenure-track faculty who are part of the bargaining unit of the SIU Carbondale Faculty Association cannot be laid off for financial exigency, per one of their recent contracts.

The current situation suggests we marshal our interests – it is not only an opportunity to introduce myself and inform you about what IEA can provide – it is an opportunity to begin seeing what we can do together. SIUE tenure-line faculty are virtually the only unrepresented group on campus and as such, it may be on our backs that this and future budgets are balanced. With less adversarial administrators at ISU than in the past, there is now a more favorable climate in which we can grow into our potential.

ISU tenure-line faculty remain the only Illinois public university educators (besides those at UIUC) not to enjoy the protections and benefits of collective bargaining and union representation. Many employee groups at the public university level throughout the state benefit from legally binding agreements that guarantee salary increases, benefits, and fair terms and conditions of employment over the coming years. Some contracts are in place through spring of 2019 and beyond. Members of these bargaining units can feel more secure about future income, benefits and working conditions than those not covered under collective bargaining agreements.

But organizing for power is a long-term proposition – not just for reacting to this or that issue, to this or that crisis, or supposed crisis. It’s a place at the table, a stronger voice for faculty; it’s even a partnership with administration to achieve common goals – especially critical when our elected officials need to held accountable. (Together, employers and public employee unions defeated pension “reforms” that would have diminished benefits the state Supreme Court ruled are constitutionally protected.)

Even tenured faculty at ISU remain “at will” employees in many ways. If there are legitimate reasons to effect layoffs, only representation permits bargaining the impact of such unavoidable action. Your potential strength starts with learning and sharing what issues and concerns are important to you as tenure-track and tenured faculty at ISU.

IEA/NEA’s professional advocates (UniServ Directors) assist our local associations with their responsibilities in representing their members. This includes negotiating and enforcing all provisions of their collective bargaining agreements – legally binding documents that cover all aspects of their professions per state labor law: salaries, benefits and terms and conditions of employment. Their role is to assist in all forms of issue resolution to avoid formal grievances when possible; processing grievances as needed, some of which move into binding arbitration (by a neutral third-party); Association elections; dues processing; meetings; organizational development; and training of officers and representatives.

As the IEA Higher Education contact, I work with higher education leaders elected to IEA’s statewide Higher Education Council in lobbying on your issues, providing training for our members, and more.

IEA and NEA provide many benefits to members through legal assistance, research for effective negotiations, legislative lobbying, grassroots political activity, and money-saving programs on consumer services and products. Several endorsed financial programs save members money on their insurance premiums, retirement savings and credit card programs. Essentially, the IEA and the NEA provide many things that all members need and use both professionally and personally.

IEA can represent many of you who become members of our campus local, the ISU Faculty Association-IEA/NEA – even before we officially obtain bargaining rights. Any tenured and tenure-track faculty employee on campus can join. We can work with many of you on issues that have arisen within your departments, colleges or schools, and also at the administrative levels. Even before the state and university recognize ISU FA as the exclusive bargaining agent, we are still able to work within ISU policies and procedures to provide guidance and assistance on issues that arise. These issues may include or have included various grievances, reprimand/discipline/layoff, mid-point reviews, promotion and tenure decisions, merit awards, paycheck problems, evaluations – any and all legal or other issues of importance that current members believe need to be addressed for the individual and/or collective good of ISU Faculty.

Please let me, our IEA organizer, and/or colleagues active in efforts on campus know what you believe is important in your work, what issues you are interested in addressing, and how you feel about the current direction of the University. What about your professional life at ISU needs to be maintained?  What changes do you believe are necessary to make your job and ISU better?

What I learn from you can also be forwarded to our ISU FA interim leaders, who meet regularly. You can also join us these meetings (see the calendar on this website) for much more information about our organization here on campus, and on the state and national levels.

I look forward to hearing from you and soon. Thank you for your time and consideration – and thank you on behalf of our members, and our IEA Organizer David Vitoff.


Larry Frank
IEA/NEA Higher Education contact
(217) 544-0706