Our Experience trying a different approach

The following perspectives piece outlines a real-life scenario of the benefits of union members working collaboratively with those making decisions that impact wages, work, benefits and more. About the Authors: Natalie Jones is Vice President of Human Resources at the University of Southern Maine, Paul Johnson is the Grievance Representative for the faculty at the University of Southern Maine.

The Beginning
On October 28th 2014, 25 faculty members at the University of Southern Maine were informed that as of December 31st 2014, they would be retrenched. Over the course of the fall 2014 semester, five academic programs were eliminated and 25 faculty retrenched. In addition, numerous other faculty decided to either retire or leave the University.

The Changes
›Paul: In the spring of 2014, when I became the Grievance Representative for the University of Southern Maine, it soon became apparent that the only way to engage with the Administration or Human Resources was through filing a grievance. Over the course of the academic year 2014-2015, I filed at least 50 grievances. However, now, we rely almost exclusively on Article 5 of the CBA “meet and discuss”.

›Natalie: I did notice the number of grievances when I first arrived on campus and was trying to figure out if there was a pattern of concern – basically a root cause analysis to see if we could identify the issues and proactively address them.

›Paul: Over the past five years at USM, AFUM, Human Resources and Administration have attempted to work in collaborative rather than adversarial relationships. I would even assert that rather than adopting a reactive approach, we have attempted to embrace a proactive response.

The ways in which we have gone about changing the approach and culture of the University is in the following ways:
– We meet regularly and we honor those meetings in our calendars.
– Every two weeks a one hour scheduled meeting between the University President, Provost, Labor Relations Manager, and the AFUM President, Vice President and Grievance Representative on the campus.
– The Grievance Representative meets biweekly with the head of Human Resources for a one-on-one meeting, and semi-regularly as-needed.

›Natalie: A variety of topics are covered in these meetings. One of the most fundamental tools in our conversations is the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). This is a shared Agreement and when we are trying to address an issue or solve a problem, referencing back to it as a group to discuss potential paths forward without being in violation of our Agreement has been, in my opinion, a strong contributor to constructive conversations and solutions.

›Paul: We have discussed a myriad of topics, issues specific to a particular Department or School, how we can assist faculty in the tenure track process or post tenure review process, creating an MOU, or even how we support faculty in student advising. The overarching philosophy is improving matters proactively.

›Natalie: I agree, Paul, the overarching philosophy is improvement. We have identified areas for further education and clarification around the CBA. The Provost has incorporated this into the New Faculty Orientation and the Chairs Training. The more faculty understand our contract and their rights and responsibilities beyond the contract – the healthier our entire USM Community.

›Paul: AFUM leadership members work with the Provost. Over the last five years, we have changed the way we work with our Academic Deans at the University. The Grievance Rep may now be asked to attend a meeting with a group or individual faculty member to work through issues and solutions together.

The Benefits
There are numerous benefits to this approach. Firstly, the individual faculty member feels listened to, respected, and valued. Secondly, by having a conversation everyone has an opportunity to voice their concerns. Thirdly, this also demonstrates that the Dean and Administration are interested and invested in the faculty member and the Department.

›Natalie: Yes, I think it is important to make sure everyone is aware of all the support resources available to them within the Union and within Human Resources and Administration. Addressing issues–whether long standing or brand new–is difficult enough. I also acknowledge that many issues are not brought forward. We must find ways to be accessible to our employees in ways that they feel safe and supported; and we are still working on that – specifically for our historically marginalized colleagues and pre-tenured faculty. When faculty feel valued, respected, and experience a positive work culture, they are able to engage more productively with their colleagues and students.

The End Result
There is no doubt that this cooperative approach is much more time consuming up front and a great deal of work occurs behind the scenes. Frequently, Human Resources, the Administration, and AFUM disagree. However, what transpires is the following: There is a conversation in which each party articulates its position. Each group is required to actively listen to the other. At times, the parties have to go away and reflect on the issue. There is not an expectation that the answer needs to be instantaneous. Indeed, time for thought and contemplation is a vital component. To clarify, there is a respectful process!

Five years ago, AFUM’s relationship with Human Resources and the Administration was one of confrontation. We were constantly filing grievances; there was a great deal of mistrust. However, we have demonstrated over the past several years that AFUM, Human Resources, and the Administration at the University can work together.

Paul Johnson is the Grievance Representative for the faculty at the University of Southern Maine

Natalie Jones is Vice President of Human Resources at the University of Southern Maine