Last week, the University Teachers Union revealed the details of a tentative, two-year contract banged out under an innovative but lengthy collaborative bargaining process.
The tentative contract goes a ways toward resolving several of the union's long-standing concerns, including the faculty's infamously low pay and debates over workloads. And still, some faculty members are grumbling, this latest contract leaves too many loose ends -- particularly centered around the issue of workload. But before seven months of back pay can start flowing, the faculty has to vote on the contract (scheduled to happen Friday) and the state Board of Regents has to sign off on it.
During an informational meeting held earlier this week, Professor William McBroom, the union's president, stood in front of 18 of his colleagues in a drab yellow classroom in the Social Sciences building and explained the nuances of the tentative agreement.
"I personally find lots of problems with this contract," says McBroom. "But I think we've done a reasonable job of meeting the two or three biggest concerns of the faculty. We're much better with it than we are without it."
There are three reasons why the faculty should vote for this contract, he tells his audience. In addition to rectifying problems with salaries and workloads, the contract will equalize pay for perhaps as many as 77 female faculty members, who currently earn less than their male counterparts for no apparent reason.
If the faculty approves the contract, it will satisfy the terms of a contract approved back in 1993. Pay raises were put on hold then for two years, with modest increases planned for the third and fourth years. Raises for the final two years were conditional upon the faculty meeting 30 performance goals meant to increase student access to classes and services. Every one of those goals were met, and the new contract would give the faculty their due, a 6.9 percent raise over two years beginning, retroactively, last summer.
But now, in order to help the university cover a projected shortfall, the 6.9 percent increase will be staggered in half-year increments.
Richard Barrett, an economics professor and member of the union's negotiation team, calls the increase "very high, especially for education."
"I'm not sure the faculty appreciates that. We've been underpaid for so long," he says.
But the issue that tripped-up negotiators into a nearly never-ending process was workload. And it is the issue that draws the majority of questions from concerned profs at the informational meeting.
The fact that workload has become a political issue at all is a sign of a national loss of faith in universities, which is exacerbated by the trend of many state legislatures to tie uni-versities funding to enrollment, McBroom tells the group.
"We are bargaining in a changing landscape. We're living in an environment where there is distrust with universities. Our economy doesn't create enough jobs to absorb all the college graduates we're producing," McBroom says. "When the legislature ties revenue to enrollment, students quite understandably become consumers. If I were a young professor today, I'd probably take up roofing or something, knowing what I know now."
The governor and the commissioner of higher education, in particular, wanted UM teachers to increase the amount of time they spend in front of the classroom -- the so-called "instructional workload." The union, however, wanted to count as part of their workload such things as working one-on-one with students outside of classroom, overseeing internships and independent studies, doing research, providing service to the community, putting on musical or drama performances and overseeing thesis and dissertation projects.
Under a compromise, however, many of the above activities will not count toward instructional workload. At the same time, teachers won't have to increase the amount of time they spend in front of the classroom.
There is a presumption that unless professors are standing in front of classroom, they aren't working, says McBroom after the meeting, but that's like saying the only time a lawyer works is when he or she is in court.
"If you were to put a meter on the faculty, you'd find that most faculty put in a 60-hour work week," says McBroom.
Another section of the new contract will fix a gap between male and female salaries. According to a 1995 study by Professor Richard Barrett, female tenure-track faculty members are paid as much as 3 percent less than their male counterparts. An agreement in the contract would set aside up to $180,000 to bump some female faculty members' salaries up to the level of their male counterparts.
Like the one before it, this contract was negotiated under a collective bargaining process that is relatively new to higher education.
"Ideally the collaborative process means that anyone who is a stakeholder plays a role in the negotiations," says McBroom.
The "stakeholders" in this case include representatives from the governor's office, the state legislature, the Board of Regents, the Associated Students of the University of Montana, the commission of Higher Education, the university administration and the teachers' union.
"Traditional bargaining is a back and forth exchange of proposals. It's an extremely inefficient process and not at all fruitful," says Barrett. The collective bargaining process on the other hand "developed a relatively high level of trust" and is a "free-wheeling style" that allows the parties to focus on their interests rather than positions.
"I think probably the thing that worked the best about the process was we were able to discuss frankly the constraints that we work under," says Associate Provost Fritz Schwaller, who represented the university's administration in the bargaining.
Schwaller is so big on the idea of collective bargaining, in fact, that he jokes that if the process isn't used for the next round of contract talks, the administration can find someone else to do the negotiating.
"The proof of the pudding is in the eating, which will happen once the union approves the contract," says Schwaller.
Teachers' union President William McBroom says that in the face of a changing national economy, he'd advise aspiring young professors to take up a trade like roofing. Photo by Jeff Powers.