WMU without the WMU-AAUP? What a difference academic collective bargaining makes!

After more than four decades of living and working in the reassuring presence of a well-crafted, comprehensive, mature contract, it’s easy to become complacent about the guarantees and protections that have come to shape WMU’s campus life. And, to be clear, though the WMU-AAUP Agreement has been forged specifically between WMU and the WMU Board-appointed faculty, this foundational document impacts our entire campus culture. In short, the power of WMU’s professoriate to bargain for fair wages, decent benefits, and shared governance has led to the creation of a campus community that is far more transparent, democratic, and humane than it might otherwise be.

Because it is far too easy to forget what it used be like, consider the routine risks of living and working on a campus with no formal collective bargaining power:

  • compensation and benefit structures that may be decided on arbitrary, or so-called “market based” criteria, with little hope of predictable raises, or of avoiding drastic healthcare insurance increases;
  • tenure and promotion procedures that are opaque and draconian and that may include no formal avenues for appeal or challenge;
  • the power to summarily eliminate departments and faculty positions according to economic vicissitudes and administrative whims;
  • unchecked disciplinary procedures according to which administrators might determine a faculty member’s guilt and assign penalties with no provisions for due process;
  • a climate in which all mid and higher level decisions may be made by admin, including those with direct implications for academics, with little or no input from faculty

In short, before there was the WMU-AAUP, life here was a lot like it is at other non-unionized campuses at which faculty members function as laborers serving at the pleasure of management. Even an occasional, cursory glance at national higher education news makes clear that faculty colleagues at many other campuses live in a shadow of fear and uncertainty that impacts their wages, capacity to exercise academic freedom, and, yes, their mental health. The fact that many of us at WMU may no longer feel moved to actively celebrate the rights and advantages we have earned through our collective power is perhaps the greatest testament to the WMU-AAUP’s astonishing success over the decades.

And, again, though not all campus employee groups share equally in these advantages, the positive impact of the WMU-AAUP on the entire campus is evident, including:

  • a tendency for enhanced wage and benefits for many non-faculty employees, given how the WMU-AAUP’s negotiated wage and benefits packages influence subsequent agreements made with other employee groups;
  • a campus at which other employees are more likely to feel supported as they embrace their right to organize, for example, AFSCME, PSOA, POA, MSEA, IATSE, TAU, and the PIO, all further ensuring a healthy check and balance on unrestricted administrative power at WMU;
  • a climate of shared governance according to which there is precedent for employee demands of participation and transparency, an environment in which employees’ right to ask questions and expect answers becomes more normalized and likely

Though it may be true that the WMU-AAUP’s consistent success and effectiveness tempt us to take it for granted, as we prepare now for 2020 negotiations, it’s the perfect time to imagine life at WMU without our faculty union. In fact, we don’t have to tax our imaginations at all if we simply invite the perspective of longtime WMU faculty members, including one retired early WMU-AAUP leader who is eager to share cautionary anecdotes with all who will listen. “We were completely at their mercy,” he recalls, “and the only real leverage we had when we knew we were being treated unfairly was to quit our jobs, pack up our families, and leave.”