UW-La Crosse faculty vote on unionization, even as bargaining rights threatened

Faculty at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse campus have decided to go forward with a vote this week on whether to unionize, although the results might be rendered meaningless by Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to eliminate their collective bargaining rights.

About 350 tenured and tenure-track faculty are voting Wednesday and Thursday on whether to join the American Federation of Teachers. Professors had hoped to bargain for smaller class sizes and higher wages.

For many faculty members, the timing couldn't be worse. Just two years ago, union supporters won a decades-long fight to secure collective bargaining rights for faculty in the University of Wisconsin system.

Since then, faculty at UW-Eau Claire and UW-Superior have voted in favor of union representation. Organizers at four other campuses prepared for union elections before the governor released his budget bill.

"For this brand new governor to say, not just that he was going to try and limit collective bargaining rights the way he proposes for other state and public employees, but to abolish those rights entirely, was a tremendous shock," said James Oberly, a history professor at UW-Eau Claire. "I could not believe it."

Walker's bill would eliminate most collective bargaining rights for many state and local workers. But for UW System faculty, it goes a step further. Academic faculty, along with certain health care and child care workers, would lose all collective bargaining rights. They could join a union, but it wouldn't be recognized.

Walker has said his proposal would save money and help resolve the state's looming $3.6 billion deficit. Thousands of protesters have traveled to the state's Capitol to rally against the measure, and Democratic senators left the state to prevent a vote.

Against that backdrop, pro-union professors said organizing efforts have taken on a different, more powerful meaning. They hope the election this week in La Crosse will be seen as an act of solidarity with thousands of state workers who stand to lose most collective bargaining rights.

"The timing is coincidental, but it makes it all the more urgent," said William Barillas, an English professor at UW-La Crosse. "It reflects the historical moment that our nation is at -- and it's beginning in La Crosse. It's an existential fight for the existence of unions and even, by extension, the Democratic Party."

Union organizers said they expect an easy victory in the La Crosse election. More than 70 percent of faculty members signed union authorization cards in recent months.

If anything, organizers said, the governor's plan has solidified support for the union and led anti-union professors to back the campaign.

"It's actually exhilarating," said Susan Crutchfield, a member of the La Crosse organizing committee and the chair of the English department. "It's really galvanized our base."

Crutchfield said that professors are starting to think of themselves as workers who are under attack.

"I think they see that there is an assault on workers' rights, that the governor is using the budget as a ruse in order to ask the faculty at UW-L to give up rights which have nothing to do with balancing the budget," she said. "And that kind of destroyed any good faith that some of the faculty might have felt between themselves and the government at this point."

Bryan Kennedy, the president of the Wisconsin American Federation of Teachers, said union elections will be held in Stout, River Falls, Stevens Point, and Green Bay regardless of whether the GOP-controlled Legislature passes the governor's budget.

"We're not going to work with these faculty and help them to build their union, and then walk away when the governor strips their bargaining rights," Kennedy said. "We're not going to abandon them."

Kennedy said if collective bargaining rights were eventually restored, the faculty would be well positioned to negotiate a contract.

In the meantime, he said the union has reached out to Republican lawmakers who had previously voted in favor of extending collective bargaining rights to UW-System faculty, including Sen. Dan Kapanke who represents La Crosse. Kapanke's staff said the senator was not immediately available for comment.

"They're still on the fence," Kennedy said. "They haven't come out one way or another, and that's a good sign."