United University Professions: Pioneering in Higher Education Unionism
By Nuala McGann Drescher, William E. Scheuerman, and Ivan D. Steen. State University of
New York Press, 2019.307 pages, $95.00 hardcover, $33.95 paperback, $25.49 e-book.
Nuala McGann Drescher, William E. Scheuerman, and Ivan D. Steen have co-authored a seminal manuscript in labor history by chronicling the counter-vailing forces that led to the emergence and growth of the largest higher education union in the nation—United University Professions (UUP). The co-author’s insights are especially credible given their respective roles as longstanding professors at the State University of New York system and prominent union leaders of UUP. Moreover, historiography provides little treatment of the union movement in higher education. The co-authors had exhaustive primary sources at their disposal, which they fully utilized to craft an extremely comprehensive history of the formation, growth, and maturity of UUP.
To understand the emergence of the union, it is critical to set the stage with the unique circumstances surrounding the formation of public higher education in New York State culminating with the creation of the State University of New York system (SUNY). The history of higher education is steeped in its support of New York’s private institutions. In fact, New York used the resources through the Morrill Land Grant Act (1862) to establish Cornell University. Normal schools (teachers colleges) were scattered across the state to train teachers with matriculation into private institutions as the only other viable option to postsecondary education in New York State up until the post WWII era. With the advent of the GI Bill, the state was forced to establish a statewide, public higher education system to accommodate the burgeoning enrollment of soldiers returning from the war. President Truman’s call for expanding higher education, particularly for the socio-economically disadvantaged, hastened Governor Thomas Dewey’s signing of the bill in 1948 that established SUNY, especially since Dewey had political aspirations to run for the presidency. With thirty-two institutions, which included the teachers colleges, it was clear that the privates were still sacrosanct. Funding continued to pour into the state’s private institutions. The mission of the public system was simply to complement not replace the state’s private institutions.
In 1957 Governor Nelson Rockefeller changed the entire complexion of public higher education in New York State with his vision for SUNY. As such, his administration poured billions into SUNY’s infrastructure and the “Higher Education Act of 1961” provided the legal framework for SUNY’s emergence as a giant public university” (10). By 1970, SUNY boasted an enrollment of 300,000 students. While governance for SUNY switched from Regents to Trustees, local campus presidents wielded tremendous, unilateral control and power over individual campuses and salaries, as well as serving as the final arbiter of grievances. As one can imagine, the size and complexity of SUNY naturally resulted in the escalation of grievances. Moreover, non-teaching professionals (NTPs) had no job security, much less any leverage over workload issues, which was a real problem that would not be resolved for some time. Disparities also existed in the salaries for women. “Growth brought bureaucratization,” and SUNY quickly became a managed, paternalistic university system (25). These circumstances combined with shrinking budgets and declining demographics created the perfect storm for unionization.
The Taylor Law in 1967 (Public Employees Fair Employment Act) provided the enabling legislation for SUNY to unionize with the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) serving as the administrative agency charged with administering the collective bargaining statutes. Despite the abhorrence to the notion of being associated with blue-collar workers and trade unionists, faculty and NTPs had no choice but to find a mechanism to find their voice and exert a measure of control over their own professional destinies. Professional organizations quickly moved into the fray to earn the right to represent SUNY faculty and NTPs. Throughout the SUNY system, there were pockets of allegiances to the more prominent national organizations like the National Education Association (NEA), the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT/AFL-CIO) through the State University Federation of Teachers (SUFT). NTPs were loyal to the State University Professional Association (SUPA). Of course, the Faculty Senate and the Faculty Association of the State University of New York (FASCUY) were very active in vying to represent SUNY faculty and NTPs. The Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA), an affiliate with the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME), an AFL-CIO affiliate, also became a player as representation activity increased leading to collective bargaining unit determination.
All these organizations had ideological differences toward unionism. Moreover, there were issues with representing both professors and non-teaching professionals and whether there would be multiple bargaining units or a single unit. The University Medical Centers and NTPs wanted to split from the very beginning. Amid this labyrinth of differences among these organizations, the Senate Professional Association (SPA) emerged from a merger of the Faculty Senate and SUPA as a pragmatic solution to stave-off pure trade unionism to preserve the idyllic integrity of its knowledge workers and represent the NTPs under the umbrella of one organization. PERB ruled that a single bargaining unit would represent SUNY faculty and professional staff (NTPs) and SPA won the certification election on January 29, 1971. “SUNY faculty and professionals were the last state employees to enter collective bargaining after the passage of the Taylor Law” (35). Despite the initial success, SPA was ill equipped with the resources and expertise to engage in collective bargaining, much less address the diverse needs of a university system that consisted of 15,000 faculty and NTPs from twenty-six campuses comprised of teachers colleges and agricultural and technical colleges and university and medical centers. SPA negotiated its first contract in August 1971 with resources and support through its affiliation with the NEA. The contract provided a 9 percent salary increase through 1973, “guaranteed academic freedom,” arbitration procedures, and job-security for NTPs (59). While SPA’s leadership was delighted with the results, not all constituents shared that sentiment given the loss of longevity. Shortly thereafter, SPA changed its changed name to SUNY/United then United University Professions in 1973 after its merger with SUFT. Lawrence DeLucia (SUNY Oswego) became UUPs first president, succeeding Robert Granger, SPA’s first president. It quickly became apparent “that in merger there would be survival” (73).
