In the Beginning…
Full-time staff and faculty began to question the administration’s commitment to their well-being starting in April 2003. The Columbia College Board of Trustees’ decision to freeze the defined benefits retirement plan in favor of the current defined contribution plan constituted a substantial benefit cut. In the ensuing months, difficult negotiations for our new retirement benefit led many staff, faculty, and chairpersons to conclude that we collectively needed to protect our historically great benefits: There was no guarantee that those would not be reduced as well.
Trust continued to erode as employees at various levels were terminated, departments reorganized, and affected staff members left with little recourse. At a series of meetings of faculty and staff, roles, rights, and positions within the Columbia community were examined. Many loyal employees realized that even in the congenial atmosphere of Columbia College, they had little or no control over elements of their working life. Employees can be terminated or transferred, have hours cut or benefits eliminated, at the behest of the employer. Since full-time faculty at private colleges are considered managers, and as such are precluded from forming a union, it was decided that the best strategy to protect benefits for all at the College was for staff to organize a union.
Ironically, in a country that prides itself on its democratic process, democracy isn’t the natural order in business and institutions in the U.S. Under current labor law, the only way to achieve a measure of security and democratic rights in one’s place of work is through a contract between management and workers. To get such a contract, employees need to join together in a union through which they bargain for a contract. Are unions perfect? Of course not—but under the U.S. legal system, they are the only way.
The Organizing Drive
So – spirited and talented members of Columbia staff decided not to remain powerless and began a union organizing drive, calling themselves United Staff of Columbia College (USofCC). One of the first questions to be answered: Which union to affiliate with? After interviewing several unions, staff settled on the Illinois Education Association (IEA). IEA is a very democratic union—Columbia would have its own local, able to make decisions that responded to its members and their needs; IEA is part of the National Education Association (NEA) so has good resources and experience with institutions of higher education; Columbia’s part-time faculty chose IEA when it unionized in 1997 and at that point had been satisfied with their affiliation; finally, IEA had a proven history of working with the Columbia administration.
The College responded to the staff organizing drive with the message that a union was not necessary and would interfere with the administration’s ability to negotiate directly with employees. The administration pursued a very active campaign to discourage staff from signing cards petitioning for a union election. The president held numerous meetings with staff to present the administration’s case. Nevertheless, a majority of staff members signed union cards and an election was scheduled for October 14, 2004.
On Election Day, the hot issue was the list, provided by the College, of staff members eligible for union representation. (High-level administrative positions and supervisory personnel are generally excluded from a union bargaining unit.) The College’s definition of “supervisory” was much broader than the National Labor Relations Act definition with which the organizing committee had worked.
The result was that many staff members who had expected to be part of the unit were not on the College’s official list. These employees could only vote “under challenge,” and many chose to do so. Because the union did not win outright on Election Day, these challenged votes (unopened and uncounted on Election Day) came into play.
The dispute over eligibility led to several weeks of hearings conducted by the Illinois Labor Relations Board, focusing on the issues of which staff were “supervisory” and whether part-time tutors who were also part-time faculty were eligible for the staff union. College officials and staff members were called to testify about job descriptions and duties of the employees who had voted “under challenge.” After 1,400 pages of testimony and several months of deliberation, the local Labor Board gave its decision — 42 challenged ballots were from eligible staff members that the Board recommended be opened and counted. Further, the ruling stated that because of hostile actions by the administration, if the union did not win with the challenged ballots, it was entitled to immediately call for a repeat election.
The union accepted the ruling of the Illinois Labor Board and called for the ballots to be opened and counted. The College administration chose not to accept the ruling of the Illinois Labor Board and appealed the case to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Washington, DC. There it languished for a year – from April 2005 until April 2006, when the NLRB upheld the decision of the Illinois Labor Board. Shortly after, the ballots were opened, and the final count gave the victory to USofCC! Our union became officially recognized and certified.
The First Contract
So the USofCC became an organized local affiliated with IEA/NEA with officers, bylaws, and a negotiating team. As the negotiating team bargained the first contract, the bottom line was to maintain the benefits already enjoyed by Columbia full-time staff, establish processes to safeguard employee rights, and explore ways to extend benefits to the hundreds of part-time staff members with no benefits.
After several years of lengthy, multiple bargaining sessions with the College, the USofCC won its first contract. Among other benefits, the contract for 2009-2012 assured the following: 1) health insurance and other employee benefits were retained; 2) Health insurance premium increases were kept to a minimum; 3) Due process must be followed in disciplinary cases, with the right to union representation at disciplinary meetings and legal counsel if needed; 4) 90-day notice must be given if jobs are eliminated, including 12 paid days to attend job interviews, and special provisions for tuition remission; 5) The 35-hour work week with a paid hour lunch period was retained; 6) Two paid sick days a year were made available to part-time staff; 7) Salary negotiations would be held yearly during the three years of the contract.
Beyond providing an excellent first contract, USofCC can be a unifying organization, giving us a way to meet each other across department lines, learn more about the amazing and diverse talents among Columbia staff, and find ways to enhance our mission to the Columbia students we serve.
Strengthen USofCC by becoming a full member. Members can vote and have a voice in decisions and activities of the union. Strengthen USofCC even more by getting involved in building the organization. USofCC is ours—it is what we make it!