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Montana Faculty Affirm Commitment to Union

By Mary Ellen Flannery

Faculty at Montana State University have rebuffed efforts to decertify their union of educators, sending a clear message that they value the strength of their collective voice and look forward to having a say on issues as varied as faculty workload and guns in campus. 

"Having a collective voice is crucial," said Sara Rushing, an assistant professor of political science at MSU, explaining why she said yes to ongoing representation by the Associated Faculties of Montana State University (AFMSU) in a vote taken last week and certified this week. “As a political scientist, I’m a strong supporter of self-determination and collective action.”

The four-year-old faculty union, an affiliate of the Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers (MEA-MFT), represents about 400 tenure-track professors and 200 contingent faculty members. Since certifying as a union in April 2009, its first (and only) contract provided for two across-the-board salary increases, a systemic approach to merit raises, plus a much-needed appeals system around workload issues. And yet, the union’s critics felt it could have done more, and more quickly, despite the ongoing economic recession and the 17.3 percent cut in state funding to Montana’s public institutions of higher education over the past five years.

“I think it takes time for a union to develop consciousness in the community that it’s serving,” said Rushing. “My sense is that they should have that time.”

With this vote behind them, negotiations for the next AFMSU contract should begin shortly, and one of the big issues on the table likely will be faculty workload. The union wants to make sure that faculty members in each department have a say in determining the appropriate workload for those departments. Also, “obviously we lag behind the nation in family-friendly policies and pay,” noted Rushing, “and the union is pushing on that as well.”

Another issue of some concern to faculty is the pending state legislation that would allow some students to carry concealed handguns on Montana’s college campuses. Having access to MEA-MFT’s state lobbyists on issues like this one, as well as the perennial problem of adequate state funding, is critical, faculty said.