As soon as the first contract and its corresponding salary reopeners ended (mutual agreement to revisit salaries), it was time to begin anew, a recurring theme throughout UUP’s history.
DeLucia only served one term amid efforts to impeach him. He did not to run for another term. Samuel Wakshull (College at Buffalo) was elected in 1975 to serve as UUP’s president. Initially, UUP’s office—which consisted of Wakshull and Evelyn Hartman—was hit with state fiscal shortfalls, retrenchment, representation challenges, competition for state funding from the private institutions and internal conflict. Wakshull and Hartman stood strong and moved UUP forward. Union membership and advocating for SUNY were the priorities. Legislation in 1977 provided secure resources through an agency fee (union dues). Membership increased, lobbying, and picketing through the SAVE SUNY campaign resulted in legislative budget restorations, a 4 th rank for librarians was established, and a definition of retrenchment (notification) was included in the contract ratified in 1977. Despite some criticism regarding the contracts negotiated during UUP’s first eight years, UUP’s membership overwhelmingly voted to keep the union as its bargaining agent and supported the contracts with ratification percentages that ranged from 69 to 93.2 percent. With salary increases in the contracts, rank and file membership clearly voted their pocketbooks.
The early 1980s ushered in Nuala McGann Drescher’s (College at Buffalo) presidency boasting a membership of 13,000. Challenges included ongoing “philosophical differences” between the United and Reform caucuses within UUP, but the “evenly split” delegates between the two caucuses promoted cooperation (109). The United Caucus focused on “bread-and-butter” unionism, whereas the Reform Caucus “saw itself as the more democratic and idealistic element in the organization, committed to using the union’s power to uphold social ideals of reform and change” and “check the establishment” (110). The United Caucus “was by no means opposed to supporting broader social-justice issues,” when such initiatives “were in harmony with the basic agenda” of “promoting the welfare” of its members, “collectively and individually, through contract negotiations and enforcement to advance that welfare” (109).
The impact of Reaganomics during Drescher’s tenure led to the closure of SUNY’s demonstration schools (K12), and Governor Mario Cuomo’s proposed budget cuts were so deep that UUP reignited the SAVE SUNY campaign which resulted in campus demonstrations (picketing) and lobbying by members as well as thousands of students. President Drescher was a master tactician enlisting the support of SUNY’s trustees and chancellor, who had historically been somewhat passive advocates for funding. She also enjoyed greater cooperation from the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations (GOER). John “Tim” Reilly (SUNY Albany) would succeed her on May 2, 1987 and inherit many victories that helped propel the union forward that included a workload agreement, professional development resources, a disparity fund, a tax shelter, successfully adjudicated grievances, affirmative action initiatives, an AIDS committee and the Pepper Bill (federal) which negated the mandatory retirement at age 70. Drescher’s administration also won job equity for NTPs, an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), two full-time vice-presidents, health insurance through the Empire Plan and greater labor-management cooperation, which in part led to the restoration of SUNY’s budgets and contracts with salary increases during her presidency.
For President Reilly, the priority included ramping-up legislative and political activities to positively impact salaries, benefits, and working conditions. The contracts negotiated saw increases for 1988-91 and 1991-95. Health insurance for part-timers with a two-course criterion was a major victory as was the elimination of the mandatory retirement age of 70. The state increased its contribution to the UUP Benefit Fund by 43%. Funding was increased for affirmative action and daycare. Unfortunately, the state’s fiscal shortfalls during this same period and Governor Cuomo’s subsequent cuts to SUNY could not be restored and retrenchments followed on many campuses. UPP and the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), UUP’s long-standing K12 affiliate, rallied its members, lobbied, and picketed, but it was all to no avail. When the governor released his 1992 budget for SUNY—although a $50.5 million increase over the preceding year—it was noted that SUNY’s state allocation was at an all-time low of 34 percent. During these tumultuous fiscal periods, SUNY was saved by UUP’s legislative and political activism. User fees for certain campus services, natural personnel attrition, state tax hikes and ultimately tuition increases helped offset the cuts, and UUP’s effective legislative campaigns motivated the legislature to restore the SUNY budget in numerous instances. These contractual and financial battles took its toll on the union and depleted its treasury. Moving forward into the 1990s, William Scheuerman—who had served as UUP’s chief negotiator—would quickly return UUP to financial solvency, but like his predecessors, he would have to lead them through a myriad of financial challenges and help the union adapt to the realities of shrinking state resources, more part-time faculty, fiscally conservative political leadership and trustees that were not interested in supporting SUNY’s growth.
