An effort to unionize almost 700 faculty and staff at Bates College in Lewiston has stalled for more than seven months because of a challenge from the college over whether staff and faculty members can be a part of the same bargaining unit, and there’s no resolution in sight.
The Bates Educators and Staff Organization announced last October that it had filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to unionize 652 adjunct professors, staff and other non-tenured employees as part of Maine Service Employees Association-Service Employees International Union Local 1989. The bargaining unit would not cover the college’s tenured professors.
MSEA-SEIU Local 1989 is affiliated with the larger Service Employees International Union and represents state government and some city workers in Maine, as well as employees at Maine Maritime Academy, Maine’s community colleges, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, the Maine People’s Alliance and the ACLU of Maine.
The Bates organizing effort is the second-largest ongoing union drive in Maine, and if successful would be the first wall-to-wall union at a private college in the country. Wall-to-wall unions represent all employees at a workplace, instead of separating them into distinct bargaining units.
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The unit that the Bates union proposed would include adjunct faculty and staff members like administrative assistants, dining staff, janitors and groundskeepers. Students demonstrated in support of the union, and U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, who is a 2011 Bates graduate, issued a statement in support of the union as well.
The National Labor Relations Board held an election between Jan. 6 and Jan. 28 using mail-in ballots. But those ballots have been sealed and impounded since Jan. 31, the day the agency was set to count the votes, after the college appealed the agency’s previous decision to allow 85 adjunct faculty members to be part of the unit, according to National Labor Relations Board records and previous reporting from The Bates Student campus newspaper.
But it’s unclear when a final decision on Bates’ appeal could be handed down, as stagnant federal funding has hampered the labor agency’s ability to oversee union elections, hire staff and respond to workplace disputes in a timely fashion at a time when the U.S. is seeing a surge in new organizing.
The agency’s regional director in Boston, Laura Sacks, denied Bates’ initial challenge late last year, on Dec. 16, because “the employees enjoy similar benefits, are subject to many of the same policies, are functionally integrated, and have frequent contact with one another at their common worksite.”
Sacks allowed the election to go forward, in which adjuncts voted on whether to be in the same unit as non-teaching staff, in addition to whether they wanted to unionize at all, according to sample ballots.
The college argued in an appeal of that decision on Dec. 30 that faculty and staff should be in separate units because they have distinct schedules, benefits and other working conditions.
A college spokesperson referred a request for comment to a Feb. 7 community letter from outgoing Bates President Clayton Spencer.
“Asking that separate bargaining units for faculty and staff be designated does not diminish the contributions of all of our employees in making possible the life-transforming experience for which our students come to Bates,” Spencer wrote.
“At the same time, it does not follow that it is sensible or effective to combine faculty and staff in a single unit for purposes of sorting through basic employment issues, when the nature of the work and the ways in which it is structured differ at a fundamental level.”
The National Labor Relations Board agreed on March 18 to review its previous Dec. 16 decision allowing the wall-to-wall union but has yet to make a final ruling.
The American Association of University Professors, which represents some 45,000 professors at colleges across the U.S., including Bowdoin College, filed an amicus brief with the agency in May in support of the wall-to-wall strategy, after which the college filed a response reiterating its position that faculty and staff should be in separate units.
A Bates staffer involved in the organizing effort said Thursday that the union was committed to fighting to include all of its members in the proposed wall-to-wall unit.
“While there’s definitely a sense of exhaustion at the slow pace of the NLRB and frustration with the college administration, there’s also growing support for the union among workers in response to the tactics used against us,” Aster Richardson, a purchasing manager in the IT department, said.
“We won’t be divided and we won’t be discouraged.”