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The Point: Lemonade


Greetings, Colleagues:

A funny thing happened on the way to this week’s Point.  I had planned to write about last week’s bargaining session, which was held last Tuesday afternoon.  But then I didn’t make it to the “table.”  I was there as usual, Zoom link fired up, ready to observe the proceedings as I have been doing for the past year as part our union’s expanded bargaining team. 

FSU President Steve Striffler has already written a fantastic primer on what expanded bargaining is, and why it is so important to union power: in short, expanded bargaining—essentially having some number of faculty members and librarians silently observing the session—makes “for a better university, one that is run transparently through shared governance.” If you have a little extra time I urge you to read Jane McAlevey's introduction to expanded bargaining to learn more about why it is so important for building greater engagement. I also want to mention that in recent years the Commonwealth Employee Relations Board has reasserted the union’s right (in MUP-17-5825, involving the Belmont Education Association) to determine the composition of its bargaining team, as long as it informs the administration of the participants before the session begins.

Our administration’s bargaining team—the former interim provost whose retirement we will soon be celebrating, the current provost, an assortment of representatives of what I have heard some administrators jokingly refer to as the “Vice Squad” (vice chancellors and provosts and so on and it really is a terribly revealing and chilling “joke” isn’t it?)—does not seem to want you to see what is happening at the table. 

I have yet to hear a good explanation for the general resistance to expanded bargaining. At a Labor-Management meeting just before we went into quarantine, I do remember that our former interim provost suggested that having a rotating group of FSU members viewing the sessions would result in misunderstandings based on ignorance: imagine telling a group of college professors and librarians that they can’t be counted on to do the reading! I feel confident that those of you who have attended sessions did not feel like you needed a labor lawyer to understand the proceedings, but fortunately we do have a labor lawyer (Katie D’Urso, our MTA field representative) around just in case things do get too complicated for the rest of our benighted lot.

At this most recent session, our expanded team never got to the table because administration rightly noted that the Memo of Understanding we signed with them last year, for the remote period of negotiations, was expiring. We are still negotiating remotely, but the memo needs to be redrawn. Our team asked for a simple extension of the existing agreement, but administration’s first gambit was simply to say they would no longer agree to expanded bargaining.

After some parrying it became clear that they object particularly to the fact that some FSU members [ducks head] have been regularly live-tweeting the sessions. It is interesting to consider for a moment which of the highly-skilled members of the “Vice Squad” has been assigned to do this social media reconnaissance work! (Also, given that members seem to have been doing this regularly for the past year, it is interesting to think about whether this all falls under the protections offered under the rubric of bona fide past practice, but we will leave that for another day.)

It is not unprecedented for academic unions to make the bargaining process more visible: our colleagues at University of North Florida, just for instance, livestream and archive the videos of their sessions. Our own administration regularly sends out emails to the whole UMB community premised on the rhetoric of teamwork and unity. How jarring, then, to experience this bargaining lockout, directed by campus leaders who on other days exhort us to put our Beacon shoulders to the wheel as one community.

The short version is that once again administration wants to control our communication about processes directly affecting our membership. As Communication Director for the FSU Executive Committee, I pledge to do my part to make sure the flow of information remains unchecked.  We may or may not have to negotiate some agreement about actual communications during bargaining sessions but fear not: I’m a historian! I know how to write in the past tense!

And remember, in trying to limit our communications through conversations about “ground rules” our administration is reproducing familiar management practice aimed at weakening unions: as McAlevey explains the discussion of “ground rules” have, again and again, “been weaponized by management to create confidentiality and gag rules, to prevent discussions about negotiations with other workers, the media, and the community, to infix a seemingly infinite list of other repressive measures.”

So the administration handed us some lemons last Tuesday. But we are Union Strong: we know how to squeeze that fruit to make lemonade. The best thing about this experience last week is that it meant that dozens of us FSU members got to have more time together than usual in our caucus room: we shared ideas and strategized, made some (good) jokes and congratulated our core bargaining team for their smart and engaged work.  Attempting to drive a wedge between the core bargaining team and the wider membership, the administration helped us feel more connected than ever.  We basked in the pleasures and promise of union solidarity.

This is your union. Please let us know at how you think we should be fighting for more transparency and open communication in matters related to bargaining.


Jeff Melnick

American Studies Department

Communications Director, Faculty Staff Union Executive Committee

For information on the FSU, links to our contract and bargaining updates, and a calendar of events, see the FSU webpage