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Building the Best Bargain: The story behind WWU's phenomenal faculty contract

By Mary Ellen Flannery

January 11, 2013

    When the United Faculty of Western Washinton ratified their new contract last summer, they hit the mark on almost every page: academic freedom, intellectual property, job security for contingent faculty, ownership of online work, and salary too. "You are a model for leading the profession in higher education," applauded NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. "Is this the best new contract in America?" asked The New Higher Education Advocate in September. But the more useful question to pose, especially as many staff and faculty unions prepare for the bargaining table this spring, is this: How the heck did they do it?

    The story of Western Washington’s contract begins long before Kevin Leonard, chair of the faculty bargaining team, sat down with his teammates at the table last January. If this contract is like a lighthouse, shining a hopeful beam for faculty across the country, it’s because it was built on the bedrock of basic union principles, which United Faculty of Western Washington (UFWW) leaders first struck when they ratified their union in 2006 and then dug deeper during the bargaining around their first contract.

    To say that first bargaining was long and hard would be an understatement. To describe it as acrimonious and exhausting gets closer to truth. But it also was valuable. Over the 19-month process, as union members rallied and union leaders grew more focused, they developed a deeply committed unit. Not every faculty member had wanted or voted for a union at WWU, but even those who had loudly opposed ratification picked up signs to support the bargaining team, recalled UFWW President Steven Garfinkle (photo at left). At one point, UFWW gathered a petition of support that had more faculty signatures than the union had original votes.

    How did they do that?

    LESSON #1: OWN THE MISSION OF YOUR UNIVERSITY.

    When the first bargaining team walked into the room and faced the most anti-union attorney that the college president could find, they had three primary goals: Protect workload, improve compensation, and sustain the quality of education provided to students at WWU, a school known for its teaching ability. “Under tremendous pressure, with incredible discipline, our bargaining team maintained our goals,” Garfinkle said. And, in doing so, they demonstrated that the union wasn’t the thing that opponents had feared: it wasn’t about protecting mediocrity.

    “We’ve been really successful in owning the mission of the university,” said Bill Lyne (photo at left), president of the statewide United Faculty of Washington State, and a WWU professor of English. “That’s huge. You just keep coming back to them saying, ‘You want this to be a quality institution. If you really mean that, then this is where you have to put the money. We are how you guys recruit, retain, and graduate students.’”

    This message wasn’t just delivered to administrators, it also was understood by students, parents, and the university’s trustees. “Anytime there’s a benefit to faculty there’s inherently a benefit for students,” said Ethan Glemaker, president of WWU’s student government. “That why I came to Western, because of the phenomenal caliber of the faculty.”

    During this most recent bargaining, UFWW’s goals didn’t change—they were still all about faculty working conditions and students’ learning conditions. If anything, because of current budgetary pressures to increase class sizes in some departments, the need to protect faculty workloads was even more intense, said Leonard, bargaining chair. But one significant factor had changed: the administration.

    “When I first got here, I had people stopping me in the hallway and telling me, ‘Hey Bruce, you should know, this union is about excellence in the university,” recalled WWU President Bruce Shepard (photo at left), who arrived on campus five years ago, just as the first bargain was reaching its end. “We knew this negotiation would be coming up. We’ve worked hard to make sure we have as positive a relationship as possible. That doesn’t mean making nice. It means being respectful and candid.”

    Is that unusual? A college president who respects a campus union’s rights? Who thinks a strong union makes for a strong university? It’s a little bit of luck, acknowledged Lyne.

    But it’s not just luck. See Lesson #2.

    LESSON #2: HONOR YOUR STATUS AS A LEGAL EQUAL.

    Gary McNeil, the Washington Education Association (WEA) organizer who has advised UFWW from the start, speaks convincingly about this basic principle of unionism. You need to respect yourself as a union. “It’s not about bluster. It’s not about ‘beating the man.’ It’s about carrying yourself as an equal,” said McNeil. “What if you woke up one day and you were running the place? That’s what this is about. It’s very serious.” For faculty who are accustomed to shared governance, which confers the lesser power of recommendation, this is a change.

    And what it looks like is this: A bargaining team comprised of some of the most highly respected faculty members on campus—people who have the confidence of both peers and administrators. It looks like stacks of notes, taken during months of preparation for the bargain, as team members examine each line of the existing contract. “Steven and Kevin always talk about being prepared,” said McNeil. “You’re not sloppy. You’re not late. You’re not flippant.”

    “Within this group, there was tremendous respect,” said Sandra Alfers, associate professor and bargaining team member (photo at left). “I don’t have experience with other bargains — this was my first— and maybe some others talk about the ‘other side,’ but it wasn’t like that. It was more like you had two sides working together. Listening skills were a big component of it.”

    “We set ground rules right from the start,” said Leonard, and among them was the mutual acknowledgment that “both sides were deeply committed to the quality of the institution.”

    One place where UFWW has been able to affirm its status as an equal to college administration is Olympia, the state capital. Over the past five years, state funding for public higher education has been cut 50 percent—“a dramatic disinvestment,” according to Bruce Shepard. But when it comes to flexing muscle in the offices of state legislators, there are few rivals to WEA, the largest labor union in the state. “We’ve been very cooperative in statewide political work—students, faculty, and administrators, and our administration has found that we’re much stronger when we work together,” Lyne said. “Our big success last year was that we had no new cuts in funding. I guess that shows how far down we are—that we’re calling that a success—but nobody suspected we’d be able to do it.”

    Is this the best new contract in America?

    When the ink was dry and the bottom line revealed, it was the issue of compensation that claimed headlines. WWU’s team had agreed to 5.25 percent raises this year, 4.25 percent next year, and another 4.25 the year after. At the same time, more than $1 million was set aside to fix salary compression—the problem you see when the salaries of long-time employees are overtaken by new hires.

    For his part, Leonard (photo at left) doesn’t dwell on the salaries—“that’s a place where I have to give credit to the administration,” he said. His team staked its ground elsewhere. On the primary issue of faculty workload, new language makes sure it isn’t just about the number of classes, it’s also about the number of students in each class. On the growing issue of online courses, “this agreement makes very clear that decisions about who teaches those courses will be made by faculty at the department level, and that those faculty will own their curriculum,” said Leonard.

    Academic freedom was enhanced: Faculty now have the explicit right to criticize or comment on the internal operations of the university. Job security for contingent (or adjunct) faculty also was given a much-needed boost, and a new commitment to increase the number of tenure-track jobs was secured.

    The contract was signed in June, after six months and 120-plus hours at the table. And when trustees put ink to the paper, student Ethan Glemaker (photo at left) was there. “It was this incredibly celebratory moment, this feeling that something really phenomenal had been accomplished,” he recalled. “I was just so stoked—because I feel really privileged to be here, with this faculty.”

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    REQUIRED READING
    WEA organizer Gary McNeil has an assignment for you: Pick up and read Tomorrow is Another Country, by Allister Sparks. It’s the story of negotia- tions between Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress and senior officials in the apartheid government. You’ll see that Mandela walked into the room with self-respect and self-recognition of his equal status, and he walked out with his opponents’. So can you.