Thanks to an elimination of term limits for UUP officers (2001), William Scheuerman (SUNY Oswego) served as UUP’s president through 2007. He was also the Reform Caucus’s nominee, which signaled a capstone in the evolving unity of the union, one that had been fostered by Scheuerman’s predecessors through cross-caucus appointments and increased social and political activism. President Scheuerman’s honeymoon was short-lived when he faced the exigencies of Governor George Pataki’s budget cuts, threats of downsizing, support for outsourcing, trustees who neither supported SUNY or UUP and promoted privatizing SUNY, and a state that coveted the millions of dollars generated by the University Medical Centers through the Clinical Practice Plans that UUP had fought to establish in the early1970s.
During Schererman’s tenure, UUP’s membership grew to 27,000. Scheuerman’s longevity, his role at the national level as an AFT committee member, and his effective leadership and commitment to legislative action equaled credibility that resulted in the union wielding tremendous influence. UUP’s voluntary member contributions steadily increased to support pro-public education and pro-labor candidates through NYSUT’s non-partisan political action committee VOTE-COPE (Voice of Teachers in Education). The 1999 contract provided a 19.83% increase in salaries with a 96.15 percent approval of the membership. It was the only union to provide health insurance coverage for part-timers during the summer months. Highlighting UUP’s political acumen, Scheuerman shared with delegates at the Winter 2000 Assembly that “chancellor Robert King, the former director of the Division of Budget [state], conceded that any plan SUNY would bring to the legislature without clearing it with UUP was dead on arrival” (200). There was also much greater cooperation from the Faculty Senate. Academicians who viewed the union as their bête noir, were now cooperating and supporting UUP, including SUNY’s provost Peter Salins. The good rapport and collaboration continued with Scheuerman and Chancellor John Ryan, which led SUNY Trustee Candace deRussy to remark that Ryan was in the “back pocket of the big union” (227).
UUP had matured during Scheuerman’s tenure. He stepped aside in 2007 to pursue other professional interests and Phillip Smith (Upstate Medical University, Syracuse), the former Vice President for Academics, was elected to serve as UUP’s next president. His presidency can best be characterized as abysmal, according to the authors. Smith’s administration faced the state’s financial crisis in 2008 that was projected to be a $10 billion deficit by 2010. By Smith’s own admission, the 2011-16 contract negotiated under his watch was “the worst contract in UUP history” (250). When his constituents needed him the most to fight against SUNY cuts, he and other UUP officers were at a conference in Hawaii. In 2013, Fred Kowal (SUNY Cobleskill) stepped into the presidency and began the process of restoring UUP to its rightful place—the largest and most powerful higher education union in the nation that grew from 3,500 in 1973 to 35,000 members at 64 campuses and an enrollment of 193,824 in 2018-19.
The story and journey of UUP can best be characterized as an authentic grass-roots movement, conceived, and propagated by its own leaders, faculty and professional staff who realized the need for collective action and were willing to make the sacrifices to preserve their self-determination. The post-war era ushered in this new breed of academic unionists who became professional unionists amidst the backdrop of the social and political movements of the 1960s and 1970s, declining demographics and “the economic realities and declining political support for higher education,” (29). “Austerity budgets endowed collective bargaining with added appeal” (30). For nearly fifty years, UUP grew its base membership and strengthened its relationships and coalitions with affiliate unions and political leaders. UUP has always fought to preserve academic freedom and negotiated contracts that included salary increases and enhanced membership benefits and working conditions. UUP has been the single, most powerful advocate for SUNY, which has prevented massive retrenchments and campus closings over the years. Despite its successes, fiscal challenges continue, and SUNY has also faced a declining state demographic over the past decade. In 2018 in the “case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees,” only those who join the union are required to pay the agency fee. As a result of the Janus ruling, “UUP’s reaction to a negative decision will now determine its future well-being and, more importantly, that of almost 40,000 members of the SUNY family that UUP represents” (250).
Dr. Will Kayatin holds a PhD in History from the University at Albany, State University of New York (2004). He is the Senior Director for Higher Education Affairs and Transition for the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative. Dr. Kayatin is the author (with Dr. Joseph “Rocky” Wallace and Dr. Joe Blackbourn) of “Rise2 to Deeper Learning, Model: Real World Innovations = Systemic Enduring Engagement,” The American Consortium for Equity in Education, June 1, 2020; (with Dr. David Riel and Mr. Kelly Hall), “Rural Education Partnerships: If Educators Perpetuate Excellence in Teaching Leadership and Learning (PETLL), Do Students Learn Faster?” National Forum of Educational Administration and Supervision Journal, August 25, 2017; and “Higher Education Unions and Social Responsibility: UUP’s Response to Social and Political Change in New York State, 1973-1993,” Ph.D. diss., University at Albany, SUNY, 2004.
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