by Lucy Saliger, Adjunct English Professor
The National Labor Relations Board mails out ballots today to University of St. Thomas adjuncts who are eligible to vote in this election. For most of us, this will be the first and perhaps last time in our lives that we get the chance to vote to unionize.
I want to first say a bit about the difference between this federally-regulated election – what I will call a ‘real’ election – and what I will call attempts at pseudo-elections that have gone on in emails sent out by two groups who have asked that the election be cancelled (one with the overt blessing of the senior-administration).
Let me do the math here first. One group has 57 names on it; 15 of these are also on the list of the second group. The second group has 28 names on it; 15 of these are also on the list of the first group. The total then from both lists is 70. There are 301 adjuncts who have the opportunity to vote in this election.
The standard for an election is not universal, homogenized agreement. Some of the people on these lists have told me in private conversations that they still intend to vote for the union; others have told me they haven’t yet decided what they’ll do. A few have told me they’re ideologically opposed to unions or specifically to adjunct unions; one said that the model of workers organizing to collectively bargain is socialism and thus wrong. A year from now, this person would presumably still be ideologically opposed to the concept of workers collectively bargaining rather than taking whatever their employer deems fit to give them. We are not going to achieve consensus among all of us. If we turned this around and the groups who wanted to cancel the election needed a consensus for that, they likewise would not be able to achieve this. I and so many people I have talked with eagerly anticipate being able to cast our vote for the union. And this is the way this particular form of democratic election works. We get to vote directly. We don’t elect one person from our department or from any other group to then decide. We each have a vote.
Some people have said to me that they’re disturbed by the parading of these names on emails sent out every day – emails that can be forwarded all over the place – that it seems a bit McCarthyesque. At times I too have wondered if it functions as a sort of loyalty oath to the senior administration, though for many of those who signed, this was not their intention. But these folks have a right to sign petitions that are publicly displayed and even emailed out every day if they knew that’s what they were agreeing to.
At any rate, there are serious differences between the lists being sent out in an attempt to have an election before the real election – a pseudo-election that would halt so many people from being able to cast their vote. The NLRB has a process for getting to this step. A minimum of 30 percent of those in the “bargaining unit” must sign cards to initiate an election. Those who sign do not have their names put onto lists that are emailed around daily to other employees (and anywhere else – because there’s no controlling emails, of course) in an attempt to get them to sign. There is a simple reason for this: employees fear retaliation from employers and might fear ever signing their names to these cards if they had to go public. Those on the organizing committee (the employees who have the time and inclination to be deeply involved in the campaign) know these names (there is no way around this; otherwise we would keep contacting the same people over and over), but they know also the importance of not making these names public. The next step in the federally-regulated process is to have the election. In the case of an election by mail, the NLRB sends out ballots and these ballots must be handled carefully for the vote to count. A series of steps beforehand are supposed to ensure that everyone who should get a ballot will get one; people who will be elsewhere can ask for them to be mailed to a temporary address. When the ballots are sent back, they are counted on a designated day with witnesses from both the union and the employer’s side there. The names of those who vote one way or the other remain secret. Again, this is to prevent the threat of retaliation or other public parading of names from skewing the results of the election.
We are going to have this election. I don’t know for sure if we will win the right to collectively bargain and the right to each vote on our contract, but I know that we are each going to get to cast our vote if we want to. I know also that large numbers of people have told me that the union has their vote. But on July 21, we will find out whether we get to proceed into the next steps in this particular form of democratic process.
And that is what we are voting on now. We are not voting for or against individual people, of course. We won’t see President Sullivan’s name or the provost’s or the dean’s on the ballot. We won’t see names of members of the organizing committee on there, either. We aren’t voting on whether we like the websites or the posts of the administration or specific authors on this site. We aren’t voting on whether we like the particular SEIU organizer who perhaps talked with us outside a class or came by our home in recent weeks. We aren’t even voting on whether we like that approach. Soon the visits and calls and emails from various sides on this election issue will fade into memories, and we will be living with the realities of our particular work situations.
What our collective vote will determine is whether or not we get to carefully craft a contract by engaging with adjuncts in various departments to understand their work situations; whether we get to then each vote on that and subsequent contracts; and whether we gain the protection of a binding contract with guaranteed due process. The rights we gain are thus not something an employer can give or take away (in which case they would be favors rather than rights). A contract is put in place in ways somewhat akin (in my view) to the ways that laws have been put in place to require employers to not discriminate on certain bases or to pay minimum wages and carry workers compensation insurance.
For an employer, the latter laws take away some of what they may think of as “flexibility” but what many of us recognize as control. And employers or others who have benefited in the past from certain forms of segregation or from not having to pay livable wages or from not having to carry workers compensation in case their employees were seriously injured at work have so often resisted anything that would undermine their complete control of their workforce. They want to maintain as much control as possible. The majority of workers, however, benefit from more democratic control. And our larger society – the common good – likewise advances when we enact more rather than less democracy. In my view, we are voting on whether to create this kind of democratic space for ourselves as St. Thomas adjunct faculty.