Southwestern Michigan College faculty vote to unionize

DOWAGIAC —  The faculty at Southwestern Michigan College will soon become members of the state educators’ union.

On Friday, the state agency tabulated the results from the mail-in ballots sent to the community college’s 58 full-time faculty members earlier this month, which asked them whether or not they wished to become members of the Michigan Education Association, a statewide union for educators and others working in public education. SMC faculty voted 31 to 23 in favor of unionizing, according to a copy of the ballot tabulation form sent to Leader Publications.

As a result of the vote, the college instructors will join the 140,000 current members of the MEA, the largest public employee union in the state.

With the ballots now tallied, members of the new faculty union will have to create a constitution and bylaws, then elect officers, before they can work with the MEA to begin contract negotiations with the college faculty, said Lou Ann Vidmar, UniServ director with the MEA’s Berrien Springs office, which will serve the SMC faculty.

“It will be a little while, but we are excited to have them with us,” Vidmar said. “I am looking forward to working with them.”

The decision marks the first time since the 1980s that SMC faculty members have been unionized. Prior to the vote, no member of the college’s faculty, staff or administration were part of a union.

This month’s vote followed a request from the MEA to the Michigan Employment Relations Commission — a division of LARA — in November, in which the union requested to represent the 58 full-time SMC faculty members. In the subsequent weeks, enough faculty members responded in favor of the proposal that MERC began mailing out ballots for a formal vote on Jan. 9.

In reaction to the results, a group of faculty members who helped lead the push toward unionization hosted a celebration at Dowagiac’s Round Oak Revisited restaurant. Among those toasting the decision that evening was Robin Shipkosky, a mathematics instructor at the college who was one of the five faculty members who formed a committee to look into creating a faculty union last fall.

Shipkosky said there were a number of reasons why she and other instructors considered unionization, including the at-will nature of their employment with the college, and the lack of a structured system for salary raises. However, the largest issue is what she believes is a lack of input the faculty have when it comes to the administration’s decision making, as well as a lack of transparency in how college leaders operate, the instructor said.

“This is not a privately-held corporation,” Shipkosky said. “It is a public institution.”

The straw that eventually broke the camel’s back, however, was the college’s decision last year to change the class schedule from 15 weeks per semester, with 60-minute classes and a dedicated week for final exams, to a 16-week semester with 50-minute classes, with final exams embedded in the regular calendar, which took effect in the fall.

Shipkosky said the announcement was made without any prior consultation with the faculty, and was “not a popular decision” among teachers. In addition to having less time per class for instruction, the change also shortened the break between the end of the fall semester and beginning of the winter one, meaning that, on top of less time to submit final grades and prepare, teachers had less time to spend with family over the holidays, she said.

Shipkosky said she and other instructors considered several alternatives to joining the MEA, including forming a faculty senate, but eventually felt that unionizing was the best option they had available to them.

College president David Mathews said that his administration made the schedule change last year in response to many students not wanting to sign up for classes on Fridays, due to the significant number of hours many of them work. The 16-week, 50-minute class model is similar to those in place at many other community colleges, he said.

“Because of the complexities of getting a schedule from the theoretical to the practical while in advance of students scheduling for Fall 2017 in March 2017, the change was not vetted through the faculty’s curriculum and instruction committee as thoroughly as such a change normally would be,” Mathews said, in an email about how the college made its decision.

Mathews also said that financial constraints have been a constant limitation on the school’s ability to give out pay raises. In 2001, when Mathews became head of the school, the state gave SMC $6.83 million in funding. For the 2016-17 school year, the state gave the school $6.86 million, a meager increase in the face of rising operating costs, the president said.

Cass County also draws less revenue from the public in comparison to other community colleges such as Lake Michigan College, which, being located in neighboring Berrien County, has three times the tax base as SMC, Mathews said.

“We have had a lot of financial pressures, which means that every time we want to do something new, we will have to get rid of something old,” Mathews said. “That is very disruptive.”

In spite his prior opposition to the faculty’s move toward unionization, Mathews sent an email Friday to college personnel where he expressed a desire for the administration and instructors to work together, and that any harassment or retaliation directed at faculty members for their decision would not be tolerated, and would be dealt with promptly.

“It will be more challenging to accomplish all the things we have done before, with another layer of organization, but we are committed to doing that,” Mathews said. “We will have to work together to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

Like the college president, Shipkosky said she and the other members of the new faculty union want to move forward positively with the administration.

“Those of us who voted to unionize love the college,” Shipkosky said. “We love the students. We just wanted a larger voice. We’re not the enemy of the administration. We are their best friends.”

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