USF Union Busting?

That's what it looks like to the faculty.

Gov. Jeb Bush was recently sworn in as Florida's first two-term Republican governor. Another Bush first is decidedly less impressive.Under the Bush administration, many of the state's university professors are working without a contract for the first time in more than two decades.

According to the United Faculty of Florida, the largest union representing the professors, 11 of the state's public colleges and universities are refusing to recognize and negotiate with the union. The union's previous contract expired Jan. 7.

Initially, it seemed as though the union contracts weren't renegotiated due to a period of confusion about the state university system's new Board of Governors. Voters created the board with an amendment to the Florida Constitution last November. In the process, they rejected the governor's dismantling of the old Board of Regents and his replacement of it with local university boards.

In the two-plus months since the amendment's passage, the University of South Florida's board members have claimed that they were unsure if they had the legal right to negotiate with a faculty union. The board decided not to recognize United Faculty of Florida as the professors' bargaining agent at its November meeting, claiming the move was temporary.

Despite the university's assurance that it had no intentions of busting the union, USF faculty member and UFF representative Sherman Dorn was not placated. At the November meeting, Dorn spoke before the board of trustees and blasted them for not allowing UFF members to continue working under the rules of their contract until a new one was negotiated. According to Dorn, the local board's choice to pass temporary rules giving wider latitude to the administration in disciplining and terminating tenured professors indicated that the board was not interested in upholding the tradition of academic freedom.

Now that the newly appointed Board of Governors has granted the local board the right to negotiate with the union, USF is changing its tune.

"They have repeatedly lied to us by saying that they are not trying to break the union or contract," said Roy Weatherford, president of the faculty union chapter at USF. "That's what they say. But at every step that requires action, they try to break the union and the contract."

Last November, USF General Counsel R.B. Friedlander told Weekly Planet that the university wasn't sure that the faculty union had the support of the majority of professors. Until university officials were sure, Friedlander said, they didn't wish to negotiate.

Recently, the union has submitted signature cards to the state Public Employee Relations Commission, the agency that handles Florida government labor disputes. The commission certified that the union has the support of more than 1,000 faculty members, 60 percent of the bargaining unit at the university.

Still, USF refuses to come to the table.

The commission's next step will likely be to force a re-certification election at USF. That would basically confirm what the signature cards already proved, said Weatherford. The university administration would be forced to negotiate with the faculty when the election process is complete.

Weatherford believes university officials are aware that USF will have to negotiate eventually. The question is whether the terms of the old contract remain in place, or if new negotiations have to start from scratch.

"It appears that they're hoping that they can artificially create an interruption in the contract," said Weatherford.

Under labor law, the union's current contract with the university will remain in place until a new contract is agreed upon. The disciplinary process and the rules governing academic freedom can't be changed while the negotiations are taking place, said Weatherford.

However, if the university can prove that it is a completely new employer under the new statewide system of governance, the old contract is null and void. The faculty must work within the university's rules until a contract is in place. This may put some faculty members in jeopardy, said Weatherford, since university rules make it much easier to fire tenured faculty members.

"There is a certain amount of fear and suspicion," he said. "They've taken some hostile steps against the union leadership."

Weatherford said many people are convinced that the administration views this as an opportune moment to move against Sami Al-Arian, a professor who has been barred from campus for more than a year as a threat to USF security because of alleged terrorist ties.

It seems that Al-Arian may have avoided termination under the university's new and more pro-employer rules by filing a grievance against USF prior to the contract's expiration. The rest of the faculty is not faring as well.

Weatherford and four other union representatives were previously granted lighter teaching loads under the contract, giving them time to process union grievances, negotiate contracts and take care of other union business. USF has now announced that it will no longer honor that agreement.

"I'm teaching two more classes than I had scheduled two weeks ago," said Weatherford.

Students who may have wanted to take one of his philosophy classes had to make adjustments when two more suddenly became available, he said.

However, just because the university was able to force him to teach extra classes, beginning with the spring term, doesn't mean that he can be forced to complete the semester. If the administration is forced to negotiate with the union and adhere to the old contract until a new one is hammered out, the classes could end abruptly.

"The students will be screwed again," said Weatherford, "although I suspect the administration thinks we'll continue out of the goodness of our hearts."

There isn't a lot of goodwill left between some faculty members and the administration, according to Weatherford. USF President Judy Genshaft has refused to meet with him, he said.

"She's seems in general to feel that she's not obligated to talk to the faculty," said Weatherford. "This is a terrible attitude for a university president to take."

Both taxpayers and union members may end up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars before the contract issue is resolved, said Weatherford. But the bigger cost may be the faculty's loss of faith in the USF president.

Contact Staff Writer Rochelle Renford at 813-248-8888, ext. 163, or [email protected].

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